The sixty five minute film is an unrefined collection of personal accounts alongside dialogue and perspectives from academics and ex-employees from the Prison Service and its serving agencies. I have no doubt that the accounts featured in the documentary are valid and genuine however, the final product needs to be seen and understood for exactly what it is; not a contracted, refined piece of academic research, but a selection of raw truisms delivered through direct contact with persons known to the director and the production team. If taken as just that, you will appreciate the importance and significance of this piece.
Perceptions, stigma and labelling are discussed by a number of individuals and professionals appearing in the documentary. A representation of the unrepentant career criminal is illustrated through examples of politician’s speeches and sensationalised media accounts. However, the most poignant observation was delivered in relation to the perceived cognitive processes purported as rationale for the criminal act. This made me question the assumptions within theories of rational action and wonder if, and to what extent, we can understand crime as a rational choice. Our very own research associate, Penelope Gibbs (Director and founder of Transform Justice), explained how the social background of offenders contrasts with the backgrounds of those who judge them. In considering the social disparities between the condemned and the condemner Dr David Scott said that a child in the care system has only a one in ten chance of going to university, but a one in two chance of going to prison, which clearly illustrates the effects of social and economic deprivation on minors.
In the course of the documentary, many fallacies about the deviant and deviant behaviour are discussed and interpreted through personal dialogues and academic retort. Prisons as a structural apparatus are considered in relation to effects on both the individual and their families. One of the detrimental effects of imprisonment which is discussed in the documentary is the fragmentation of bonds with friends, family and, in particular, community, which is described as a formidable problem. This leads to the question of the effectivity of punishment and the subsequent inefficacy of prisoner rehabilitation. It is then argued that the criminal justice system contributes to the perpetuation of this cycle, which is exemplified through the exceptionally high rates of recidivism.
The documentary continues with an emotional interview with Charlotte Henry. Charlotte is the sister of Alex Henry who was convicted for murder under Joint Enterprise in 2014. Whilst the audience watch a small section of the captured CCTV footage, Charlotte describes the unfortunate events which led to her brother’s conviction. This dialogue paired with the visual reinforcement of the footage of the altercation brought the audience to a silence. This emotional account of the event and its devastating effect on all involved is a first-hand, heart breaking explanation of twenty one year old Alex Henry’s journey, from a person, to a prisoner. The realisation that this was not fiction or a dramatization bequeathed a stillness of unease amongst us all at the screening.
As academics, it is sometimes difficult to gain access to such unique and insightful perspectives. The confinements defined by the pursuit of, ‘legitimate research’ are so rigorous, that much relevant and significant information can be etched out of the picture. This sentiment initiated my desire to get the documentary shown to students at the University of Oxford. I wanted these personal accounts to be articulated from a legitimate platform with the objective of expanding our conceptual horizons and tangible knowledge. The screening was met with enthusiasm and excitement which roused a post screening wave of questions, observation and gratitude from the audience.
In concluding this blog, ‘Injustice’ the independent documentary is an emotionally charged and incredibly insightful journey. The narratives which centred around prisons and their effects on the individual, their families, and society as a whole, are both revealing and shocking. The voices of prisoners and prison employees are all too frequently missing from debates, and consequently do not get heard. If academic theory is contrasted against such authentic accounts and observations; I believe that future criminologists can only benefit from the view through the lens of the hidden realities reflected in this film.
Feleena Mason is an MSc student in the Centre for Criminology.