The heart of the stories in Prisoners' Wives is in the prison visits hall where the families meet their loved ones who are doing time.

While much of the action in the series centres around the families in the city of Sheffield, all the joy and pain of everyday life is distilled into the hour or so allowed for visiting where there is, of course, no privacy.

I designed sets for both series of Prisoners' Wives. Along with the art department, I researched life in prison - which before the show wasn't something we knew much about.

A family visit for Paul Miller from Franny and the kids

We were given escorted access to parts of a prison and thus got an idea of the tones, textures and details of the cells, corridors, the detention block, the visits hall, together with the visitors' entrance and its security. 

For the first series the producers, director and myself decided we wanted our prison to have a contemporary look, which suited the feel of the show and would be a change from the brick cells and blocks often seen on TV.

Filming in a prison was not possible as the security issues of getting a film crew and their equipment in and out are too great. So we had to find a location to adapt into our fictitious HMP Highcross. Sheffield, by the way, does not have a prison.
Painted concrete block walls and shiny floors proved to be the industry standard and this led us to look at modern schools since we were filming over the summer holidays. 

We found a South Yorkshire school which worked well, with their canteen becoming our visits hall, one classroom corridor our security area and another corridor the wing – which is where the cells are.
We built a cell inside a classroom off our wing, taking off the existing door and putting in a fake cell door.
We found companies that supply real prison door locks and observation hatches, beds, cell furniture and toilets, together with visit hall tables.

With fixed seating and a low central tables, the latter are designed to minimise physical contact between prisoners and their visitors - reducing the possibility of contraband being smuggled in. 

Not quite from scratch: the set before starting construction

The second series presented a new challenge – we were filming in term time, so would not have access to the school - but our prison had to look the same.

We did not have the budget to build the sets from scratch in a studio, so our location department looked for similar buildings.
We settled on an empty office that had a good ceiling height. One corner worked well for the visits hall.

We had to build over the windows to make them as much like the originals as possible and constructed the other walls from plywood flattage. We'd stored the closed visits booths from the previous year, so fitted these in too.

The finishing touches: the visits hall dressed and ready for filming

By contrast we decided to build much of the wing out of block, sand and cement. Film and TV sets are usually built with plywood on wooden frames and finished with paper, paint or plaster to suit. 

When needing a brick or block finish, for example, moulded sheets of plaster are fixed on to the plywood, filled and painted to look like the real thing.

Recreating a modern prison: the wing under construction

This is a labour-intensive process and can work well for bricks, if not the blocks, which have a crisper finish and a very distinctive patina. 

We settled on real blocks (actually cinder instead of the heavier concrete) as they would also allow for actors to knock against the walls without them moving or the plaster getting damaged.

Again, we'd kept all the cell doors, bars and gates, noticeboards and cell furniture from the first series, so with hired pool tables, the wing has much of the look of the original.

Cue lights: the wing ready for filming

As you can see, there were many other locations in Prisoners' Wives. Designing the families' houses afforded us the chance to show the characters through their home environment, with their choice of furniture, decoration and everyday objects.

By contrast, the interesting thing about designing the prison was that, outside the cells, it was largely devoid of any individual's personal touch. It's an institution after all, with a specific routine.

Despite the efforts of the prison staff to make the environment as humane as possible, I wanted to show the impact its hardness can have on people, both visitors and inmates alike.

Chris Roope is the production designer on Prisoners' Wives.

Series two of Prisoners' Wives begins on Thursday 14 March at 9pm on BBC One. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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