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November 17, 2017

Video links make court into “another virtual experience” – a prisoner speaks

This week is a guest “blog” from a serving prisoner who wrote to me about his experience of video hearings having seen a Guardian article about our report “Defendants on video – conveyor belt justice or a revolution in access”. He is serving a sentence for a non-violent offence:

“I am not arguing either against my conviction or punishment, but the way I was convicted and the severity of my sentence were both influenced by the use of video technology.

My first court appearance was via a video link from a police station. I was in shock. I did have a duty solicitor but she was not with me. I knew nothing of “the system” as this was my only offence. I was in one room, the magistrate in one small box on the screen, my solicitor in another. The images were OK but tiny, the sound quality poor and we all waited for one another to speak or tried to do so at the same time.  The magistrate kept taking advice from a person I couldn’t see, and necessary documents were not available. The whole process was both frustrating and surreal. The outcome was that I was remanded to appear in a couple of weeks.

The second appearance took place without me – I never discovered why! The third appearance was again via video link before which I had 15 minutes to speak to my barrister who I’d never met before. The judge then offered for the next “proper” appearance to be via video link. I believe her intention was to benefit me as she’d been told that many prisoners prefer a video link.

As I was offered the choice, I opted for a personal appearance at which I pleaded guilty. This was not at all a pleasant experience, and it would certainly have been less stressful for me to have simply had 30 minutes out of my cell for a video appearance in a prison room, rather than all day in a court cell for a 20 minute appearance in a real court. Hearing the prosecution listing his understanding of my thoughts and actions, and the judge reiterating them and then condemning me, had an effect no video link would ever have had. From even my brief experience of video links it was clear that I could have convinced myself that this was all merely another virtual experience.  It was the real court experience that made me face up to my crime.

My assessment of the virtual court process is that the only people who could benefit are the truly hardened criminals who know the score, have little respect for the system and just want to get the whole thing over and done with. I doubt there are many who really fit this stereotype”.

The prisoner has also been forced to communicate with probation on video link.

“It is hard enough to talk about having committed a crime, but when technical inefficiencies and the difficulty trying to establish some sort of rapport with a complete stranger many miles away are added, the whole process becomes almost impossible.  Once I had pleaded guilty I was remanded for a pre-sentence report. This again took place over a video link. Naturally I was anxious and had no idea what was expected of me, or of the role of the probation officer.  I was in a small room, much like a cell. The probation officer was in a similar room which sounded as if it was in the middle of a building site, with mechanical drills and hammers. Whether it was this noise, a delay in the audio feed, or the lack of clear visual cues, I found myself not knowing when to speak, interrupting her questions and rushing to fit in answers in any available gap. I’m sure I came across as an out of touch, incoherent person. That session was cut short when the officer said my time was up. As a result of this premature end, another session took place but this was a disastrous repeat of the first.

I feel the whole video process introduced a disconnect between me and the probation officer.  It made it impossible for me to see her as a real person.  One indication of her failure to understand my attitude towards my crime, was that in her report she said I was “in denial”. This despite the fact that on arrest I’d admitted everything, given a full and open life history and, of course, pleaded guilty.  As a result of this pre-sentence report, produced only from video interview, I was given a much harsher sentence than predicted by my legal team.

Since being sentenced eight months ago I have spoken to my appointed probation officer only once, again by video link. For this one interview I arrived late because of “operational reasons” within the prison, and again the link was ended before she could begin to know me – I certainly don’t know her.  I understand that it is a foundation of the probation service to “aim to reduce offending by establishing positive relationships with offenders...” I do not see how this can ever be achieved by using a video link with someone you have never met. I fear that the sentence plan my probation officer is producing, my time in prison, and my future on licence and thereafter will be determined by the flawed view she has of me as a result of relying on video technology”.

I’m really saddened by this testimony. This prisoner’s experience of the criminal justice system has been mediated by video, through no choice of his own. Who knows how typical his experience is. At no point since 2000 have defendants/prisoners been asked their views on video links.  To say prisoners prefer them because they are more convenient patronises prisoners (who wouldn’t “prefer” not to travel for hours in a disgusting van) and denies the importance of effective participation. Until we know through research how video links really effect participation, we should pause any programme to increase their use. Trust in our justice system is too fragile to risk damaging further.