As anyone who’s seen the film, chatted to me or read the blog posts knows, going through the justice system opened my eyes to the prisons crisis, CJS crisis and the social crises that prisons are containers for. Prison encapsulates so many of the social issues I’ve been interested in throughout my life. The story of prisons is one I felt had to be told.
But I was ostracised from any form of being able to communicate about this. There was an option of saying “Hey, I’m Lee Salter, the one in the papers”, given the media coverage (in contrast to the court findings) the response would have been obvious.
Moreover, given there had been an orchestrated campaign against me, not to get me to face up to what happened, but to stop me doing anything, it was obvious that should anyone get wind of me making such a film it would probably have been shut down right away, as is happening right now.
So the choice was make the film or not make the film. I chose to make the film.
The film has nothing to do with me or my case, it is, as anyone who has seen it, listened to me or read the blogs knows, about the social system, criminal justice system and prison system.
The film is not about me but about others who lack a voice. I thought that I had been placed in a position whereby I could give that voice.
If there were to be anything at all to come from everything that happened that was not be merely destructive, I thought I could channel the negativity into something positive, not just for prisoners and prison workers but to society more broadly.
In the year or so I had no job (and no possibility of getting a job given the media coverage) and nothing really I could do, I set up a Twitter account to find out more about my new “community”. That was called Unsound Robin. It’s an awful name, and was chosen because for some reason “Round Robin” came to my mind. My middle name is Robin so I thought Unround Robin, which then became Unsound Robin.
It was through this avatar that I began to communicate with people through Twitter. So that became the label, “Unsound Robin, convicted criminal”. That is to say, I embraced my conviction to both address the crime (which incredibly it seems some people who don’t know me presume has gone unaddressed – it hasn’t, but that’s not for Injustice) and because I had nobody else to be.
I found there were three sets of interviewees: Two ex-prisoners who knew me and my crime, and as do most ex-prisoners I know. It was good therapy to discuss our crimes together and try to understand why they happened. There was a friend of many years, and then a couple of academics and campaigners and a prison governor who didn’t know me, and a prison officer who did.
There was another person did not want to be in the film because she didn’t know who I was. Michaela Booth and I are now good friends.
Having made the film, the ex-prisoners who’ve written for the blog or been involved with the film know me, with the exception of three, all of whom when they found out had no problem with me.
At no stage was there any deception – and certainly those involved have not mentioned they felt there was. It was clear I was a convicted criminal and I emphasised the point. As is the case, nobody asks unless you wish to tell.
I can only think of one person who hasn’t spent their time saying to be, whatever you did “don’t let it define you”, “you’re a good person”, “you’ve got a right to have a life” etc. But if course it’s not me who does the defining.
There were some people who have always wished to remain anonymous who offered help. When they did I was very clear that I had committed a crime. One anonymous person offered me money personally I refused it saying, you don’t know if I have murdered someone. That person didn’t care what I had done, but I refused the money on the basis that it wasn’t morally correct given the lack of information.
At every turn I have always said that it’s about the film, not me. Support the film, not me. Admire the film, not me. Indeed the whole point of Unsound Robin is that Lee Salter gets nothing from the film!
Charlotte stepped in to the project and took on the role of arranging screenings among other things. We screened in a variety of venue-types. Given the subject matter of the film criminology departments were keen to screen it.
At each stage, the same information was provided – it’s on the web site, in the trailers, and in our emails to people, the director is a convicted criminal. “If you want the director to come, then his travel needs to be covered…”
Given that criminologists are used to working with criminals (and indeed there are a number of criminologists who have served prison sentences and ex-prisoners who speak at universities), my request for anonymity respected by all – I don’t matter, the film matters. On occasions we were asked for biographical information we wrote “Unsound Robin is a convicted criminal” and nobody wanted to know more.
At the first public screening, in a public cinema, organised by a criminology student and her friends, I stood at the back without being on a panel. At the second, again a public screening, I was asked to be on a panel and reluctantly agreed. At the third, another public screening Tommy took the stage in my stead. When more and more university screenings came in and I was asked to be there, I was almost always on a panel, often with campaigners, prisoner families, criminologists and so on.
Clearly with what has transpired this week, had I said “Lee Salter etc”, we can see now people would have tried to ban the film. Indeed the current reaction almost precisely proves the point of the film – people with convictions live with a stigma that makes it very difficult to live productive good lives. Ironic.
And then came the Sussex screening. As with so much written about me, the stated reasons of those seeking to ban the film are not true.
The screening was arranged by a student at Sussex who I’d chatted with on Twitter. As an ex-prisoner whose classmates didn’t know she is an ex-prisoner, we thought it would be a good platform for her to discuss issues of women in prison, a topic left out of the film. To refuse a screening would have gone against the point of the film.
Charlotte and I backed off organising it and of course there was no question of me being in attendance.
So the student put together a panel of 4 female ex-prisoners and we donated the fee to Women in Prison. At the point at which they figured whose film it was, it was agreed to pull it, the organiser tells me not because people got suspicious but because there was a fear of protests that would damage the film.
And so it has gone on. Arrive at a venue, meet with a criminologist, go to a cinema or hall, show the film, have a chat, go home.
