Orange Is The New Black has encouraged us to think of female prisoners as sexy and glamorous but in Women On The Inside, a new documentary from RTE, the dominant colour was grey.
Everything was grim and gloomy. Even the inmates seemed to have acquired a dishwater pallor – their hair was scraggy, their skin translucent, seamed with worry and regret.Despair practically wafted off the screen.
To its credit, the first of two episodes didn't wallow in the misery or try to spin it into cheap melodrama. However, the film-makers refused to flinch when presented with evidence of precisely how bleak life can be for the 160 or so women locked up in Ireland's two women's prison, the Dóchas Centre at the Mountjoy 'campus' in Dublin and a smaller facility at Limerick.
We met prisoners incarcerated for crimes ranging from petty theft and drunken disorderliness to drug smuggling and manslaughter. Each appeared lost in their own way – just out of accident and emergency one woman matter of factly pulled back her sleeve to reveal an arm criss-crossed with slash-marks. Why did she cut herself the interviewer wondered? Because, she replied, it diminished the pain of being alive.
Some of the women welcomed jail. Behind bars, life had structure: they had a roof over their heads, were shielded from drugs and alcohol – and their worst self-destructive instincts. When they remembered the chaos that waited outside, the loss of freedom was a small price.
"I'd rather be in prison," said Christina (who later required medical attention for self-administered knife wounds). "I've asked the judge to lock me up. You've nothing out there. In here you have a shower, telly, your mates."
None of the women struck you as the type you would dread meeting on a dark night. They came across as wayward souls rather than a menace to society. That they were deeply damaged was obvious. Christina revealed that, by her 13th birthday, she had passed through 23 foster homes. "I take drugs to block things out… I can't deal with emotions," she said.
On release, many of the women had little to go back to. Jenny, with 347 convictions, was happy to use prison as a revolving door. "I'm 37. Half of my life has flashed by me inside these places.I lost a lot of my friends at 21 - 22… suicides drugs.. I'm amazed I'm still alive. My life is f***ed".
Her prognosis proved depressingly prescient. Her sentence up, she went straight to a corner store and spent her social welfare on whiskey. Having hooked up with a nefarious chap in a cheap tracksuit with an accent like acid on a chalkboard, she announced she wouldn't be shoplifting that day – and you wished you could believe her.
Curiously, prison staff were presented only by last name and title: we met Officer Dunne, Acting Chief Officer Kelleher, Governor O'Connor and so forth. This was odd. Why not humanize staff by giving their full names? Still, for all the formality, they seemed empathic and professional, visibly concerned – so far as the job permitted – for the welfare of the women.
Episode one painted a grueling portrait. Yet it felt bloodiness at times too. Bullying was referenced in passing, it was intimated some of the women took drugs. But there was little evidence of conflict – that, we learned as the credits rolled, would be the focus of next week's broadcast. It is understandable the producers would wish to hold something back. Nevertheless, the passive tone was ultimately draining, the endless sob stories blending into a soggy mass of miserabalism. You started off shocked at what these women were going through, the things they had done.
By the end, Women On The Inside had worn you down and all you could feel was a sort of numb indifference.
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