On 17th May 2017 a prisoner on remand in Maghaberry Prison died. I don’t know him, and you probably don’t either. There are as yet no details about what he was on remand for, or what caused his death. Yet one supposes that on reading the article a significant proportion of people will think “So what? He’s a prisoner”.
Who are prisoners?
As morally vile as such a sentiment is whoever the prisoner, it is perhaps understandable. Little has changed over the centuries in public attitudes toward deviants. Be they medieval witches, homosexuals until recently, or (illegal) drug users today, society’s attitude remains the same. No matter how much people might laugh at Monty Python’s “burn the witch” scene, few realise that, egged on by the media, the Great British Public do that daily to whichever folk devil is presented in the media… And yes, I mean critics too – the Guardian and Independent also have their folk devils (and yes their baying mobs look as absurd as Monty Python’s).
In the Maghaberry case it is really important to understand one thing before casting judgement.
What is “remand”?
Whatever you read in the papers about this or that person standing trial, it is still, just about, a principle of English law that a person is innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
If what you’ve been accused of is reasonably severe, or nobody cares about your category of person, once charged (but not found guilty) you may be sent to prison. This is what “remand” is – innocent people being sent to prison. You don’t have to be a nasty person, or accused of anything too severe, especially if your alleged crime is using fake documents to flee certain death. Indeed one of our interviewees who I’ve written about already, simply fled certain death in Iran. His welcome to the UK was to be sent straight to prison on remand.
So let’s get this straight. The Maghaberry death was the death of a remand prisoner, an innocent according to the law.
There’s no such sadness as an innocent person being sent to prison, but this happens often with remand prisoners. I can’t imagine the days and nights of terror and harm they must experience. Nor can I imagine the utter destruction wrought on the families of those on remand.
The reality of that destruction is a difficult thing to explain to someone who’s not been through court. I guess it’d be akin to talking to a fish about surfing sand dunes.
Innocents in prison
One of our interviewees had to watch her brother go through remand. It got even worse once he was sent to prison as an innocent man. The association of one’s own experience with that of another only gets you so far. Beyond that is an abyss. You can’t see in and you know your imagination will only take you so far before you recoil back into the safety of ignorance.
Our interviewee told us a of when her brother was assaulted in front of her while on remand. The family of another prisoner also assaulted her while she was visiting him. Her mother was in the room while she recounted the story to us. It was emotionally crushing, my mind was awash with questions I couldn’t bring myself to ask. The obvious one being “how did you feel when you saw him go back in, knowing it might happen again, daily, knowing he’s terrified, knowing he can’t sleep, knowing he doesn’t deserve it because he didn’t do what he was being accused of?”
Yet some questions shouldn’t be asked. The value of hearing the answer is negated by the trauma of the interviewee giving the answer. The only possibly motivation for such a question is to create drama, to produce affect, with cold, dark music playing underneath (we leave that to the BBC).
Strength on the outside
The horror of the situation is held elsewhere – in the strength you know the interviewee must have found, in the eyes trained to mask the trauma for the purposes of public comfort, in the thoughtfulness that must, surely, conceal the rage at the injustice, and in the calm that speaks of frustration. The love for her brother surrounded her, and the bond with her mother was so strong that it seemed to hold everything in the room together.
But our interviewee was not debilitated. Her brother’s case spurred her to further legal studies so she could fight and campaign to get him out and oppose the scandalous Joint Enterprise laws. They incarcerate mainly working class people (I’m unaware of any British politicians being tried for Joint Enterprise in crimes against humanity, war crimes or illicit arms sales).
I try not to imagine where this young man would be without such love, without such strength, and without hope. In December 2016 alone, there were nearly 6,000 people awaiting trial on remand. 106 of them were children between 15 and 17. The last statistics from the Prison Reform Trust show that in one year nearly 50,000 people were on remand awaiting trial.
Conditions on remand
Of course sending people on remand isn’t wanton. There are probably understandable reasons for doing so. But the question has to do with the conditions of remand. Ought an innocent person have their liberty taken away and be brutalised and beaten because they have been accused? Surely if conditions aren’t appropriate for an innocent person, then they shouldn’t be sent.
Of course all this opens the question about whether anyone should be sent somewhere to be brutalised.
That’s the story of the film.