Going through the criminal justice system is surreal. Explaining it to people who haven’t been through it is akin to explaining sand surfing in the Sahara to a fish. No matter how critically minded one may be, the reality of its shortcomings have to be seen to be believed.
We know of the big cases of injustice, the famous cases of wrongful conviction, often in the USA on death row. Sometimes such cases warrant films and documentaries about the suffering of innocents at the hands of the justice system.
But the problem with such cases is that they are presented as anomalies of the justice system. This is to say that each celebrated case of a miscarriage suggests justice to be the norm.
A new documentary film, Injustice, fundamentally challenges this view. Having witnessed first-hand the perversity of criminal justice system and the absurdity of punishment, our director decided to embark on this project to shine a light on the normality of injustice.
The particular direction of the film was inspired by a chance meeting with an ex-prisoner called Gethin Jones. After Gethin explained his childhood, background, imprisonment, release and return to prison, his experience came to form the basis for the film’s investigation.
As the film expanded, criminologists confirmed this social basis to crime. Dr David Scott told us that a child in the care system has only a 1/10 chance of going to university but a 1/2 chance of going to prison.
Whatever the procedures in a court of law, there is a fundamental social problem here that punishment cannot solve.
Scott also explains in the film how the very concept of the criminal law grew out of a class dynamic of subjugation and control of the working class. It is in this context that Professor Joe Sim introduces the concept of prisons as a system of ‘warehousing’ the poor.
So we can see right away that prisons are underpinned by social schisms. The film thus demonstrates through interviews with prisoners the significance of social background on the propensity to ‘offend’ (itself a laden term).
Penelope Gibbs of Transform Justice moves to explain how the social background of offenders contrasts with the backgrounds of those judging them. She suggests judges and magistrates know next to nothing of the life experiences of those they are judging.
As we move toward the experience of incarceration, the former IMB inspector, Faith Spear, extends this experiential ignorance to others working in the prison system, such as governors, prison guards and of course politicians.
The film unfolds to make it pretty apparent that none of those we interview – governors, prisoners, monitors, criminologists and prison guards – seem to think that the system works at all.
From the accounts of all involved it seems prisons exist mainly to increase social harm. We hear of suicide attempts, of self-harm, of the emotional desolation, the fear, loneliness, social isolation and general brutalisation that seems mainly to de-habilitate rather than rehabilitate prisoners.
As Gibbs asks, what sort of ex-prisoners do we want, because they will come out? They always come out!
The mind boggles when we hear that prisoners are dumped out, traumatised, given £46, often with no home return to, and expected to adjust to life on the outside.
Injustice is an attempt to mediate the problem of justice in a way that expands beyond the 'prison crisis'. Indeed the point of the film is not that prisons are in crisis as such but rather they are a reflection of a broader and on-going social crisis.
Unfortunately we are set in a society where politicians and the media utilise public anxiety about crime for their own purposes. As such, crime becomes a tool for politicians and news editors, and prisoners and convicts become pawns in their games.
We hope the film, made by just one person in the first instance, will open people’s eyes to the realities of the criminal justice system and amplify the debates now taking place among prison and justice reformers.
To this end we are happy to screen anywhere in the country, with any group that might be interested. If you would like to arrange a screening, please do get in touch.
Charlotte Sexauer is a freelance journalist and producer on Injustice, which was originally made anonymously by one person.