In an interview for Injustice, Penelope Gibbs, the director of Transform Justice, tells us of the ways in which a conviction constitutes multiple punishments.
The conviction itself is the first punishment, then there is the financial cost of defence and finally the criminal record carries a lifetime of discrimination. As she puts it, the consequence of conviction is a life sentence.
There is, as Transform Justice reminds us, little consideration of what happens after conviction. As far as the prosecutors, judges, magistrates or jury are concerned, justice has been served with the verdict and sentencing, which is supposed to be appropriate to the crime. Media interest subsides and the baying mobs retreat until the next victim is identified.
The process of conviction
We see often in the press and especially in comments from the public that sentences are regarded as too lenient. Whether 150 hours community service, 3 months in prison, or a hefty fine, the notion that the stated penalty is the entire punishment is wrong.
Right from arrest to the court hearing, the accused is sent immediately into a pit of pain. Guilty or not, the abject terror of the unknown future, the confusion over the functioning of the court system, and the trauma of allegations can easily break people. Often, as in the case of Simon Warr, the lengthy court process will destroy one’s life even if the verdict is not guilty.
Trial by media
In addition to the court process, there is the trial by media of course. It is so very painful to speak to most people who say “I don’t believe anything in the papers” and then hear them gossiping about convict X who did Y, as if the court or media coverage reflected actuality.
Of course the very mode of functioning of the press is to profit out of scandal – be it an apartment block burning or a child being kidnapped. From left to right, tabloid to broadsheet, the mode of functioning is the same.
Conviction presents a field-day for the news media. The gates open and pretty much anything can be made up and reported. I was told myself by a director of a media ethics charity “you’ve been convicted so you’re fair game”.
Prison and ruination
And that’s when the endless ruination really begins. There’s very little hope of a future once one has experienced a custodial sentence. Speaking to a friend 6 years after his imprisonment for public disorder I had assumed his life had turned around.
When I saw him in prison, his shirt that he’d gone in with was several sizes too small now and his skin had turned a mix of grey and yellow. Years after his release he looked much older than his years.
But even having cleaned himself up, he told me of his struggles to find employment, despite his ample qualifications and experience. It wasn’t even the conviction that was the problem, but the reports online. There was little he could do to remove the usual sensationalism of our guttural press (and that includes the broadsheets too!).
“Still, it’s a long time in the past now” I told him. My heart sank at his reply: “not really. Every time I hear a police siren I shake, I can’t cope with it. I find it hard to relate to people… I’ve got so many unresolved issues from prison”. I didn’t pry. He was in his own personal hell.
Despite this, he was lucky. He had friends who could get him work, although that wasn’t easy. But for the most part, the financial ruination that Gibbs speaks of goes far beyond the immediate conviction. While the conviction is unspent, it seems like convicts are in limbo. Employers shift away, looking for the less complicated and less risky “law-abiding citizens”.
The unknown consequences of conviction
I frequently wonder whether the public knows or understands any of this – that there are still kids to feed, there is still rent to pay, there are still elderly parents to look after. But with the life sentence, these become massive challenges, leaving kids, loved ones and other dependents to suffer too.
I wonder whether anyone out there recognises or understand that when one’s life and future is destroyed it turns the best of us into resentful waste. We don’t eat well. We don’t live well. Fear, trauma, depression, anger, alienation don’t turn convicts into better people. Ostracisation, humiliation and alienation eventually make people want to give in, to embrace the label, to become what they’re called.
The fate of the innocent
It gets worse, as these things do. As Gibbs says in Injustice, the punishment for those who are innocent is ten-fold. When she uttered that, I was overjoyed, yes, it is. As I sit here in my dirty squat, hungry, trying every trick in the book to get some sort of work so I can feed my kids, looking out of the window resentfully at people walking by enjoying the sun, I can only concur.
Mornings are the worst. Eyes open, the past life fades rapidly from my consciousness and only darkness awaits. Life seems pointless, futile. I struggle to believe that ending it would be worse than living in this wasteland.
I’m tired of explaining and re-explaining what actually happened. I’m tired of showing the evidence that was refused in court. I’m tired of explaining that I was shocked too that the court system just doesn’t function as people might think, that evidence is not needed to validate claims, that there’s little chance of fairness in court and that principles like “innocent until proven guilty” or “beyond reasonable doubt” are myths that legitimise courts, or that perhaps people can just make things up.
I fear approaching potential employers, applying for jobs, knowing they’ll Google and despite their proclaimed scepticism toward the media believe every last word. I’m tired of trying to be me, the real me.
Once a convict, always a convict
This is the chaos of conviction. You have been labelled. Every effort to resist that label is beaten down by the courts, probation, the media and the Great British Public. It feels like only a matter of time before one’s energy dissipates and one is forced to be what one is labelled. Is there any point to trying to be good? There seems to be no encouragement for it, no pay off, no opportunities arising. If I am a criminal and that is what I have to carry, then I might as well be what I’m called.
It is of course no wonder the re-offending rates are so high under such conditions – as David Scott says in the film, “if you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose”. But prison reform isn’t enough. The whole justice system that has to change, the very way we consider crime and criminality. The fear is, though, that perhaps the baying mobs quelled by court verdicts and media scandalisation are just a feature of the human condition.
Perhaps there is nothing that can be done to change public opinion about those deemed to have offended the public and the state. I hope Injustice can go some way to changing minds, to exposing ordinary people to the reality of crime, conviction, prison and the justice system.
Without that change, there will be no compulsion for politicians to react, and certainly while the press gets so rich from crime stories it is in their economic interest to continue incite the mob. And so the ruination continues.