Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Not a place for rehabilitation, but for punishment

PRISON / The harrowing plight of over three thousand IPP prisoners in England and Wales who remain in jail indefinitely despite completing their sentences years ago.
Director: Martin Read
Producer: Bushido Films
Country: UK

In 1975, the philosopher Michel Foucault published Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, where he addresses the social, economic and political mechanisms of prisons and their new subject created by modernity: the prisoners.

Unlike medieval punishments like hanging or dismembering, the very target of punitive punishment is not only the physical body, in the form of taking away someone’s freedom, but to attack the soul itself.

Even though Foucault didn’t mean it that way, it’s ironic to see how many law enforcers seem to have found a step-by-step recipe in this book for the most insidious ways to break a human spirit.

Unlike medieval punishments like hanging or dismembering, the very target of punitive punishment is…to attack the soul itself.


This idea of punishment goes beyond judging someone’s delictive actions and sentencing them as people. The «delinquents» don’t expire; they will be cast not by what they have done but by what they can and will be.

Imprisonment for Public Protection sentences reflects that policy. Through the honest and sensible testimonies of both prisoners and their families, the documentary Britain’s Forgotten Prisoners exposes a sad truth: justice is not for the unprivileged.

Created in 2005 and abolished in 2012 without retroactive measures, IPP sentences were made to «protect the public» from potential re-offenders. Those with this kind of sentence had to perform their mandatory time or «tariff» in prison and, once released, be subjected to a 99-year parole!

Britain's Forgotten Prisoners Martin Read
Britain’s Forgotten Prisoners, a film by Martin Read

No end in sight

Instead of preventing crime or rehabilitating offenders, thousands of poor, marginalised and/or racialised men and women, young and not so young anymore, have served decades, having their lives destroyed, locked up for crimes which sentences were supposed to be as short and four and a half months. If they manage to get released a titanic task considering the number of rejections and long bureaucratic waiting lists- they would still have to fear every day for their freedom since things as small as a parking ticket could send them back to a spiral of indefinite time in prison again.

Being left to rot in a prison with inhumane living conditions can break any spirit. It’s not only about the sanitary conditions but also about hope. As the film portrays with great ability, it’s easy for both prisoners as well as experts and activists to see that not seeing an end to their suffering is not a way of life. It’s not humane in any way, and I would say that is unsustainable in any democracy.

Imprisonment is not an individual phenomenon. It’s not about a few lives but their families, their children, and their friends, and it’s also about society and the values of the State that allow it to happen.

Being left to rot in a prison with inhumane living conditions can break any spirit.

Not the exception

Great Britain is, of course, not the exception. Their stories reminded me of so many in Mexico: Indigenous women who are serving time in prison cause they still haven’t found an interpreter for them, thieves who «wait» in prison while a lawyer looks at their case cause they can’t afford bail. In Denmark, Syrian refugees face similar conditions when their only crime is escaping the war. The true horror does not rely on where it’s done, but that it’s still happening today.

And it’s not a surprise that women, many mothers and families of these prisoners are taking the lead in fighting against this horrible injustice. Shirley, the mother of Shaun, who not only was locked up at 18 for almost two decades on a minor crime, but was sent back to prison for using the same drugs that the prison caused him to become addicted to, is the perfect example of everything that’s wrong with IPP sentences, and everything that is right to do for the people you love.

Shirley and many others have not only given sustenance to the spirits of thousands of prisoners but have also made their voices heard loud and clear: We need to right this wrong, and we won’t stop until it’s done. This film is one of their tools, with the potential to change lives.

As a viewer, I can only express my solidarity and sympathy for those who carry on with this fight. I hope they know that many others like them are facing the same struggle worldwide. As a writer, I highly recommend feeling the rage of injustice by watching this documentary, hoping to spread the word that will end the punishment so the long path of rehabilitation, compensation and reparation can finally begin.

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