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.