Injustice (Documentary): Of Prisons and the 'Good and Evil'
for more about the documentary, see here:
Prisons are strange things. Foucault called them ‘one of the hidden regions of our social system, one of the dark zones of our life’ (1977). Long before him, Dostoevsky told us that you can judge a society by the way it treats its prisoners. He’s right. You might look around the world to see, but the lights are few and far between.
The innards of prisons tell only part of the story. Convicts can tell a bit more, but only a bit. On the other side of prison is polite society, where the good people are. If prisons contain the negation of polite society, then perhaps the contradictions and hypocrisy of safe and certain polite society complete the circle of understanding.
What is Prison?
In England and Wales prisons provide the joy of a death a day, a suicide every three. Half of the ‘scum’ inside self-harm, and a third have learning disabilities. 68% of them didn’t have a job before going in to prison. A quarter were in care as children. 57% of have the literacy skills of an 11 year-old. 75% of them are white. 90-odd percent are men. They are privileged.
But we know what the cool kids think. Prison is a kind of American thing that’s Green Mile, privatised, Boss Hogg and slavery ad infinitum. It’s bad there but good here. England is different.
My documentary about prisons, Injustice, shines a light on the function of prisons. They are warehouses of the working class, containers of capitalism’s offcuts. They are dumping grounds for social problems that nobody wants to deal with. They are modern day torture chambers where the poor are sent to be corrected.
It’s ironic, or maybe painful, that we live in a historical moment of such confusion, yet this murkiest of areas seems to be one people are most sure of. Heraclitus’s enantiodromia, the idea that things turn into their opposite, is truncated behind the prison bars that assure the public that convicts are and will remain The Other. The prison ensures those on the outside, those without convictions, that they will remain clean, safe and uninfected.
Between Good and Evil?
Yet the advanced minds of educated people tell us they have moved beyond binary thinking. There is no gender binary, no race binary, and class was squeezed out of analytical existence under the pressure of – ironically, or painfully – the middle class.
For all the cool Nietzschean foundations of postmodern rhetoric, the movement beyond good and evil is selective. It is certain beyond reasonable doubt, under preferable circumstances, that evil haunts the core of our collective being. Some consider multiculturalism to be the root of evil, others racism. For one it is the murderer, for another it is the solider.
Newspapers that are so indignantly condemned in disbelief by their audiences remind people daily of the selected evil Others. This or that evil has long been the marketing tool that sells papers and stokes political movements. On the left is the banker, on the right is the working class thug. In the middle is the rapist.
Egged on by their conductors, the indignant masses scurry around the social media they constantly threaten to abandon because of all the bullshit on it, to amplify their alarm. Whether a person is found guilty by a judicial court or the court of public opinion, there is money to be made and careers to be launched in conducting the basic hysteria of public opinion into the preferred channel of outrage.
Throughout this process, the evil of the supposed perpetrator serves to bolster the innocent righteousness of the condemners.
The cartoonish binaries fed to the public construct absolute certainty as to who is the victim and who is the perpetrator, and then solidifies the definition. The person who murdered becomes a murderer, the person who raped becomes the rapist, and the person who stole becomes the thief.
The media absolutely sustains the process of becoming, but the absolutism is selective. To highlight this selective absolutism, Injustice utilises a scene from Deirdre O’Neill’s film Who am I?, which she made with serving prisoners. In that film a young black man – one of the prisoners – turns to the camera and asks: ‘Just because I have killed, does that make me a murderer?’ The film makers then cut to footage of a US gunship flying over Iraq leaving the questioning hanging in the air.
Of course public opinion suggests a positive answer: You’re a murder, and have been deemed so by the courts, and they are absolutely certain, apart from in the few celebrated cases whether they are not.
Selective Prejudice and the End of Justice
But are courts that perfect? The cool kids know they’re not in the US, but here, British justice is surely the standard bearer for righteousness. However, as Penelope Gibbs explains in the film, ‘it is easy to be found guilty’ here. We know the cases of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, and Suzanne Holdsworth, wrongly convicted for murdering a child who more likely died of an epileptic seizure.
But justice has been politicised for a long time. As O’Neill explains in the film, as part of his agenda to be ‘tough on crime’ and get the press on side, Tony Blair introduced 3000 new legal offences in the first ten years of his premiership. But it’s not just criminalisation, it is also the creep of prejudice that might lead us to question certainties.
