Considering all the prisons I have visited supporting JENGbA’s Inside Campaigners, it is surprising that this was the first time I have been to a Youth Offending Institute. It has been something on JENGbA agenda (getting our message into the YOI’s) for some time, as we do not have many YOI’S on our database. Since it is clearly the most easily identifiable target group for police and prosecutors, this begs several questions. Young people naturally hang around in groups; groups not gangs, and it is this demographic that joint enterprise exploits. Yet these same young people often don’t understand why they have been convicted of serious offences when they have not committed them, many may have lost family support so they do not know about a campaign such as JENGbAs.
Yesterday I drove with the parents of Joseph to Lichfield in Staffordshire where their son has been for the last two years. He was convicted aged 15years old and spent the first two years in HMP & YOI Wetherby which his family said was a nightmare for them and his friends to get to. Joe is a young man who definitely believes in our campaign. He was sitting in the visitors’ room proudly displaying our latest newsletter which had his rap printed on the front page. I didn’t expect the emotional wave that hit me when I sat down, Joe is a really handsome mixed race young man now 20 years old with a smile to die for, and even though he is in the worst of places, positivity and intelligence exuded from him.
I asked him how many other JE cases were in Swinfen Hall and he said lots but as we suspected many had given up hope in any future and did not know how a campaign could help them. Joe does. He is very proud to be JENGbA and he was very proud that his mum took part in the BBC documentary ‘Guilty by Association’. His mother was indeed very nervous about taking part as she is naturally very reserved. It was Joe who convinced her to do so and her contribution meant that the next day officers on Joe’s wing told him they felt very uncomfortable about his imprisonment and finally had an idea what joint enterprise was all about.
So what happened resulting in Joe serving a Life sentence? He and a group of friends, some who were known to the police as troublemakers, though not Joe, went to a park in Sydenham to have a ‘beef’ with another group of boys from a different area. This has happened since time immemorial there is no point in trying to pretend it will ever end if young boys do not have anywhere to go that can keep them occupied, like decent amenities such as youth centres. Joe and Edward Conteh were chased by this group of boys, some of whom were carrying weapons to the far side of the park. One of them threw a knife at Joe which missed him but Joe picked it up. Edward and Joe immediately ran away down the street and got on a bus that others who had been involved in another fight 200 yards away were also on. This was entirely coincidental but Joe’s dad believes that if he had not run that way he too could have been a victim. Sadly on the other side of the park an entirely innocent boy was stabbed.
Joe did not witness this attack let alone participate in it, nor did he have any kind of weapon except the knife that he had picked up and thrown away. Twenty boys were originally arrested one of them was simply on the bus but had not been in the park. This boy was a friend of Joes, but he gave a statement describing Joe witnessing the fatal stabbing including details that neither he nor Joe could have known about because neither were there. Charges against this boy were dropped. We see this often in joint enterprise charging, the police will threatened weak witnesses with the most serious charge of joint enterprise murder if they don’t turn Queen’s evidence and corroborate their version of events.
Once again the foreman of the Jury was a police officer, once again the boy that did the murder pleaded guilty, the deceased was stabbed once by this boy, but still others were brought in including Joe who was convicted of murder and Edward who was convicted of manslaughter. Edward is now in a detention centre in Dover where they are trying to extradite him back to Belgium where he knows no- one, his mum and sisters are in London desperately trying to get him home with them. Another boy in the case has already been extradited to France Joe told me.
Joe does not believe he had a fair trial and some of the details he told me assured me that he didn’t. These were children, whose trial was held in the Old Bailey, who were all BEM and labelled a gang, which they weren’t. Yes there was a very tragic murder and they boy who did that is serving a Life sentence for it but how can boys running away from an armed group be charged with that murder when they are 200 yards away?
Joe is a very talented rapper and singer and at mum’s insistence he sang one of his songs for me. It was spellbinding – he literally has the voice of an angel. Joe insisted on showing me the difference of the poem on our newsletter when it is rapped; with Joe’s cadence it became alive. The JENGbA campaigners who are now keen activists and marchers have been saying for some time that we need a campaign song, Joe has agreed to write one. Joe is really quite an amazing and lovely young man full of many talents none of which include being a murderer.
The visit was drawing to an end and a young man from the service hatch came to our table and Joe introduce Jeffrey as another joint enterprise case. I asked him what was his tariff and he replied sadly 19 years. I asked him why he had not contacted us and he said he didn’t know how to so Joe’s dad got a pen and paper from the prison officers and I took his name and number. How many more YOI’s don’t know how to contact us? We are now supporting nearly 550 prisoners and if they all did I am sure that number will run into the thousands. JENGbA did expect a high volume of prisoners contacting us after Jimmy McGovern’s film ‘Common’ was shown in July, followed by the documentary ‘Guilty by Association’ the following night, and then a feature on Newsnight the next. But Joe told me something very illuminating; on the wings A,B and C at HMP & YOI Swinfen Hall where the youngest prisoners are held, something happened to their television reception that week and none of them saw any of those programmes. If they could do that at HMP Swinfen Hall how many other YOI’s did that also happen in? These children are a very valuable commodity to the Prison System, especially if they are Lifers, clearly some prison profiteerswouldn’t want to upset that apple cart would they?
JENGbA sent a letter to every YOI pastoral team (50 plus) asking them to let young people know about our campaign if they were wrongfully convicted using joint enterprise. To date we have had one response. If even those whose mission in life is to help the most vulnerable are unable to help us, where do we go to get help for these children who are the most helpless?
Campaign Co-ordinator JENGbA