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Screw creator Rob Williams: ‘We don’t always look at prisoners as individuals’

Rob Williams, creator of Channel 4 prison drama Screw, talks about the importance of prison education.

Writer Rob Williams launched new series Screw on Channel 4 in the first week of January. It stars His Dark Materials’ Nina Sosanya and Derry Girls’ Jamie-Lee O’Donnell as officers – one highly experienced, one new to the job.

Screw is set inside a fictional male prison wing but Williams, who has previously written The Victim (starring Kelly MacDonald) and an episode of the classic first season of Killing Eve, has years of real-life prison experience. Here’s what his inside knowledge of teaching in prison taught him…

Out of sight, out of mind is true. That’s why cuts are so easy to make to prison budgets. So many prison officer posts have been lost in the last 10 years, while wages for prisoners and the cost spent on their food hasn’t gone up for years. These are easy cuts for governments to make because only a small proportion of society sees the impact, and they’re not a very popular minority. Besides, they can’t vote.

All life is there in prisons. That’s what I wanted to show people. You’ve met these guys – you went to school with them, they served you in shops, one might have done your accounts. It is a massive cross-section and lots of people are there for one mistake that, if we’re not careful, defines them for the rest of their lives.

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There have been brilliant prison dramas. The one that stands out for me is Oz. It was on Channel 4 at some stupid hour at night but I used to stay up to watch it and now have the boxset. It was so clever. Brilliantly written, great characters and stories, you came away knowing there was a point to it. And everyone knows Porridge is a classic – it’s still the one officers and prisoners talk about as being the most accurate.

Because too often what is missing is the colour, the humour, the humanity. And it’s a shame, because it can mean the prison population is seen as one lumpen mass rather than individuals. The same goes for prison officers.

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With Screw, I also wanted to blur the lines between officers and prisoners, to talk about how they all live there and share the same space for incredibly long stretches. They have to find a way to live together, and they do, because that’s what we do as humans. We adapt. Surprising relationships form in that pared down existence on prison wings.

I started teaching in prisons when I was doing my teaching qualification and went to a college that had the contract for 15 prisons in the Midlands. There was a shortage of male staff, particularly, so I taught drawing and painting in prisons at the turn of the Millennium.

I was fascinated by the environment and surprised by the people I met. It’s a cliché, but I just didn’t expect to find so much talent there. It wasn’t just about drawing and painting – the skills these guys had, and the enthusiasm. It was very eye-opening.

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I swore to go back after I left teaching, and I did through volunteer work for the last 15 years. Because prison education is so important.

Just look at the rates of illiteracy in prisons and how it disempowers people. It’s astonishing

Rob Williams

The mistake we sometimes make is assuming it’s important to everyone. We don’t always look at prisoners as individuals and there are people in prisons for whom it is not of any interest. Some courses they don’t get an awful lot from.

A big problem at the moment is getting people out of their cells. They are spending such long periods of time in their cells. Some prisons have been very slow to come out of lockdown – and even before lockdown it was difficult to get people into education.

John Bird is absolutely right to say that if you close libraries you need to build more prisons. Just look at the statistics about rates of illiteracy in prisons and how that disempowers people. It’s astounding.

But I don’t think the prison service see education as their primary function. Time in prison is not necessarily seen as an opportunity to improve the lot of people, so it’s left to outside services, which can be patchy.

But we all know what works. If you have somebody for 18 months who can’t read, hasn’t got a job, and is likely to be homeless when they come out that is an opportunity, isn’t it? But the number of people coming out of prison without those very basic things is criminal, really.

We know what a difference education, housing and employment makes to people’s lives. It’s not a mystery. And we’ve had long enough to fix it now.

Screw airs on Channel 4 on Thursdays and is available as a boxset on All4

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