Gangs, yobs, ‘hoddies’, and Chavs are intermittently targeted by new laws to satisfy the public need to sanitise. After all, this is the green and pleasant land of England, where the legal doctrine of Joint Enterprise is used to imprison people for murders that nobody has even accused them of. In such cases, as long as someone is punished, that’ll do. Of course, well over a third of those imprisoned under Joint Enterprise are young black men, who are evidently only 50% privileged. I can’t find a case where it has been applied to bankers.
Such is the social pressure to politicise law, it seems justice can only be done through prejudice. The devastating mantra of ‘believe the victim’ has been institutionalised.
The two components of the phrase couldn’t be more prejudicial. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, to ‘believe’ is a belief that something is true ‘especially without proof.’ More to the point, if one is cast as a ‘victim’, then all else follows logically. The facts of the matter are proven pre-judice.
So infectious is this absolutism it has filtered from politicised pro-prejudice campaigns, via MPs, and into police forces and Crown Prosecution Service. In researching the film, I heard one anecdote after another about what is properly called a ‘complainant’ being referred to in court as a ‘victim’.
But these were not mere anecdotes – prejudicial terminology has been forced upon investigators: as the CEO of the College of Policing makes clear: ‘Existing guidelines say that when an allegation is received, police should believe this account’. Responding to concerns about prejudice the recently established Victim’s Commissioner suggested just a month ago that ‘referring to victims of crime as a “complainant” would be a great step backwards.’
It seems not to matter to those in the light that reality can be grey and complex, for such nuance is necessarily excluded from court. You see, you can’t be ‘more or less guilty’, and you can’t be ‘guilty, but’… You are absolutely guilty, although you can be more or less innocent. For those deemed guilty, Heraclitus’s becoming stops right there. The ontology of the convicted soul never changes.
At the rotten heart of the legal system is that same binary that exists everywhere, from the sanctimonious leftist puritan to the far right nationalist. You’re good or bad, guilty or innocent. And the guilty go to prison, because that’s what happens.
‘That’s what happens’ is The Reason given for prisons. Its purpose is as solid as the walls that hide its functioning.
Yet when making the documentary film, Injustice, I kept asking participants and interested parties: What’s the point of the prison? I asked prisoners, campaigners, academics, prison governors, prison inspectors. Their hesitancy was instructive. It occurs to me that the prison itself is a prisoner of circumstance and little more.
Prisons contain a problem, compress it, and then let it spring out afterwards. The consequence is that around 50% of short term prisoners reoffend within a year. And those are just those who are caught. As David Scott explains in the film, it doesn’t work on any register.
However, prisons function well to strip humanity from the human before dumping out what’s left – the ghosts who walk among you. If they’re lucky, their spectral families drift alongside them, floating through unsuspecting citizens.
Even those, like me, who were inside out exist no more. Convicts are ghosts, but are those ghosts things in themselves or real shadows of former selves? Even Plato roasting marshmallows on his fire would look at us confused had his boss not succumbed to the witch-hunters. The stigma of conviction, and the lack of effective rehabilitation ensures most ghosts are ghosts forever.
Now most prisoners have of course offended, and some have done really bad things. Complexity and nuance don’t necessitate the denial of right and wrong. But binary prejudice has reached fever pitch these days. Dead gangsters roll in their graves, for offence isn’t what it used to be: ours is a world where offence is taken rather than given.
The amount of unknown crime has spiralled to a level we’ve not seen since Escape from L.A., and there are the statistics to prove it. Crimes we don’t know about are so bad that even flawed courts are unnecessary as prejudice ensures the accused are branded and ostracised absolutely.
It seems the ire of contemporary puritans and their preachers will be quelled only by the next wave of criminalisation. Dichotomous baselines drop and spaces will be made safe by the next purge. Washed clean of politics, ‘prison’ cannot be spelled g-u-l-a-g, although the words look similar.
The media demands society is cleansed, as it does. As so the pressure is on. One wonders whether we’ll witness anything as spectacular as Tony Blair’s criminalisation spree, but something must be done to protect the pure and wash away the badness that so extrinsic to the existence of the good.
With the scruples of the indignant tickled herein, we can assume the answer. Release the poor, the blacks, the addicts, the homeless, the unemployed, the children, the women and the mentally ill. All we really need is the bad people to go to prison and the good to be free.
Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish London: Pantheon