"Why would you want to be a prison officer?" One warden smugly raises an eyebrow, quizzing the newbie. "Because I’m really good at shutting up dickheads."
Helmed by Bafta-nominated Killing Eve writer Rob Williams (who has incorporated his experiences of volunteering inside prisons) and featuring familiar faces from Line of Duty, Derry Girls and Killing Eve, the six-episode series is an uncensored, dark and hilarious look at the life of inmates and leading female prison officers in an all-male prison in 21st century Britain.
From the onset, the show reinforces any preconceptions that we might have about life behind the barbed wire: there is violence – much of it – and troubled personalities. But it hammers home truths about the human condition in its unexpected moments of humour, compassion and contrition.
In the first episode we enter the pressure cooker of Long Marsh's C Wing at the same time as 21-year-old prison officer trainee Rose (Derry Girls favourite Jamie Lee O'Donnell), who is thrown in at the deep end on her first day. It is swiftly made clear to her that there will be no hand-holding in this chaotic, high intensity prison – she has to show gumption and adaptability in order to survive. In a bored tone, Rose reels off her previous "shit jobs list" that got her to this point: "call centre, phone shop, estate agents..." But for all her street smarts, as the prisoners begin to test her limits it’s obvious that she’s bitten off more than she can chew with this one. It’s a place where contraband and sticky porn mags shimmy from cell to cell via pulley string and inmates end up like "zombies off their head on spice". One officer asks her: "How do you think most of the drugs, tech and takeaways get in here?" Naively she retorts: "Visits? Chucked over the wall?" He grimaces. "Officers." Not everyone in charge keeps on the straight and narrow, and bad apples threaten to rot the whole barrel.
Rose's superior and supervising officer is Leigh Henry (Killing Eve and His Dark Materials star Nina Sosanya), who has devoted her life and career to the prison and has a good rapport with the inmates. But Leigh also has secrets. In the opening scene we see her getting dressed and putting on her uniform; a huge scar streaks across her back and a tiny tattoo sits tellingly on her skin. Unbeknown to the inmates or the other officers, she has been sleeping in one of the vacant cells. She also seems perturbed that a new governor overseeing staffing is due to visit any day now and will sniff around the prison to make sure everyone’s doing their job and doing it by the book. One of the officers comforts Leigh: "Show him you’re the best masochist for the job – which you are." Viewers will find themselves asking the same question: what kind of person would dedicate so much of their life to their job that they are at ease sleeping at their workplace – somewhere commonly associated with danger and violence – at night. After hours, she smiles in the dark in her metal cot, seemingly at peace, comforted by the lewd shouting, swearing and death threats exchanged between cells. On the day of his visit, the governor warns Leigh that he’ll need a copy of her birth certificate as proof of identity – it’s just standard protocol, he insists. Leigh tells him that her birth certificate is missing (later revealed to be a lie) and you get the distinct feeling that she isn’t quite who she says she is. Neither in fact is Rose.
As to be expected, there is much misogyny among the male officers, who take joy in referring to the female officers as "girls" or even berating their high positioning as "putting us all at risk for political correctness". One officer warns Rose: "You’ve got the whole wing sizing you up, trying to work out whether you’re going to be a hard bitch or a soft touch." As if those are the only two identities available to a woman in such an occupation. But it is refreshing to see a prison drama where it is the three-dimensional female characters – whose interiority is complex and who exercise the most compassion and understanding towards the inmates – who rule the roost. Time and time again, it is the female officers who take the chances on people who have been fucked by their circumstances, reiterating: "You treat them with respect; they’ve been judged enough."
We’ve been privy to many dramas about prisons over the years, from Sean Bean’s BBC drama Time to Prison Break, Wentworth and more. Screw takes a more nuanced approach – akin to Netflix’s hit series Orange Is The New Black – where it is less about the judgement or violent tropes, instead seeking to operate more as an observation of human beings in all their messiness, darkness and hilarity. It emphasises that there aren’t bad people, just people who do bad things. And this extends to the officers. But it is the female officers safeguarding the prisoners who get the spotlight and our respect and distrust as the twists and turns begin to reveal themselves.