In focus

BBC prison drama ‘Time’ shows the stark differences for female and male inmates

Many of the women in prison are there for low-level crimes, but short sentences for non-violent offences can upend their entire lives, leaving them at risk of losing their job, home and children. Katie Rosseinsky explores how the second series of BBC prison drama ‘Time’ shows the stark differences for female and male inmates

Monday 06 November 2023 11:19 GMT
Rough justice: Tamara Lawrance (Ali), Bella Ramsey (Kelsey) and Jodie Whittaker (Laura) are the trio of women at the heart of the new series
Rough justice: Tamara Lawrance (Ali), Bella Ramsey (Kelsey) and Jodie Whittaker (Laura) are the trio of women at the heart of the new series (BBC)

When I came in here, I had a house, a job and a family – now I’ve got nothing.” This line, delivered by Jodie Whittaker in BBC prison drama Time, sums up her character’s plight with devastating efficiency. Orla, a single mother to three young children, has been sentenced to six months inside for tampering with her electricity meter (“fiddling the leccy”, as she puts it). This six-month stretch will see her lose her job and her home, with her kids placed in foster care. And all, Time seems to ask, for what? The crime of not having enough money to keep the lights on?

Cases like this one are all too real. While 51 per cent of the population of England and Wales is female, women make up less than five per cent of prisoners. Last year, a House of Commons committee report found that women are “often sentenced for non-violent, low-level but persistent offences”, and in 2020, 72 per cent of women who entered prison under sentence had committed a non-violent crime. The charity Women in Prison reports that three out of five women are jailed for sentences of less than six months. Female prisoners are, you could argue, operating within a system that was made for men, and it seems to consistently fail them. And Time is a show seeking to shed light on these frustrating, complex stories.

Created by the legendary screenwriter Jimmy McGovern in 2021, the man responsible for shows like Cracker, The Street and the docudrama Hillsborough, the first season was set in a fictional men’s prison, starring Sean Bean as a former teacher serving a sentence for drink driving and Stephen Graham as a morally compromised prison officer. It picked up a handful of Baftas but also won plaudits from critics – and from people with first-hand experience of the prison system – for its unsparing portrayal of life behind bars. Now McGovern has shifted his focus to the women’s prison estate. To do so, he brought on board screenwriter Helen Black. Her previous credits include the powerful BBC Three film Life and Death in the Warehouse, and she also has first-hand experience of the criminal justice process, thanks to her past career in law. So why is prison life so different for women, and does Time get this right?

Whittaker’s character Orla is one of a trio of women at the heart of the new series: the others are Kelsey, a young, pregnant heroin addict played by The Last of Us actor Bella Ramsey, and Tamara Lawrance’s Abi, who is serving a life sentence for a crime that she is trying to keep secret from her fellow inmates. Black and McGovern were able to speak to prisoners at HMP Styal, a closed-category women’s prison in Cheshire, during the writing process, and they were influenced by the living quarters they saw there too. “About 20 women live in a house, with shared bedrooms, shared bathrooms, a shared kitchen and a TV room,” Black says. It’s a stark contrast to the long, grey corridors we saw in Time’s first season. “They’re allowed to go freely within, but the front door is locked,” she adds, noting that: “The women are bunged together … Whether you’re on remand, whether you’re sentenced for a tiny crime or whether you’re sentenced for a serious crime, they’ll all be together in the houses.” 

Short sentences like Orla’s can cause huge problems. They allow little time to rehabilitate prisoners, but enough time for them to lose their job, home and family; many end up back in the prison system, trapped in its revolving door (“you get out the other side, and then very quickly, you’ll be back again,” Black notes). Orla’s case is “textbook for how the system works”, says Ella*, who spent just over a year in prison before working with Working Chance, a charity that provides employment support for women with convictions. “And it’s awful. This character did something against the law, but she was just trying to look after her children. If you spent a little bit of money and offered that person support, you’re not removing her children, you’re maintaining her job, you’re keeping her in accommodation.” 

Black agrees. “It almost seems ludicrous – it must cost more to put them in jail, and therefore make sure that their entire lives are ruined, than it would to just financially make life easier for them,” she says (in 2021, Ministry of Justice figures revealed that each prisoner, male or female, costs an average of £48,409 annually). “It was really important that you’d see an ordinary person with an ordinary life [on the show] and how jail would completely tear everything apart,” she adds. “The question we’re asking is: who got anything out of them being in jail? [Orla] wasn’t a danger to herself or to society.” Even for those who “have really strong feelings about crime and punishment”, she argues, “common sense and financial burden tells you [short sentencing] makes no sense”.

