Blog: The Centre celebrates hugely successful "Surviving Injustice" retreat for the families of the wrongfully convicted

by Susan Evans

I am a volunteer at the Centre for Criminal Appeals and started with them just as they began thinking about planning Surviving Injustice – an event for the family members of the Centre’s clients. Last weekend, 10-12th August 2018, it finally happened and the Centre for Criminal Appeals gave family members, exonerees and recently released victims fighting miscarriages of justice an opportunity to come together to share their experiences. 

Susan - Centre Volunteer

Susan - Centre Volunteer

When I began volunteering, my first task was to reach out to their clients who were incarcerated to gage their response to the idea and to enquire whether they would like their family to attend. This was a very moving experience for me as the response letters came back. It was amazing having communication with people I did not know personally and was unlikely to meet anytime soon, who were replying gracefully and helpfully to support an event they could not attend - there were no “and what about me?”retorts. They understood immediately the value of what we were hoping to achieve.  

What I had picked up through the months of helping to organise the weekend was the mixture of emotions from the individuals I spoke with. Excitement, apprehension, fear, nervousness, ambivalence and uncertainty, were only some of the feelings flying around. On the first night, when we joined together in the Old Hall at Mansfield College, Oxford, all these feelings were etched across different attendees faces – as well as on those of the Centre’s staff and volunteers.

During that first evening, helped by the amazing facilitators Katharine Yates and Petra Hilgers (and the wonderful food!!) the group started to relax and very bravely vocalised their concerns and fears about not knowing what to expect. 

The weekend schedule of talks, discussions and events was absorbing, and the group – including the children - were well occupied and engaged. From hearing Mike O’Brien discuss his harrowing if ultimately inspiring fight for exoneration for a murder he didn’t commit, to the fire and passion of Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and Gloria Morrison from the Campaign against Joint Enterprise (JENGbA), the families learnt that they are not alone, and that there is always something they can do to fight back against a system that ignores them. Over the course of the weekend they mingled increasingly and noticeably became more united as they learnt about each other’s experiences and what they were going through. The victims and families of the wrongfully convicted are such a marginalised group and are so obviously in need. 

During the closing sessions on Sunday afternoon there again was a mixture of emotions amongst the group, as they enthusiastically considered the ‘what next’. We discussed how they as a group could arrange another weekend retreat in the future to support each other, and also to incorporate some families that had not been able to make this summer’s event. They also agreed to set up a ‘WhatsApp’ group to stay connected. As ideas about how to fundraise were batted around the room and laughter was ringing out, I reflected how relaxed and enthusiastic most seemed, with facial expressions so different from Friday night – most people glowed. 

However, there was some sadness about also. Some members of the new united team were able to express that they didn’t want the weekend to be over, that they could have stayed for another night or so.

Through the weekend, what was acknowledged, was the poor recognition of what this group of individuals and families are going through and the lack of support out there for them and particularly the lack of emotional therapeutic support around all their experiences. So hardly surprisingly some felt sad to leave a supportive group to feel the reality of not much being available away from this, yet!

Like many others, not surprisingly, I picked up on the rollercoaster of emotions that were around over the weekend but actually, personally, I felt hugely moved and in awe of the people I met these last few days and humbled by how they were coping with their lives.

I give my warmest best wishes to all those I have communicated with from start to end. 

P.S. This was an event we could not have hosted without funding from Lankelly Chase, Lush Ltd and Damon Wright of Big D’s BBQ’s, and the generosity of the Bonavero Institute for Human Rights for donating their wonderful function rooms and Mansfield College for all their support in hosting us. Thank you all for having the vision to see the need for what an important and powerful group we have created.