BBC's Time is a frighteningly real prison drama that's the ultimate prison deterrent

GRITTY new drama Time has viewers gripped with its harrowing portrayal of prison life.

The BBC show, which continues tomorrow, follows guilt-ridden teacher Mark Cobden, played by Sean Bean, as he serves a four-year stretch for killing a man in an accident.

Bafta-winning writer Jimmy McGovern – who created Cracker – pulls no punches. He paints a brutal picture of life inside, including a horrific assault using boiling water mixed with sugar, known as “sugaring”, and self-harming with a razor blade.

Episode one saw Cobden punched in the face in a phone queue and horrified by the deafening noise and violence around him.

Time shines a light on the broken, lawless prison system – where drug dealers and gang members hold more sway than prison officers – and it should prove the ultimate deterrent to would-be criminals.

There were 24,407 prison assaults in the year to September 2020, including 8,476 attacks on staff. Over the past decade, there have been 32 murders inside.

But the prison system also fails to prevent crime. In the UK, 40 per cent of former inmates re-offend within the first 12 months of release.

As viewers gear up for the second episode, Alison Maloney asked three reformed convicts how realistic the show was – and what lessons can be learned from it.

‘The hardest thing was having to mix with paedos, rapists and sex offenders’

By Giles Darby (Sentence: 37 months)

DAD-OF-FIVE Giles, 58, was a millionaire banker when he got caught up in the 2001 accounting scandal involving US energy firm Enron.

In 2006, following extradition to America, he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 37 months in American jails but served the final months of his time in UK prisons. Giles, from Bath, is the author of memoir Inside Allenwood, recalling his experiences.

BY the time I got to London’s ­Wandsworth prison, where I was first sent on my return to the UK, I was ­hardened to life in US jails so I wasn’t a total newcomer like Mark Cobden.

But, as the drama shows, life in British jails is grim. And the more you have on the outside, the more you miss, and the harder it is to be inside.

To me prison was a pain, and I hated it, because I had a lot on the outside to look forward to. I wanted to get back to my life.

But when I was in the open prison, Leyhill, in Gloucestershire, there was a homeless man who had been sleeping on benches in Birmingham before being in jail, and I saw him throw a cup of boiling water over another prisoner.

When he was asked why he did it, he said: 'I want to stay in for a few more days, so I can get a bed and watch telly.'

If you’ve got nothing on the outside, being on the inside can be an improvement on your existence.

But don’t get me wrong, prisons are not a cushy option for anyone — they are ­seriously ­horrible places to be.

Wandsworth is an old Victorian prison and the cells are very small — eight feet by four feet — each shared by two men.

The walls and doors are unbelievably thick and it’s incredibly claustrophobic, but you’re shut in for 23 hours a day.

The only time you are let out is to get your food, which you then take back to the cell, or for a brief spell in the yard where everyone walks in a circular direction, so those scenes in the drama are true to life.

The hardest thing about being in the British prison system, for me, was having to mix with paedophiles, rapists and sex offenders.

In Leyhill, the open prison where I ended my time inside, the sex offenders are mixed with the non-sex offenders. Out of 20 long-term prisoners on one of the wings I was on, only three of us were not paedophiles or rapists.

Mixing the two causes a lot of friction so, for that reason, you are not allowed to ask anybody what they’re in for in a British prison.

The authorities do not want inmates to find out they are in prison with a serial rapist because, if word gets out, they are going to get attacked, abused and injured.

But it’s very uncomfortable having to co-exist with perverts who have done such horrible things.

British prisons are often portrayed as ­little worse than holiday camps but, in my experience, they are truly horrible places to be, as Jimmy McGovern is so brilliantly showing in Time.

‘On a prison landing, there are no rules'

By Erwin James (Sentence: Life)

ERWIN, 64, served 20 years after being convicted of murder as a young man. Since his release in 2004, he has devoted his life to charity work, helping inmates and championing prison reform. Erwin, from the ­Scottish Borders, is also a regular writer in newspapers and donates all his fees to charity.

RAW, bleak, dangerous — Jimmy McGovern’s compelling new drama Time is as authentic a portrayal of the real jail experience in the UK as I’ve ever seen on TV.

I spent 20 years in British jails, the first seven in maximum security, and like Cobden, I deserved my sentence.

But 15 years after my release, watching Time brought back harrowing memories of that strange, brutal world. For the most part, I’d say prisoners are generally treated with humanity. But there are bad apples in every institution, “screws” who do their best to make the miserable lives of prisoners even more so and governors who lack leadership and allow anarchy to reign on the wings.

The real challenge, as Mark Cobden finds out the hard way, is negotiating life on the landings when cell doors are open for so-called association”.

This is a precarious moment for the first-timer. It’s when deals are made, contracts shook on, vengeance meted out and criminal connections formed.

By the time I was 19, I’d done two stints in young offender institutions and was used to being treated as less than human. But I still felt fear that first day, in my mid-twenties, as I was escorted to reception, keys jangling, gates clanging, heart pounding. And the indignity of the strip search and “squat”.

Cheap prison garb, bland food and the lingering smell of human waste that seemed to permeate every corner of every wing reinforced the sensation that I’d passed into a completely different dimension of society.

“Straight goers” — people who have never been inside — believe there are rules in prison. But on a prison landing there are no rules. The most powerful, treacherous, deceitful, ­cunning and violent fare best.

