A space without judgement for casualties of our broken justice system
by Abigail Wheatcroft
On a grey and windy Saturday in March, 37 people arrived at the offices of Ropes & Gray law firm in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. They came from all walks of life and corners of the country - from Bedford to Barnsley, by ferry and by tube - and on the face of it, had nothing in common.
Some came as families, with mums, aunties, grandchildren, and siblings. Others came on their own. Some came with their “chosen” family, as the one they were born into had fallen by the wayside. There were nerves and also warm greetings as name tags were handed out and lunch was eaten. At one o’clock they gathered upstairs, and a sleek corporate meeting room overlooking the drizzled streets of the City of London became a sacred, safe space for a few hours.
This was the second meeting of a group of individuals who have come to refer to each other as the “Bound by Injustice family.” They are members of a club no one would ever choose to join: victims of wrongful convictions and their loved ones. The true number of people in this club is unknown - as is the exact figure of prisoners in England and Wales currently wrongly convicted. In fact, many members of the judiciary and the CCRC would not consider their membership to this club to be legitimate. As the criminal convictions that brought them together have not yet been quashed, some would say that they are not victims of a miscarriage of justice.
It is this perpetual gas-lighting and disbelief which compounds their isolation and trauma; it is one thing to be married to a convicted murderer, but another to be married to a convicted murderer who did not commit the crime. Expert psychiatrists have compared the psychological damage of a wrongful conviction to that experienced by war veterans or hostage victims, including severe personality changes and chronic psychological trauma. The loved ones - partners, children, parents, siblings, friends - of those who have been wrongly convicted suffer this in silence without access to formal support services.
Our clients’ families were going through this alone and we knew that we would never fully understand their experience, which is why we created a space for them to come together. Bound by Injustice was inspired by our Managing Director Suzanne’s work supporting the families of the Hillsborough Disaster during the inquests which resulted in justice for the 96 victims. Our first Bound by Injustice (BBI) event in August 2018 far exceeded our expectations and we were humbled by the resilience, strength and compassion of the family members who made the journey to Oxford to be there.
With some unable to attend our inaugural event, and those that did keen to keep up the momentum, our second Bound by Injustice event looked to welcome new members into the fold and decide on the next steps for the group. The first event had been one of the highlights of CCA’s year, and we were anxious that we would not be able to recreate the magic of that weekend a second time.
We need not have worried. The second Bound by Injustice meeting confirmed that this group is not only needed for emotional and practical support, but provides an opportunity to effect real change to our broken criminal justice system. Sessions ranged from a poignant first-person account of wrongful conviction from the journalist and miscarriage of justice survivor Raphael Rowe; a rallying call from BBI member Cookie on campaigning to change the system; and smaller breakout groups on strategic issues for the group - structure, fundraising, campaigning, communications, and emotional wellbeing.
The ideas which emerged from the day were innovative and exciting, and we will be working with the group members over the coming months to develop them into fruition. But it was the conversations throughout the day, and insights into daily life given by the group members which struck me the most.
For the BBI family members, traditional prisoner family support groups are of limited value as they do not account for the complex consequences of a wrongful conviction: Your loved one being unable to progress through a long prison sentence and make parole because they will not admit guilt for a crime they did not commit. The social stigma of being associated with someone in prison for conspiracy to supply drugs or murder. Patronising interactions with those who think you should “accept” the offence your loved one is alleged to have committed, and move on with your life. The guilt and powerlessness of not being able to prove your loved one’s innocence quickly enough before they miss yet another birthday, Christmas, or death in the family. There are no formal support services or spaces which acknowledge these realities.
The family members spoke of isolation and hostility from their local communities. One BBI member could barely speak through tears as she recalled withdrawing behind the curtains and not leaving the house for months after her son was convicted, as she was cast out from the small village they had lived in their entire lives. Another recounted a stranger rolling down the window of a passing car and shouting at her young daughter after her dad was imprisoned.
“Safe spaces” have been mocked in recent times; seen by some as a byproduct of the inability of liberal “snowflakes” to have open discussion without being “triggered.” Yet for those who are dealing with the double consciousness of being both a loved one of a prisoner, and the loved one of a miscarriage of justice victim, safe spaces are crucial.
BBI members were united in their appreciation of a space where people “spoke their language.”
Bound by Injustice is a space for these people to share the daily trials of loving someone who has been wrongly convicted - with understanding, compassion, and humour. Partners spoke of maintaining their relationships by making a special effort to mark anniversaries, and speaking on the phone last thing at night. Parents shared tips on how to explain wrongful convictions to younger children, and how to ensure that imprisoned mums and dads have an active role in parenting. Members discussed their experience in the workplace - for many, work was a blessed interlude in their lives where they did not have to share or be defined by their ordeal.
BBI members told me at the meeting that they felt immediately understood, not judged, and able to finally relax - freeing themselves from the performances and masks needed to survive day to day life. As one member eloquently put it, “I have a community of people I barely know but I trust.”
The second Bound by Injustice event on 16 March 2019 would not have been possible if not for the generous donations of Lankelly Chase, Damon Wright, and LUSH, enabling travel and accommodation of BBI members from across the UK.
Ropes & Gray’s in-kind support was instrumental in making the event a success. The practical and logistical support provided by Ropes & Gray and in particular Fiona Folkson and Keighley Arbour, ensured we were fully present to provide emotional support to the BBI members. Ropes & Gray provided not only a venue, but staff, catering, printing and IT facilities throughout the day.