What does it mean to be free? Can I ever be free? For people who want ‘justice’, do they know what justice means, or is justice in every sense, a personal vision of retribution? Retribution being punishment inflicted on someone as vengeance for a wrong or criminal act. Is retribution decided on fairly by our courts and delivered ‘justly’ by our prison systems?
For anyone who has a clue about criminal justice, you all know the answer. But I want to take this deeper, is retribution, punishment and vengeance held in the minds of victims for far longer and much stronger than the courts they have faith in to provide them with the justice that they seek?
When is enough, enough?
As most people know, bad actions, bad situations and wrong doings are simply moments or periods of time when things are tough and the people perpetrators of crime are, more often than not, also victims.
But, as I have written in many a blog, as a society and as a criminal justice system, the moment we are labelled as ‘criminal’ we then have no right to ever be seen as a ‘victim’. I have seen victims first hand, in prison. Prison is where we place our vulnerable and prison is where we deny them the right to be seen as a victim. Victims are out here aren’t they? There could not possibly be a criminal in prison who has been a victim of a horrendous life, could there?
This blog isn’t to talk about criminals as victims, or as a criminal or a victim. This is to open up some thought about justice, retribution and redemption. Rehabilitation is old now. Even the most rehabilitated of characters may never reach the point of redemption. This, I know.
First of all I should establish what I mean by redemption and what it means to me. I don’t mean forgiveness, I don’t give anyone the power to hold forgiveness over me.
How can the actions that led me to prison, be redeemable? How can I redeem myself from the wrong I have done in the past?
For me, the first step is understanding that my early years had caused me significant trauma, and this has been very much at the core of my understanding throughout my degree and reflective practice.
Having been labelled from an early age as ‘trouble’ and being treated as such, I can be redeemed by knowing, I am not that person ‘they’ said I was. This is very much evident in how I am now, today. I see redemption as being saved and as being free of the past. Education has saved me. Learning about injustice, understanding that small minds cannot comprehend ‘the bigger picture’ and experiencing ‘professionals’ who don’t have a clue what they are doing or saying, has given me knowledge, power and redemption.
What can free me from the past? Freedom for me is my career that enables me to be empowered by my life. Freedom for me is being at work, rather than sat in my old council flat, with no carpet when no-one ever imagined I was worth more and could do better. Freedom for me, is being so tired on a Friday night because I have worked all week, which keeps me out of the pub every weekend! Freedom for me is understanding, that many people who seek justice and retribution, hold something very different in their heart, something that our courts and prisons can never deliver on.
As a very reluctant 22year old, I sat in prison on a ‘treatment programme’ where I listened to ‘professionals’ tell me I used be drunk as a comfort story when I talked about the offence that led me to prison. I had such joy learning about comfort stories! In essence, they tried to instil in me that my alcohol consumption and being attacked first was what I told myself (and others) to lessen the impact of my actions.
In actuality, those two points are a fact! If they lessen the impact, but they still remain a fact. No treatment programme, framing or intimidation and privileged threats about home leavers were ever going to change the fact that these were and still are facts of the situation.
The reason I touch on comfort stories is because when we think of a victim narrative and a criminal narrative, yes, a criminal narrative may have some ‘comfort’ elements, something that we say to make it sound ‘lesser’ but here we have an issue with a victim impact statement being used in court to create a narrative, often with vengeance, punishment and retribution in mind.
The Court Process
And not parallel to or equivalent of any justice our systems can provide. In a criminal court, the usual set up (in brief): we have the prosecution and the defence. Following a guilty plea or a guilty verdict the victim is offered a place to say or ask for an impact statement to be considered before sentencing.
Now, let’s imagine for a second that the police investigate a crime as they should. Many a case wouldn’t even make it to court! However, the point here is that everything up until the point of a victim impact statement, should have been analysed and investigated and then as a system we provide an opportunity for something to make it into the court room that has not been checked.
As the ‘defendant’ you have provided an account of what happened and this has been looked into by the police and defence, and hopefully allowed into evidence. As a ‘victim’ you have also provided an account to the police, and this should have been looked into. And then, a massively emotive, influential and non-evidence based statement is allowed to be read out, not questioned and encouraged to be considered before sentencing some-one to a possible prison term.
I just want to be clear here, that as with any ‘comfort’ story us old cons can conceive to make ourselves feel better, a person who feels that they have suffered, that they have been a victim and that they want ‘revenge’ is perfectly capable of ‘recalling’ or utterly making up fictional impacts of an offence, in the name of the ‘justice’ that they want to see.
The Limits of Seeking Justice
Justice that is not parallel to or equivalent of any justice our systems can provide. Seeking justice in a system that we have in society, for many is seen as the right thing to do but can rarely ever provide the retribution a victim of crime requires. What is ‘just’ to one, is not ‘just’ to another. That is why we have this system is place, which should be used unbiasedly but is not.
Justice is personal, punishment wished upon another is personal and what is seen as and considered retribution, is personal. Leaving forgiveness, redemption and freedom in the hands of a system or another, is a wasted life.
You don’t leave prison, a punishment issued by a court, rehabilitated or redeemed. In fact, you don’t arrive at prison with rehabilitation even in mind. What is almost certain, is that victims of crime, who seek justice from our systems do not find solace in the punishment deemed suitable by the judge.
“She deserved longer”…. “I would have sent him away for life”…… “Our justice system doesn’t work”…. These phrases are all too familiar to me. We can’t play judge and jury when justice is personal to us.
Nobody has the right to say what someone else ‘deserves’ and when justice is sought through a system, that retribution has to be accepted. I know nothing about space, I wouldn’t be caught saying ‘oh, well you sent that rocket up to space a bit too fast”. Being a victim, and I am a victim of crime also, doesn’t give me the right to talk about ‘what I would have done’ if I was delivering justice. I am not here to deliver justice. I know hatred, bitterness and holding a grudge.
Redemption is Personal
When I have been wronged, I still feel these feelings. I know they are hard to get rid of. I know, I could never be in a position to give somebody else their ‘just desserts’ because my feeling, emotions and bitterness would inhibit my ability to see what is proportionate and fair. Justice needs to be fair.
I have been a victim, my victim narrative was taken and replaced with ‘criminal’. As a victim, I didn’t seek justice or redemption because I didn’t even know that I was a victim.
As a victim, I wouldn’t seek justice in our system because I know it does not prevail. As a ‘criminal’ who has served her time, is the definition of ‘rehabilitation’ and then some, and who is the university student studying for her degree in Criminology, I have found redemption.
I found it in books, in experience and in understanding that as justice is, redemption is personal. For people who don’t know what justice is, how can they ever understand redemption? Searching for forgiveness and redemption in the eyes of others is like planning your escape from prison! The idea sounds nice, but you know it’s never going to happen. When you understand that ‘now’ is not forever, times move on and ‘now’ is over. When you empower yourself to release the guilt, release the need for forgiveness from others and take redemption as a personal journey and responsibility that is when you find it.
Justice is personal.
Redemption is personal.
This guest blog was written by Michaela Booth, a criminology undergraduate, former prisoner, and blogger. You can follow Michaela on Twitter. This article is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers and experts. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.