The impact of female imprisonment is so huge, Black notes, because more often than not “they’re the linchpin” of a family unit (male prisoners, meanwhile, often have relatives waiting for them on the outside). “You can’t just look at these prisoners in isolation, because they tend to be the central person … and that has a huge ongoing effect.” In Time, it’s heartbreaking to watch as Orla becomes estranged from her teenage son, who is separated from his younger siblings in foster care and resents his mother’s actions. Ninety-five per cent of children have to leave their home when their mum goes to jail, and maternal imprisonment is thought to affect around 17,000 children each year in England and Wales. “You take the woman out of the equation and everything falls down,” notes Saj Zafar, who spent a short period working at a women’s prison before becoming the first Asian woman to serve as a UK prison governor. “That is the reality.” 

Moving in: Kelsey, Orla and Abi arrive in prison on the same day (BBC/Sally Mais)

Ella even suggests that some female prisoners don’t speak up about their families, out of fear that social services will get involved. “If you’re asked [if you have children] and you’re a mother, and you’re worried that your kids might be taken away, you just say no,” she says. “Because you reckon you’ve got it covered. And the alternative is to say, ‘Yes, I wasn’t expecting a conviction. But here I am, I’ve got children and I’m worried about them.’ That’s an invitation for social services.”  

In 2018, researchers at the University of Liverpool found that women were twice as likely as men to receive harsher sentences for assault offences involving alcohol.  Might there be double standards at work when it comes to sentencing? “In our psychology, we accept it if a guy goes out, gets drunk and beats somebody,” Zafar argues. “That’s [seen as] pretty normal, that’s acceptable, that’s what we expect, right?”

You can’t just look at these prisoners in isolation, because they tend to be the central person [in a family]

Helen Black, screenwriter

There are other important factors at play too for imprisoned women. Mental health is a vast problem across the prison estate, but especially so for women, with more than seven in 10 female prisoners reporting mental ill health. There are also “all the biological issues of pregnancy and childbirth”, as Black notes, which is explored powerfully in Ramsey’s storyline. And almost two-thirds of women in prison are thought to have experienced domestic abuse. For “so many women” that Ella met in prison, “they were in a relationship that’s characterised by domestic violence, they put up with it for years, [then] they snapped back or they were protecting a child … That’s when the police were called and they found themselves with a conviction.”

The series explores how and why women end up in prison (BBC)

Time is unflinching in its portrait of a prison complex riven with flaws, but it never presents its officers as two-dimensional cut-outs: at points, their frustration with the system is palpable. On TV, Zafar says, “you always get the [prison] staff being abusive and egotistical”, but in real life, “when they bring themselves to work, they genuinely care. And you’ve also got to remember that for some of these prisoners, it’s the first time they’ve encountered another human being who genuinely cares.” The series, Ella adds, “shows some real empathy from some officers, and that’s absolutely the case … there are really good relationships born from that experience”. 

For her, though, the “underlying core of violence” in the fictional HMP Carlingford didn’t resonate. “Why is it that in every bit of media that we’re consuming about a prison, everyone has a shank?” she asks, referring to the makeshift knife fashioned by one inmate in a later episode. “The key thing about life in a women’s prison is that you understand that you’ve got too much to lose.” She appreciates, though, that “it’s not a documentary” – and that “it’d be really, really dull to produce a television programme that shows [women in prison] sitting around doing crochet and reading”.  

The key thing about life in a women’s prison is that you understand that you’ve got too much to lose


Last year, the Justice Committee admitted that “limited progress” has been made when it comes to creating alternatives to custodial sentences for women, with the Ministry of Justice estimating that the female prison population will have risen by 30 per cent by 2025. There are also controversial plans afoot to create an extra 500 prison places for women in England. All this, despite the fact that reducing the number of female prisoners remains a key tenet of the Female Offender Strategy. The government did, however, earmark £15m in May to support organisations that help women in the justice system, especially those who commit lower-level offences; last month, justice secretary Alex Chalk announced plans to scrap sentences of under 12 months for most crimes (apart from violent or sexual offences). 

Time screenwriter Black is pragmatic about the impact that television can have. “I don’t think dramas can change the law or public policy, but I think it can raise a conversation,” she says. “I think the power is in people watching it and having a conversation … And so a light is shined on [the issue].” And for many viewers, Orla, Kelsey and Abi’s stories will surely stick in our minds long after the credits have rolled on the final episode.

*Name changed to protect identity

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247, or visit their website here

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