It used to be that the armed robber was at the top of the hierarchy and the sex offender at the bottom, with all sorts of offenders in the middle — from fraudsters and thieves, to those who have committed grievous bodily harm.

These days it’s the drug dealers, in particular, peddlers of Spice (a psychoactive substance many times more potent than cannabis) who rule the roost. In my day, a free sample bag of “brown” (heroin), for newcomers “to relieve the stress” got non-drug-users hooked.

Seeing them released with a habit they never had before was painful. Today, alongside Spice, there’s other psychoactive drugs Black Mamba and Clockwork Orange and the healthcare workers are fighting a losing battle. Ambulances were called so many times to a prison near me last year that they were nicknamed “Mambulances”.

Sex offenders still suffer the most if they are bold enough to brazen it out on a regular wing rather than request a cell on a VPU (vulnerable prisoner unit).

The fastest-rising section of our prisoner population is the over-fifties, mostly for historical sex offences. These men suffer most.

But people like Cobden, who don’t have a clue, get crushed by the sheer animalism.

When newcomer Cobden tries to threaten a con who has commandeered his phone time, he’s punched in the face and staggers back to his cell bleeding and dumbfounded that such a thing can happen without any comeback. The same con steals Cobden’s cell mate’s sugar and mixes it with a boiling water to make “napalm”, used to attack another ­prisoner accused of being a grass.

None of this is exaggerated. “Jugging” or “sugaring” is a favoured strike method.

One of my jobs inside was to paint egg white on victims, to minimise scarring.

Other weapons — blades especially — can be fashioned from available items. The classic “shiv” is a toothbrush with two razorblades soldered into the end, which maximise the scar. Self-harmers were regulars at the healthcare centre where I worked.

One young prisoner had been diagnosed with Aids. He locked himself in the toilet and sliced the inside of his forearms but no officers would go near him. I had to break down the door and wrap his arms with towels.
Death, especially suicide, is something you learn to live alongside in prison.

On my first Christmas inside, the man in the cell above mine hanged himself.


Next morning in the meal queue fellow cons joked about who would get the dead man’s breakfast.

In one high-security jail I was in, there were three prisoner-on-prisoner killings in two years, and during the 20 years I served there were 1,242 self-inflicted deaths in UK jails.

A dozen of the men I knew well took their own lives.

The only hope in these places is the teachers and other staff who work hard to help people find the better part of themselves.

Watching Time was the most powerful reminder that, without them, I doubt I’d  ever have made it.

  • Erwin James is the author or Redeemable, A Memoir Of Darkness And Hope (Bloomsbury, £9.99). His fee for this article has been donated to Victim Support.

‘I saw violence kick off but boredom is more likely to kill you than a psycho'

By Carl Cattermole (Sentence: 2½ years)

CARL, 34, spent time in London’s Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs prisons after being jailed in 2010 for two and half years for criminal damage. Carl, from London, is the author of the book Prison: A Survival Guide.

UNLIKE Cobden, I wasn’t scared on my first day inside but I saw people who were shaking with fear, or shaking with drug withdrawal, and others who were trying to show everyone how hard they were.

I was put on an induction wing in HMP Wandsworth, where I was kept in my cell for 23 hours a day. I spent the rest in a queue trying to make a phone call to my girlfriend.

Like in the drama, the daily phone queue becomes a desperate tussle.
You could be having a bad mental health crisis and desperate to use the phone, and there are five geezers behind you going: “Come on, you c***”.

People are often at the point of topping themselves — they need to speak to someone and there’s not even a phone for them.

In the end, though, boredom is more likely to kill you than any psycho.

I spent a lot of time on my own and that was damaging. It took me six or seven years to get over that.

You see violence kick off but I never got into a fight and, in general, I saw fewer fights on a prison wing than you’d see on a rural high street on a Friday night.

Mental health is much more of an issue, with people taking their own lives and self-harming.


You see these skinny, emaciated psychotic people getting pushed around, mostly by the prisoners but officer violence does happen as well.

This is why, in my view, prison doesn’t work for most people. It just exacerbates pre-existing issues.

If you are vulnerable, you’ll be more vulnerable. If you’re hard, you’ll get harder and if you’re suffering from mental illness, there has to be a better solution than locking you up in an eight by four foot box.

The noise is deafening, like in Time, because everything is made of steel and concrete and sound ­reverberates.

It’s a constant, aggressive soundscape which rings around your skull and sends you up the wall.

Unlike the TV drama, the cells are much dirtier. There is blood and crap all over the walls and the floor is covered with piles of hair and food wrappers. They are filthy.

Middle-class prisoners like Cobden can be targets in jail — but they can also be influential. The more of a lad you are, the easier it is. It’s the ­opposite of a working-class guy going into a private school — they stick out like a sore thumb.

But I’ve seen middle-class people, the white collar fraudsters, accountants and lawyers, floating very well.

They use their knowledge to help with legal appeals and are worth more to the community than someone who struts around playing the big man.

People have a mangled view of jail and think you can only pass up the ranks by being hard as nails and having a barbed wire tattoo on your biceps.

That’s not the case. People who are funny, people who are a bit weaker, people who are good at filling in forms, can get respected and loved inside, just as in wider society.

It’s a strange society, but it is a  society of sorts.

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