Making a Prison Film: Injustice by Unsound Robin
To suggest making a film that shines a light on the utter failure of the prison system is to side with those commonly seen as the lowest in our society. Where society has, fortunately, responded in some form to the needs of women, ethnic minorities, non-heterosexuals and other marginalised groups, it seems the lot of a convict remains. There’s no romanticism, little pity and sparse care for those who have fallen into the criminal system. They remain the lowest of the low: they are scum, so people seem to think.
In the 1970s the French philosopher Michel Foucault called prison ‘one of the hidden regions of our social system, one of the dark zones of our life’. Foucault saw prisoners as the victims of modern society, within a particular section of it – the ‘carceral system” (1977). They don’t fit with disciplinary society and are therefore ejected to be reconditioned. Indeed, one’s perspective changes when inside the system.
When reaching out to and interviewing prisoners and convicts it becomes immediately obvious that they are ordinary people and often victims of circumstance. This point was reinforced in our interview with a prison governor of 34 years:
“Once you work in prisons and see the numbers of prisoners in jails, although some are serious criminals, most are no different to normal people. You get to understand, you could be where they are”.
We’ve spoken to ex-prisoners, prison officers, prison guards and campaigners who all strived to get across the most basic point: prisoners are people. They are sons, daughters, mothers and brothers. But among them we find something troubling. They tend to be under-educated and from poor backgrounds, not to mention the mental health and addiction problems that afflict so many. Few, it seems, had what a member of the public might consider a fair trial.
When we asked interviewees what the point of prison is, nobody agreed. Prisons don’t prevent crime, they don’t reform or rehabilitate offenders, and they seem only to increase the damage to society by making the convict less integrated into the communities in which they must live.
I came to the conclusion that we have prisons simply because we have prisons. Beneath this is a criminal law system that has little to do with justice. Nobody has thought to start over with these two aspects.
It is in this spirit that we’re working with a team of prisoners and film-makers to make Injustice, a documentary about the prison crisis and its relation to the state of contemporary society. In researching the film we’ve been struck by almost everything we’ve found out.
One of the most penetrating interviews was with an Iraqi political asylum seeker. He’d spent many years as a student revolutionary, committing the grand crime of publishing a student magazine. As the state clamped down on dissent he went into hiding. When he found that he was to be killed, he eventually fled.
On being recommended London as a place that had always welcomed political refugees, he landed at Heathrow airport. He spent the next 4 months in prison. There are many people like him in the UK’s prisons – they fled for their lives the only way they could, only to find themselves in the prison of a foreign land, with little comprehension of the language, let alone the culture of British prisons.
We hear from Jimmy, a former inmate who spent years on many sentences, how prison emboldens the strong and cripples the weak. He explains this through the story of a young man who’d taken drugs and stabbed somebody. This moment of madness landed the young man from a good background a 6 year sentence, which he was ill-equipped to cope with. Jimmy recounts, with grim humour, the multiple suicide attempts of the man, before expressing his sympathies that after prison he will never get his life back – the sentence extends far beyond time served.
Against this, newspapers report daily on the luxury lives lived by prisoners. But we are not told that in one year the 80,000 inmates in UK prisons suffered 24,000 assaults. We are not told that there is a death in a UK prison every three days. Nor are we told about the squalid, oppressive conditions in which prisoners survive each day. It’s one thing to hear this from prison reform groups and prisoners but another to have this confirmed by governors and officers. For all the calls by the press for more repression, it is often forgotten that repression puts the lives of officers at risk.
Becoming a little obsessed with prison and crime means that friends, family and strangers tend to tell their own stories of crime – with so many who know people wrongly convicted. It is a particular hell to have one’s life destroyed for something one hasn’t done. The wrongly convicted inhabit a particularly torturous hell on the inside.
It seems everyone knows someone who has had one scrape with the law or another. Yet the general perception of a prisoner as the demonic Other is maintained. The cognitive dissonance is indicative of the depth at which the simple logic of criminality has penetrated into the psyche. We can now sneer at the society that saw fit to imprison Oscar Wilde for having consensual sex, but such judgement presumes the present legal system is a functioning one without such injustices. We hear in the film that the Blair administration alone introduced more thousands of new criminal offences, largely criminalising the poor and working class. Deirdre O’Neill explains how prisons have become warehouses for the working class.
But who is to mediate and connect such fragments of argument, and how? Injustice seeks to explain, understand and challenge the popular conception of law, justice and punishment. Yet few wish to hear such a disruptive corrective. Moreover, few prisoners wish to be publicly identified as convicts, so finding stories to tell can be a challenge. Our Iraqi interviewee has now withdrawn because he fears being in the film may prejudice his future, even though his “crime” is merely to flee for his life the only way he can. Prison officers risk losing their jobs for speaking out, and prisoners’ families tend not to welcome even friendly publicity.
But the story must be told.
The main challenge we face is funding. The solidarity and campaign networks for prison reform are woefully under-funded, and have nothing to spare. Convicts are let out of prison with just £46 to live on, so are hardly able to finance such a venture. And so we are left with the hope that enough people who do want to hear about what’s going on will be prepared to help fund the film through crowd-funding.
We hope the readers of this may consider it a project worthy of a donation of any amount, which you can do here
If anyone wishes to get involved or find out more, we can be contacted on @unsoundrobin @injusticedoc or [email protected]