Michael Inside – Review
Jenny Finlay, Katrina Mendham & Andrea Pownall
Research Assistants, Maynooth University Department of Law
Michael Inside is an eye-opening, stripped back drama that excellently portrays the ripple effects of drug criminalisation and the futility of incarceration. Inspired by the lived experiences of former prisoners involved in the Pathways Centre, a post-release educational initiative in Dublin, Director Frank Berry focuses on the impact of crime and criminal justice on Ireland’s young people and their families. This award-winning film follows young Michael McCrae’s (Dafhyd Flynn) journey through the harsh reality of the criminal justice process after he is arrested for a minor drug offence. Struggling to stay away from criminal influences, he spirals down a rocky, recidivistic road. While fictitious, the narrative of Michael Inside, including the prioritisation of punitive over restorative responses, closely reflects how many people experience criminal justice today.
Michael lives in a disadvantaged community in Dublin with his grandfather, as his father is in prison and his mother died of a drug overdose. The strong grip of drug crime on the community becomes abundantly clear after he is arrested for holding a bag of cocaine for his friend’s older brother. There is little evidence of investment either in preventative interventions, or in diversion programmes that could have addressed the incident outside of court and identified the unmet needs of those involved.
Following Michael’s arrest, the film depicts the court process. Michael plays only a passive role, as criminal justice professionals speak across him, discussing him and his future, as though he is not there. Judicial discretion permits the judge to sentence in accordance with her attitudes towards the offence: she considers it her “duty” to impose a three-month custodial sentence. However, this “duty” does not arise from law, as there is no mandatory minimum sentence for Michael’s offence. The reasoning instead comes from a deeply ingrained punitive philosophy that creates a revolving door of young men being imprisoned for minor drug offences. The judge describes Michael as a “minor but essential cog in a well-oiled machine”, acknowledging that his culpability and the harm caused by his specific offence were low. Yet, she still penalises him for what she sees as the overall impact of the drug trade on society.
Research indicates that prosecuting low-level offences increases the likelihood of reoffending, and that short-term prison sentences do not reduce reoffending more than community alternatives. In fact, several alternatives to imprisonment are available in Ireland. Restorative justice could have been used either at the pre-sentencing stage, or alongside probation supervision. This would have permitted Michael and his family to participate in an assessment of Michael’s individual strengths and needs, and in determining how to repair the harm done and prevent it from happening again. In Dublin, drug offences (which tend not to have clear victims, preventing the use of traditional mediation) may be referred pre-sentence to the NGO Restorative Justice Services (RJS). RJS assign a caseworker to clients, who prepares them for the Offender Reparation Panel (ORP): two meetings with a group of restorative justice-trained volunteers and criminal justice professionals who take the clients through a restorative conversation and identify actions that aim to repair and prevent harm. If Michael successfully completed a programme such as this, the judge could have used their discretion to take his progress into account in sentencing, even leaving him without a criminal record if deemed appropriate. RJS4C has published case studies that illustrate the use of ORPs with drug offences, which you can find on this website.
Unfortunately, Michael is not afforded the opportunity to participate in restorative justice, and is sent to prison for his offence. Community feuds extend into the prison, where there is cause for concern as animosity spreads between rival groups. Michael’s fears about entering prison become a reality when another inmate attacks him without provocation, illustrating the vulnerability of people in custody to violence. He is encouraged to retaliate and fight back to prevent further intimidation. This is the turning point where Michael succumbs to the hypermasculine prison environment, becoming a perpetrator of violence, as well as a victim. These events represent another missed opportunity for a restorative justice intervention: as the case studies from Wheatfield, the Dóchas and Castlerea indicate, prisons can implement restorative practices and mediation to resolve disputes peacefully within a prison environment, or as part of prison disciplinary processes. The film also highlights the reduction in support for vulnerable young men when they turn eighteen. If Michael had been seventeen, his chances of being incarcerated would have been much lower, and the overall justice response may have been somewhat more supportive and welfare-oriented. In the adult prison, he is shown to be extremely vulnerable to institutionalisation, with little evidence of constructive or reintegrative interventions during his sentence.
The film poignantly captures how Michael’s sentence affects not only himself, but extends to his grandfather, who is repeatedly intimidated by drug dealers as a result of Michael’s arrest. Michael is unaware of this during his time in prison, but upon his release, he notices the extra locks that his grandfather has bolted to the door. This case study is an example of how restorative justice can be used to acknowledge the harm caused to family members by offending. A family conference would have allowed Michael and his grandfather to discuss how to repair the harm caused by his actions. In another case study, a family conference led to agreement on an educational outcome in response to a drug offence. Although Michael had expressed interest in a PLC course in Social Care, which his Youthreach teacher encouraged and supported, his sentence pulled him away from education, limiting his opportunities. In contrast, a restorative justice approach could have encouraged him to further his education.
This fierce and engrossing film is a stark, searing portrayal, of the criminal justice system in Ireland and the ripple effects of both crime and our responses to it. Restorative justice could have changed Michael’s life for the better, but instead his sentence caused him harm on the inside and continued on the outside. Ultimately, he could not escape the effects of the drug trade in his community, resorting to further violence and an ever-deeper entanglement with the criminal justice system. Michael Inside depicts the harrowing reality of life for the many people for whom restorative interventions are not available. Instead, convictions stay with people for life, and difficulties such as mandatory disclosure for job applications and the inaccessibility of education further alienate those released from prison and facilitates the cycle of reoffending. Ireland can and should develop restorative justice as an alternative to the pernicious effects of incarceration and punitive responses.
You can watch the official trailer for Michael Inside here. You can also read reviews in the Guardian and Irish Times here and here, and an interview with the director Frank Berry here.