December 06 2023
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Disappearing within the system

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.’