As anyone who has corresponded or chatted with me knows, I have rejected almost all and any appeals to friendship or closeness. There are plenty of people who have been very supportive and positive toward me, but I’ve almost always rejected closeness.
There was one academic with whom I had an extensive exchange of very personal emails about our pasts. Each email I sent would be checked by a social worker friend to ensure there was nothing inaccurate or misleading, until I thought, despite her kind and supportive stance toward me, perhaps was deviating away from the point of what I was doing – the film. Moreover I felt it very difficult to accept kindness from someone who didn’t know me.
Another refers to me as “My friend”, which is never responded to in the same way, and indeed, when I break down a little I push him back.
The general gist of people working in the area is “you don’t need to tell me anything you don’t want to”, and then reassurances that I’m still a human being and deserve a life.
Beyond that the only other significant communications I have had have been in considering and preparing for the follow up film, which was intended to be about women in prison, as stated in the blog a few times, but which I presume now I will be banned from making because two years ago I did one-off thing that was stupid and wrong and bad, for which I have been severely punished.
This is how the dynamics of the screenings have actually been, rather than how they have imagined to have been.
One of the key points of the film is about release, stigma and rehabilitation. As is said in the film: “It is a life sentence, isn’t it, whether you have done a murder or not, the consequences are so great” and “they’re always going to have a mark on their forehead, they’re never going to do anything with their lives, so why should we bother?”
Well, to reiterate, what is going on now is proving the point of the film. Indeed it is widely accepted that the criminal justice system does very little to address what has happened in the crime, not least due to the privatising and underfunding of probation, leaving probation workers with too many cases and too little time.
I didn’t benefit from standing in a field pretending to pick up birch tree roots – I just found a large range of drug contacts and people who could undertake all sorts of criminal acts for me. I didn’t reflect on the incident because tens of thousands of people virtually screamed at me two years ago. It made me cynical and bitter. It’s a very common story in our vengeful society. The blood lust is satisfied and the underlying problems left alone.
Contrary to the gossip I was happy to plead guilty, but as my lawyer put it “you’d be pleading guilty to the complainant’s account – much of which wasn’t accepted as part of the verdict” And I’ve never denied that I did something, just not everything and certainly not what was in the papers. And I never failed to apologise – indeed the main evidence included profusely apologising for what I’d done.
I have the conviction so I must be the conviction, from which I can never escape. Indeed a common assault comes and goes as a conviction. Such convictions are spent within two years, and people are supposed to get on, but with the internet the conviction will never be spent. People come to it afresh such that it never drifts off into the horizon.
So what do people want from me? To keep me as that incident – am I to repeat it or am I to try to address it?
For my part, as I’ve mentioned a few times on Twitter, I’m going to counselling with an ex prisoner who was convicted of a similar crime and now works with domestic violence organisations. It has been a useful reflection. We act out what happened and try to address every aspect of it.
Probation was for me actually useful, not in terms of the formal process itself, but in the fact I had a very good probation officer who was interested in root causes. I’ve also been talking to social workers who have helped me understand my childhood and things that have perhaps influenced some of my more negative traits.
I’ve also become close recently to another ex-inmate who has guided me on principles of restorative justice and we have discussed perhaps approaching the victim to see if there’s anything in it that might help her.
But none of this seems to matter to people who don’t know what’s been going on because two years ago something happened so I must somehow always and forever be that person in that 30-or-so second incident.
So what options are left? To be bitter and twisted, stuck in the moment and just say “Fuck it, I’ll be what they say I am” or to try to create positive outcomes from a negative situation?
It seems to be the case that those being most actively campaigning to ban the film and re-ostracise me haven’t taken the time to find out what’s happened in the past two years but are instead stuck back in that moment.
The vengeance-based CJS and society more broadly that we find ourselves in ensures we are trapped in the moment, in the crisis, the trauma. Not just the perpetrators but the victims of crimes. This is why I’ve become most recently interested in Restorative Justice – it tries to make things better, not worse.
But we do live in a vengeful society. Whether vengeance is a deep human trait, or whether it is a particular trait of our modern society guided by traditional and social media that are in large part driven by the rage economy is not clear to me. However, it doesn’t seem to be making us better or happier as a society to simply condemn.
Without being anonymous Injustice wouldn’t have been made and these questions about crime, society, justice and punishment would not have been so widely discussed. I hope that perhaps the current furor leads people to watch the film and perhaps reflect on what we are doing to each other.
Perhaps the rage against me from some quarters will lead people to ask what they want.
Is Lee Salter allowed to engage in conversations about crime and punishment? Is he allowed to address what happened and try to rebuild a positive life where he can make a contribution to well-being? Should he just give up and be what people who don’t know say he is? Or ought we argue for continuous incarceration or even the death penalty?
Indeed the film makes a passionate appeal that we as a society simply cannot go on this way. As I tend to say at screenings we live in a society where people do wrong, make mistakes, and behave in ways that are socially unacceptable. I did wrong, I have addressed it, served my punishment and much more, and am trying desperately and against the tide to be good.
Maybe I’ve made another mistake with all this. But maybe that too is an argument to better deal with crimes. As the film says, when you get dumped out of the system there’s nothing. You become lost.