On going to Prison, Privilege and Preparation
“If you are healthy, it’s not so bad in prison. You have your brain, your conscience and your soul. They cannot take that away from you. Jail is not the worst place for a person who thinks.” – Nadia Tolokonnikova (Pussy Riot)
In late 2017 four activists — Genny, Roger, Ian and Stu — were sent to prison in London. It wasn’t that bad…
Now, granted, we were only in prison for one week on remand, for the minor offence of criminal damage (spray paint on London’s City Hall). We did this to try to bring attention to the dangerous, illegal levels of air pollution in London that results in around 25 early deaths every single day. And we were in there by choice, our main crime being cheekiness — doing the same thing three times, day after day, and telling the police and court that we’d keep doing it, again and again, until they stopped us. We broke court bail the third time, and click, they sent us to prison.
So who are we?
We’re four people — one female and three males — who took part in RisingUp’scampaign Stop Killing Londoners: Cut Air Pollution. We’re in our 30’s, 50’s and 70’s, all white, British, and from working and middle class backgrounds. We’ve got jobs (except the retiree), and took the time off work to do this. We’ve realised that people being willing to go to prison for their conscience is crucial for the rapid transformation and healing of society. And these western European islands badly need positive change, and soon!
A note about privilege
It may sound strange, but choosing to go to prison is a privilege. The other people we met in prison had been unwillingly ripped out of their day-to-day lives, often resulting in a lot of distress — both for those sent to prison and their friends and family on the outside. While many of our prison peers were grappling with their changed circumstances, we had many privileges that came from having planned to be there. We had books with us that we wanted to read, we had friends on the outside who were supporting us and drumming up media attention, we had a sense of purpose and meaning, and we’d had weeks to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally. It’s important to acknowledge how significantly this all contributed to our experience in the clink.
Prisons are shit. They’re illegitimate institutions of State violence, which the State uses to hide the parts (people) of society that it’s failing, that it’s ashamed of, and that it doesn’t want the rest of us to see. Furthermore, prison conditions are currently awful and under-funded, and people in there hardly get any support to process their situation and come to a heightened awareness of the dynamics operating in their lives that resulted in their incarceration (which would lower the chance of re-offending). A great organisation doing good work around this is The Forgiveness Project.
A quick disclaimer
This article is based on our experiences. If you’re considering going to prison for a cause then we wish you good luck and hope that this article helps you to prepare. However, we cannot guarantee that your experience will be the same as our experiences, and we are not responsible for the actions or experiences of others. We’re also not telling you to go to prison, as that decision lies with you.
So what’s it like?
For the three males, it felt a bit like boarding school or military barracks, except that you can hardly go outside. Initially, we had to stay in our cell for 23.5 hours/day. Each cell held two people, so if you had a cellmate you could hang out and chat (Ian and Stu shared a cell, and Roger had a cell to himself). The rest of the time we basically spent reading, writing, meditating, watching TV, listening to the radio, eating, sleeping, phoning friends, and simply being. For those of us with busy and stressful lives it was actually quite a relief to have a few days off with no responsibilities!
For Genny the experience was harder (she’s written about her experience here). She was on her own and so felt isolated, having no one familiar around to share the experience with and to help her get acquainted with her new environment. She also forgot to ask to keep her books, which resulted in a lot more boredom.
Other than the time in your cell you might get a few hours of induction, 30–60 mins per day of ‘exercise time’ in a small courtyard outside, and maybe one or two other excuses to leave your cell. We experienced the ‘entry wings’ (or ‘entry blocks’), and they were nothing like Orange is the New Black, Porridge or Scum. There’s barely any time to socialise, we didn’t experience much drama (except from Genny’s cellmate), and the few encounters we had were basically friendly. On the last day we were moved to another prison wing where there was an extra two hours per day of social time outside our cell, and where there appeared to be more drama between the inmates.
So what happens?
