'Any one of us could become a criminal given the right circumstances'
Why, as a society, should we care about what happens to people who commit crimes? Because we could all, any one of us, be victims? Yes.
But, because we could also all be criminals given the right circumstances?
This is the premise explored in a thought-provoking new documentary, Injustice, “made during a period of conviction, unemployment, poverty and homelessness” by Unsound Robin (who wishes to keep his identity and the nature of his conviction anonymous).
After being found guilty and given community service, he said his “surreal” experience of the justice system compelled him to immerse himself in the world of “prisoners, convicts and criminality”.
His documentary explores life in prison, punishment and rehabilitation, social failings and their interaction with criminal justice, and the perception of criminals in the eyes of the state and public.
Ex-prisoners, prison officers, governors, families of offenders, academics and others with experience of the criminal justice system offer insights which will make for uncomfortable viewing at times.
“Once you work in prisons and you see the numbers of prisoners in a variety of jails, even though some of them committed very serious crimes, most haven’t,” former prison governor Eoin McLennan-Murray says at the start of the film.
“Most prisoners are no different from just people you’d meet, your friends, anybody. You get to learn pretty quickly that you could be where they are if life had dealt you a different hand.”
Unsound Robin’s intention is to present a different side to criminality – one which challenges the audience to reassess their views about a group in society few want to think much about.
‘Jimmy’, a former inmate who features in the film, tells us that he committed his first crime aged 13. Although life could have taken a very different path, he says, if it had not been for issues he developed as a result of a disruptive upbringing. Captain of the school cricket and rugby teams, he achieved 7As and 2A*s at GCSE.
“I can’t speak highly enough about what it did for my self-esteem,” he says of prison.
“It benefits people who are tough and it cripples people who are weak. The weak get weaker and weaker and that’s where the suicides come in”.
The subject of mental health and criminality is explored again later in the film with former prison officer Navdeep Seehra who speaks of an inmate with severe mental health issues who kept cutting his fingers off with a razor blade.
"My default position is so-called criminals aren’t the people that they’re portrayed as," Unsound Robin told me.
He said he grew up around criminality – “lots of very dodgy, very violent mates” – but that “when they’re your friends, you see another side".
“I’ve also always had an interest in the class inequality underpinning law.”
But, his biggest prompt for producing the documentary, he said, was his own conviction.
“The machinations of the legal system are far more disturbing than one would ever think. I pleaded not guilty. You think somehow the system is there to lay all of the evidence out, adjudicate that evidence from a neutral position and reach a conclusion that’s in keeping with the available evidence. But one of the first things my lawyer told me was ‘the truth doesn’t matter in this process’. It was about building a narrative.”
He believes the “fundamental injustice” in the legal system is that “the ability to defend yourself depends on your ability to pay”. Homeless and unemployed after being convicted, he said he was unable to claim legal aid to appeal as he was not claiming benefits.
While on community service, he started making notes on the other offenders in his cohort.
“Most were males, from working class backgrounds who had no education, most of them didn’t really understand what they were able to do in court cases. Some of them admitted their guilt, some didn’t. A lot of them said ‘community service is just something to get out the way, but the real thing that crushes you is the court case, the not knowing, the humiliation’.”
One of Unsound Robin’s main aims in the documentary is to reveal what he perceives to be the humanity behind criminality – no doubt a contradiction in terms for some.
Referring to people with drug and alcohol problems, mental ill health, anger issues, childhood trauma, those living in poverty or who “just have a moment”, he told me: “What is punishment doing to resolve any of these issues? There seems to be this absolute focus on punishment as if it is something that will resolve a problem. But it doesn’t. Because when people are punished severely, not just by the court but then socially and publicly ostracised and humiliated, it pushes them further away. It creates a criminal sub-culture.
“If we don’t want people in our communities who are violent and dangerous, we need to find a way of alleviating that, not making it worse.
“When you get convicted, all of a sudden, your world changes. You become a criminal. I had to steal food to eat, I had to jump trains. I was suddenly spewed into this world of criminality, convicts, prisoners, ex-prisoners.
“The initial idea of the film was ‘f**k the non-convicts – that dichotomy between me as a convict and you as a non-convict. You’re not better than me or different to me, you just haven’t been caught – the coke you snorted or the speeding that you did. People commit crimes, some people get caught and some don’t.”
He said he believes the societal perception of someone with a conviction – “you are either a criminal scumbag or you’re not" – is the real challenge to overcome.
“That’s the major thing to crack as it’s so ingrained in people,” he told me.
“And the court process ensures that that attitude is the attitude that dominates. It’s very difficult to get contextual information into a court case because it will often focus on the crime itself, the moment – what you could or couldn’t have done in that particular instance in which the crime took place. Going into the background of people may come in when it comes to sentencing, but not when it comes to conviction itself because the conviction has to be absolutely innocent or absolutely guilty.
“That’s the biggest insight I’ve had – how structurally the system is absolutely incapable of dealing with the complexity of life and society because it has to make it simple. ‘You did this because you’re that sort of person and therefore you need to be punished for it and that’s that’. Any nuance and explanation become an excuse.
“My lawyer apologised for the adversarial system. She understood the difficulties of it, but she said ‘that’s what we’ve got to deal with’.”
What does he hope people will take away from the documentary?
“That conviction could happen to anyone. It could be you. Your mother, brother, son. One tiny moment and that’s that. It’s done.
“Punishment doesn’t work. Prison doesn’t work. Prisoners are humans. We don’t have a prisons crisis. The prisons ‘crisis’ is a reflection of a social and political crisis.
“Underpinning all of this is a justice system that doesn’t work. Guilty people aren’t necessarily innocent as such, some of them are, but very rarely are the specific charges people are found guilty of an exact representation of what happened. Having an outcome that is asserted as a definite is deeply problematic."
But will portraying criminals as victims not be a difficult concept for many to accept?
“The documentary’s not there to give an answer, but to stoke a debate," he said. "You don’t have to agree with it, but you do need to respond to it.”
Visit www.injustice-film.com for a list of screenings or to arrange your own.
Follow me on Twitter for prisons and criminal justice updates @Hardeep_Matharu