There have been a lot of television dramas about prison over the years, and a fair few comedies too. From Prisoner Cell Block H and its successor Wentworth Prison in Australia, to Oz, Prison Break, and Orange is the New Black in the States, and Bad Girls, Prisoner’s Wives, The Visit, and of course, Porridge here in the UK, it seems like the public can’t get enough of Prison Drama.
This is a trend equally reflected in books. Both True Crime and Crime Thrillers are among the best selling books across most of the Western World and regularly feature among some of the most borrowed books from British libraries.
But how realistic is the portrayal of prison on TV? Most books about crime, whether fiction or non-fiction, tend to be well researched with experienced advisers on hand where necessary. But in the case of television dramas, the story almost always gets prioritised above believablility. Bad Girls was realistic at times, but resorted to utter farce at others. Prison Break began well, but again descended into the absurd. Oz was plainly surreal throughout and made no effort to present itself as a sane representation of American prisons. And although I haven’t personally seen Orange is the New Black, what I have read about it makes it seem equally sacrificial of reality.
But why does that matter? In truth, it doesn’t. But it does make me wonder whether we might eventually see a drama emerge that combines both the reality of prison life with a good story. If books can achieve that and still come out as one of the most popular genres, then why not TV?