All Helen Stewart (Simone Lahbib) wants after a day at work is a foot massage and few words of wisdom from her boyfriend Sean (Oliver Fox). She’s the Wing Governor (or warden) at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Lark Hall, a job that means she’s spat at, screamed at, complained to, and generally undermined at every turn. She handles it, but when she’s lying back on the sofa, her feet in Sean’s hands, her face communicates her vulnerability.
The UK series Bad Girls aims to put a human face on the women’s prison system. In part this comes in familiarity: the DVD’s “slang dictionary,” explains, for instance, that “jellies” are tranquilizing drugs like Valium or Temazepam, and that a “grass” is a snitch. And in part, it results from sympathy; the opening episodes make clear that women’s prisons in the UK are inadequately run, due to untrained guards and other higher-ranked prison officers, including Helen.
Bad Girls focuses on Helen’s trial-by-fire education, as she quickly learns of these systemic shortfalls and seeks to improve them. Over time, she learns to respond to each inmate based on her personal experiences, as these are revealed and developed throughout the series. Far removed from the over-the-top Australian series Prisoner, Bad Girls makes the battle-scarred ladies of Lark Hall into minor heroines, as they struggle to fit into a system that refuses to accommodate them.
Though it slips into soap opera on occasion, the show also “educates,” through stories of inmate mothers losing children and young offenders who suffered abuse on the outside. The show’s primary challenges to prison conditions is based on this issue, that mothers are disproportionately incarcerated. (The Bad Girls website includes statistics on women prisoners and provides links to charities and other support services for inmates and volunteers.) Inmate Rachel (Joanne Frogatt) frets about the safety of her infant after being convicted on drug charges. Posh Monica (Jane Lowe) must endure the pain of her Down’s Syndrome son crying for her to come home when he visits. And newcomer Zandra (Lara Cazalet) discovers she’s pregnant, only to read in a newspaper that her fiancé is engaged to someone else.
The show also goes to great effort to explore guards’ reactions to their charges. While the male guards are stereotypes (good cop, bad cop), the females are more complex, like the inmates. Guard Lorna’s (Luisa Bradshaw-White) exhibits bravado in the first few episodes, but by Episode Five, she’s forced to submit to Zandra and conniving Shell (Debra Stephenson), who blackmail her into smuggling drugs into the prison. Lorna’s about-face, from bitchy to frightened, is abrupt and frustrating, but makes sense. She’s doing whatever she can to ward off a beating from young women who use brutality to get what they want.
Nikki and Helen’s relationship is similarly blurry. For much of the first season, Nikki resists getting to know Helen, writing her off as another self-serving screw who demonstrates “understanding” only when it suits her. Eventually, they find common ground: Helen assists Nikki in taking college courses, even going so far as to lend her a copy of her favorite book, and Nikki, in turn, helps Helen with running the wing through a bit of amateur (but effective) therapy for the more disturbed inmates. They clash, though, when Nikki makes a pass at Helen, who is not averse to the pass per se, but to its undermining of her authority. Instantly, both women recognize the vulnerabilities on both sides of the relationship.
This is what Bad Girls, currently in its seventh season on the BBC, does best. It builds up and breaks down characters, with an eye towards compassion. It doesn’t overdo the compassion angle, however, which is to say, it doesn’t pander to them. The series is less interested in prison as a system of punishment than in the women — inmates and officers — as survivors. In her interview on the DVD, Alicya Eyo, who plays Denny, says, “I think the support between the inmates in a women’s prison is much greater than in a men’s prison. The relationships are stronger, but there is so much that is lonely. I think to get on in prison, you have to be a very strong individual.” Or at least that’s the facade you have to maintain.
Despite Eyo’s discussion of gendered differences, however, Bad Girls is much like male-focused prison tales. Lark Hall’s population includes a seasoned sage (Nikki), a Bob Gunton-like, monstrous guard (Fenner), and a cell block bully (Shell). The women are persecuted, variously vulnerable (Shell targeted for her sexuality, Rachel for her naiveté, and Zandra is an addict), and expected to coexist in a corrupt system. But as regular as such characters and situations might seem, at Bad Girls brings some semblance of women’s experience in prison to television.