Guilty Until Proven Innocent

“Many thousands have been caught in the system which has become almost as chaotic and repressive as in countries without even the pretence of our Bill of Rights.”

Treatment and conditions inside British prisons for those who have committed no crime – “the imprisonment of people without trial, of innocent people, first offenders, petty offenders and children” – is the subject of Guilty Until Proven Innocent.

John Pilger reports that more than half of the 500,000 people remanded in custody by magistrates each year are eventually found not guilty, fined or, as in the case of “Helen”, given a conditional discharge. Helen, charged with stealing a pair of slippers but with no previous convictions, recalls her day in Holloway Prison, London, which started at 7am when she joined 96 other prisoners in a rush to use four toilets whose conditions were “disgusting”. Between then and lunchtime, all prisoners were locked up, with just half-an-hour’s walk round a large yard for exercise. Lunch was eaten in cells, with tea at 3.30pm, before they were locked up until the following morning.

Other former remand prisoners tell of their health being damaged, the denial of necessary medicines, sharing cells with hardened criminals and finding difficulty in getting work on their release. A solicitor contends that some magistrates seek to “teach people a lesson” but remand prisoners come out of jail with feelings of resentment and bitterness. A judge says some magistrates don’t investigate the details of cases enough and are prepared to let it “all be sorted out later on”.

Pilger also reports on the average of 27 attempted suicides by prisoners at Risley Remand Centre each year – “the final despair of people on remand, who have no one to reassure them of their rights and to whom British justice must seem as remote as their freedom”. 

Guilty Until Proven Innocent (Pilger, ATV), ITV, 26 May 1974

Director: John Ingram; series producer: Charles Denton (29 mins)

With thanks to Anthony Hayward, whose biography of John Pilger is available to buy here.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library