December 01 2021

Disappearing within the system

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Disappearing within the system

Picture by Alexander Harbich
Picture by Alexander Harbich

Picture by Alexander Harbich


REVIEW: ‘He was a funny old man, my Dad, but he warned me this day would come.’ Loomed over by two policemen in a sparse room somewhere in south London, a young man gives voice to his dawning realisation.

This is the moment every one of our clients has been through. The gut-wrenching horrifying understanding that what is happening to you is very, very real. And the truth is not going to set you free.

This time it was not a client, but ‘Mark’, the protagonist of Evanesce performed last week in a disused police station for an invited audience.

As they arrive, and sip their complementary drinks, the audience finds Mark, his girlfriend and cousin locked in the cells awaiting their interviews. A young girl has gone missing, and the three of them stand accused of conspiring to kidnap and murder her. The audience are wandering around the police station, visiting the prisoners in the cells, when suddenly the police appear to collect the first suspect.

Crowded into the interrogation room, the audience watches, powerless to intervene, as versions of the truth emerge and take on a life of their own. The suspects, defeated by allegations, circumstances and a legal system short on justice, are slowly cornered, with tragic consequences.

Evanesce is the word used inside to describe the way long-term prisoners disappear within the system. As the years pass, they fall further from the minds of those on the outside. The long unchanging days gradually wear away at the character of a person, and wear them down until they are barely recognisable.

This is true of anyone institutionalised for an extended period of time, but particularly poignant for someone imprisoned for a crime they did not commit.

One of our current clients is Roger. He has been convicted of attempted murder, having represented himself in court, despite being severely dyslexic and unable to read the heaps of court papers. Now a few years into a 30 year sentence, this is how he describes his experience:

‘You are ripping yourself to pieces and know you are right and things should be done in one way and it ain’t happening. And then you doubt yourself – it turns your whole life upside down, you get angry and frustrated but you don’t want to fall into that trap, it tears you apart as a person.’

There are around 86,000 people in prison around the UK at the moment. Among them, undoubtedly are some who are not guilty of the crime of which they have been convicted. It is almost impossible to know how many there are, but the letters we receive every day from prisoners and their families confirm to us that they are definitely there.

The Centre for Criminal Appeals’ mission is to bring such cases out of the shadows. Secret Theatre’s is to create great drama with purpose. What our collaboration gave us the chance to do was bring this to life for people who otherwise have no way of knowing what goes on behind the closed doors of interview rooms, courts and prisons. Of how there can be smoke without fire.

Richard Crawford, Secret Theatre’s artistic director, who wrote the original play, was inspired by the stories of innocent people exonerated after long years in prison, both here and in the US. He pulled together a fabulous cast of actors, passionate about raising awareness of the issue; some motivated by the way that the legal system had touched their own lives.

‘Intense and thought-provoking’ were among the responses of the audience, and was exactly what we were trying to achieve. By bringing the experiences of those wronged by the justice system into the light, we hope to create system-wide change that will prevent others from being put through such an ordeal.

After all, as Roger puts it: ‘What really gets to me is one innocent person in prison is too much.’

2 responses to “Disappearing within the system”

  1. Jenny Richards says:

    It’s all very well performing a play about it, but what is anyone actually DOING about the problem of all these wrongfully convicted prisoners? My husband has served six and a half years to date – and that’s no joke at 75 yrs old. Anyone I contact for help gives me the same answer – “sorry, nothing I can do”.

  2. trevor says:

    I was accused of shoplifting while browsing in a lidl supermarket.
    I wasn’t searched in order to prove the accusation was sound
    and instead The person who accused me said that I had been witnessed shoplifting and that was enough to bar me from doing shopping in that store again.
    I left the store feeling totally humiliated and extremely stressed.
    when I went home I phone lidl customer services and told the person what took place minutes before.
    I was told that the matter would be investigated and I would receive a response within 7-10 days.
    the incident occurred on Monday 14th September 2015
    by the 18th of that week I received a letter from Lidl customer services
    informing me that I have been banned from that store and the case will be closed and won’t be investigated any further.
    I finally received a further letter from lidl customer services a few minutes ago in which they say that the ban remains and they will no longer communicate with me any further.
    remember that the initial accusation was that I was shoplifting
    therefore that was the reason I was forced to leave and not be allowed to enter again.
    but my question is how can a accusation of shoplifting be used as reasonable grounds to ban me from entering that store without the proper procedure being followed?
    i.e. I would have to be witnessed taking item(s) and concealing them on my person and attempt to leave the shop without attempting to pay for the item(s)
    I would also need to be stopped by security guards who would ask me to re enter the store and tell me the reason for their actions.
    I would then be obliged to empty my pockets and basically searched for evidence of shoplifting.
    the police would also have to be called and informed about what had taken place.
    none of that happened and if it had happened
    I would have been free to go and perhaps be given a caution if deemed necessary.
    so my question is if a member of staff accused me of shoplifting without following the above procedure
    how then can Lidl management decide to ban me from shopping in their store again?
    they appear to have taken the word of whoever they spoke to as credible while failing to allow me to put forth my case.
    and even when I took my case to my local MP who wrote a letter on my behalf,
    weeks passed before a response was sent but it still didn’t contain a apology and retraction of the charges against me.
    I then took my case to the citizens advice bureau who wrote a letter to Lidl explaining that what they did in terms of accusing me of shoplifting without following the proper procedure etc etc is a crime in itself
    and therefore they have 14 days to respond before further is taken.
    I finally received a response today in which I was told that the ban remains and no more communication about the case will given.
    so I am left with a strong sense of injustice in the sense that I was accused of shoplifting and even though Lidl failed to follow the normal procedure in order to back up their accusation,
    they still think it is right to continue banning me from that store in question.
    and they refuse to let me know exactly what grounds were used to ban me?
    it cannot be on the grounds of shoplifting because the process in such a case as this wasn’t followed.
    therefore the grounds can only be based on suspicion right?
    but is suspicion sufficient grounds to ban me?
    after all suspicion isn’t sound.
    a person can appear to be committing a crime but it does not mean that a crime is being committed right?
    also imagine if every man that enters that store was treated like I
    was on the grounds of suspicion
    Lidl would have a huge case against them along with few customers.
    I feel very hurt and I also feel disillusioned with the justice system in this country.
    how can supermarket staff be allowed to accuse innocent (former customers) of shoplifting without having any credible evidence to back them up?
    also how can it be lawful to make a accusation which hasn’t been proved
    and for the accuser to follow it up by saying that it reserves the right to ban anyone it deems to be action suspiciously or inappropriately?
    doesn’t that make them not only extremely unjust and unfair but also self righteous?
    I’d love to make a so called “play” about the false accusation which was made against me by a Member of staff in the supermarket
    which was used as reasonable grounds to ban me
    despite the fact that the initial “false accusation” was never proved.
    the accusation could never be proved because it is totally groundless and false
    and that is why Lidl have treated me appallingly after years of taking my money week after week.

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