How Being Falsely Imprisoned Affects You for the Rest of Your Life
Miscarriages of justice continue to take their toll on the mental health of prisoners after their release.
"They treat you differently in prison when you're protesting your innocence. I remember a probation officer telling me, 'With an attitude like that, O'Brien, you'll never get out.'"
Like many prisoners who are wrongfully convicted, Michael O'Brien's 11 years and 43 days of incarceration would alter his life in ways that would have been unimaginable before his arrest. Due to unreliable testimony later shown to be fabricated, the then-18-year-old painter and decorator found himself convicted of murder, receiving a life sentence that tore him away from his young family in South Wales.
"Whether you're innocent or guilty, if you go into prison having never been in before, I don't believe you can come out unscathed or undamaged," he says. "Before I was imprisoned I was a goody two-shoes – I'd never even drunk or smoked – but it changed me as a person. Prison changed my personality completely; I even started taking drugs in there."
It wasn't only the trauma of his conviction that affected Michael's mental health, but his experiences inside. During his time serving at HM Prison Long Lartin, seven men were killed, including one man who died in front of his eyes – a moment he continues to relive in flashbacks.
"You have to have your wits about you when you're in prison, because there are some dangerous people in there. Even saying 'good morning' to somebody could get you killed," says Michael. "When you see things like that – and witness the violence of people being stabbed and smashed over the head with objects like sauce bottles – it has an effect on you. When it gets to the sixth or seventh time you begin to get hardened to it. You think it doesn't affect you at the time; it's not until you come out that you realise it's not normal to see things like that."
Initially diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) while incarcerated, like many inmates who suffer from mental health issues, Michael feels the prison system failed to provide the right support for him. Even after clearing his name and being released on appeal in 2002, little was done to help him transition into life on the outside.
"I struggled to do even simple things like shaving when I came out because the depression was so bad," he says. "When I came out I was very paranoid and I thought people were out to get me – it was like everybody was staring at me. For the first six months after I was released from prison I tried to work with other people in similar circumstances to me to secure their release, but I ended up in hospital because I was having a nervous breakdown."
Michael continues to suffer from the effects of PTSD and will have to take medication for the rest of his life – but his case is not unique.
The issue of mental health care in British prisons remains a contentious one, not least because it raises the ever-existential question of if the justice system's role is to rehabilitate or penalise. How, after all, can a system designed to punish inmates and separate them from their natural support networks have the simultaneous aim of protecting their mental wellbeing?
Like Michael, Robert Brown was a working-class teenager convicted of a murder he did not commit. Serving 25 years from 1977 before his conviction was quashed, he continues to suffer from the mental effects of his imprisonment.
"They arrested me on suspicion of the crime, kept me in a cell for a week, beat me up and assaulted me, then fabricated evidence against me," says Robert. "It's not just the fact that you're falsely convicted of the crime – that just intensifies everything – there's the distress of being incarcerated; prison induces paranoia. It's a violent place and you're around people you don't know, many of whom have committed crimes.
"But there's innocent people I did time with who are still in prison. You look at how long it took to get justice over something like Hillsborough, for example, and it seems to me there's institutionalised injustice. There's corruption from the bottom to the top. It's hard to believe how bad it is until it actually happens to you."
Robert now receives support from the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation (MOJO), the only organisation in Britain providing aftercare to victims of wrongful convictions, alongside legal advice to prisoners fighting to overturn their imprisonment. The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) receives 130 applications a month from prisoners claiming innocence, and MOJO has received as many requests for support so far this year as it did throughout the whole of 2015.
But to those responsible within the criminal justice system, and to much of the public at large, miscarriages of justice are simply blips in a system that mostly delivers what it is designed to deliver. Watching a true crime documentary, we are happy to believe in America's judicial failures, but we retain faith in the British police and justice system. Time and time again, Robert finds that people assume his guilt in spite of his conviction being quashed. The effects of his imprisonment have left him unable to function in society and to earn a living.
"I've got no money," he says. "I'm broke and struggling through life because I cannot function in the right manner. You don't trust anybody ever again. The whole system let me down and it makes you frightened to trust. You become dysfunctional."
Far from being blips in the system, those on the frontline fighting miscarriages feel that the number of wrongful convictions are on the rise. This is due in part to the withdrawal of legal aid and because juries place too much trust in circumstantial evidence presented by the police.
Applications for appeal by serving prisoners are often rejected on technicalities, and changes to the law have also made it more difficult for victims of miscarriages of justice to claim compensation.
To Paul Mclaughlin, MOJO's co-project manager, who sees the day-to-day effects of a miscarriage of justice on its victim's mental health, the criminal justice system is failing to deliver justice.
"Every person I've dealt with who has had their conviction quashed has suffered severe mental health problems. Often they have experienced trauma, and there are instances of alcoholism and drug dependancy," he says. "It happens every day that ordinary people can't get represented properly, and if they are the victim of an injustice they can't have their position adequately examined – almost always because of a lack of financial support."
However, preventing miscarriages of justice and the potential mental health effects on their victims is not just a question of reforming the judicial system as a whole, but a change in public attitudes towards those wrongfully convicted.
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