Britain’s largest high security prison has allowed an exclusive insight into life for prisoners and staff for a new documentary series on ITV1, Strangeways.
Produced by Wild Pictures, who have won acclaim for powerful documentaries on Holloway and Wormwood Scrubs prisons, were given unique access to follow the lives of prisoners and prison officers who make up this complex community at HMP Manchester as the show goes behind the Victorian walls of the building formerly known as Strangeways. The prison holds some of the country’s most violent men. There are 1200 prisoners, including murderers, rapists, drug dealers and terrorists serving sentences ranging from a few days to life.
The three part series shows how the prison has moved on from the notorious riots of 1990 and provides a close up view of prison staff’s efforts to cope with the many challenges thrown at them, often in the face of extreme provocation and physical violence. By tracking individual stories, with prisoners talking openly on camera, the series provides an intimate perspective on inmates’ ways of dealing with the tension of life on the inside and offers an unflinching view of prison culture and its violence, self-harm and drug use.
Richard Vince, Governor of Strangeways. “We have people in custody who have murdered in custody. Absolutely they can be dangerous… by virtue of some people having life sentences you can safely say they are a very dangerous individual.”
The series also looks at the importance of strong family ties in keeping prisoners on the straight and narrow, and features what the crew believe is television’s first prison wedding as Kelly Hansen marries her fiancé – armed robber, Adrian Fielding. Cameras follow the couple on their special day in Strangeways and then during the next few months as they come to terms with the fact that Adrian will not be released for at least another two years. Despite family misgivings, Kelly was determined to marry Adrian in prison rather than wait until he had completed a seven year sentence.
On the big day Kelly is welcomed into the prison in her pink bridal gown, with their children in matching wedding finery. But they all have to be searched thoroughly in case they have smuggled in contraband. There’s no celebratory champagne and flowers for the couple as they take their vows in a spartan meeting room in the prison visitors’ area. Adrian has been allowed out for an hour, and as soon as the short ceremony is over he has to return to his cell to spend his first night of married life alone.
The cameras were allowed onto the Cat A wing to film the lives of some of the nation’s most notorious criminals, like body builder Michael Sharp, who is in prison for a brutal murder.
Michael Sharp says: “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, so what you’re finding is a lot of stabbings, a lot of slashings, people boiling up tubs of butter, turning it into oil, throwing that over the faces, over the body, they don’t care what they do. They don’t care if they stab someone up, they don’t care if they slash people up.”
Category A prisoners arrive at HMP Manchester daily under armed guard in bomb proof vans. These are men with the means and motive to escape. They are so dangerous they must be locked up in a prison within a prison. The film also followed first time prisoner Lee Smith as he was given the devastating news that he would be spending 15 years in jail for his role in a multi million pound drugs ring. His baby son may be a teenager before he is released.
He says he had been paid £500 to drive a van on three trips to earn some money for Christmas. Lee pleaded guilty to his part in the conspiracy, and was anticipating a seven year sentence. The film shows how he has to come to terms with seeing his family only in the prisoners’ visiting room.
The second programme brings a unique portrait of the work of the nursing staff in the prison hospital. The nurses talk candidly about their daily efforts to stop prisoners self-harming and committing suicide because they cannot cope with life in jail.
The series also features David Charlton, the prison’s most disruptive prisoner, who commits petty offences in order to get back into Strangeways, where he wreaks havoc, refusing to wash, soiling his cell and insisting on being pushed everywhere in a wheelchair although officers say he is perfectly capable of walking.
In 1960 ITV broadcast its first networked prison documentary series. Produced by ATV the show, Prison Officer, was recorded at Wakefield Prison and the nearby Prison Officers Training Centre. The original sixties series looked at the life of both the officers and the criminals within the walls of Wakefield.
Strangeways, airs on ITV1