We arrived in the evening after court, were handed some chicken and chips, and put in a room with other new inmates as we waited to go through the induction procedures. The first question from other inmates was “What are you in for?” and our response was met with surprise. “For something so small? Three times! That’s ballsy!” they laughed. “In broad daylight? And then you sat and waited for the cops?!? Respect!”
Then we were taken through the check-in, were we found it helped us to relax when we remembered the staff are just doing their jobs, and so they responded positively to politeness, good manners and even humour — again, our mental calmness largely stemmed from our privilege of having chosen to be there. We went through some admin questions, and you can even request to be put in a cell with your friend — not a certainty, yet they want minimal fuss between roommates so are likely to allow it. Then we had a chat with the nurse, and a full search — they were hands-off and allowed us to very quickly strip ourselves, and get ourselves dressed again.
Finally, we got a ~3 minute phone call, before being sent to our cells for the night.
What was on your packing list?
The things which you should be able to keep with you in your cell and that we found helpful are: Clear plastic pen, multiple books, pad of paper, phone numbers of your friends and solicitor, flannel, pyjamas, scarf and hat, pack of cards, a wristwatch, finger nail clippers, medication and the prescription, any paperwork for projects you’re working on, the RisingUp Principles and Values 😉, and a print out of this article 😆. They give you clothes and toiletries as you enter, though you may be allowed to keep some of your own clothes (no hoods, no coats, no dark colours, nothing with too many pockets). Perishable stuff (e.g. food) will be binned.
You also want some cash on you, which gets banked as you enter prison. On remand we were allowed £47.50 of our own money each week, so bringing £100 cash would give you the maximum you’d be allowed for the first two weeks. There’s no cash used in prison, it’s just done by accounting, and any left over will be given to you when you leave.
It’s worth stressing again that if you need medication, also bring the prescription paperwork for it, and leave pills in their blister packs. If you don’t have the paperwork, you won’t be allowed to have the medication. This happened to Genny, and she had to spend five days persistently asking until she saw a doctor and got the medication she needed. If you don’t have the prescription it’d be worth bringing the name of your GP and address of their practice, as this may speed up the bureaucracy (although you’re still unlikely to get your meds right away).
Note that in order to bring that stuff you’d need to have it with you during every civil disobedience action you’re doing that might result in your imprisonment!
Weren’t you bored?
A prison experience is undoubtedly easier if you like yourself. Just as they say “The problem with holiday is that you always bring yourself,” so it is with prison. If you’re able to be at peace with yourself, and recognise that happiness is found within, then you’re probably gonna have a much better time in the cells. Maybe read a book about happiness in the weeks leading up to your imprisonment (or in police custody after each arrest!).
Be open to new experiences. Be prepared to be shepherded around. Treat it as a time to experiment — maybe try to meditate (more), or experiment with your diet, or even go on hunger strike — like we did! We did so to try to build political pressure, hoping the media might latch onto this additional tactic. The males lasted 2, 3, and 4 days, and Genny lasted the whole week! Badass! Since we had low energy expenditure and very little external stress, it was actually helpful to go on hunger strike. We’d stockpiled the food we were given, so when we started eating food again the extra energy made it all the harder to be cooped up in the cells!
You may also get the chance to go to the gym, to work (pay is pitiful, only ~£1/hour), or to go to classes. Stu managed to attend to a food hygiene class.
So what’s the food like?
For the most part the food was surprisingly good, and there were even multiple veggie options. And there was plenty of it. However, the problem came for the vegans, as the prison kitchen wasn’t prepared for it. If you’re vegan (or have restrictive dietary requirements) it’s worth chatting with the nurse ASAP (even if you’re on hunger strike) and kicking up a fuss about it (gently, politely). It takes several days for the cogs of an uncaring bureaucracy to turn.
Did we feel safe?
An important question. Pretty much, yes, we felt safe. In our cells we were with only one other person or alone, and as mentioned we had very little time outside our cells. And outside the cells there’s CCTV, yet more importantly there’s positive incentives for people not to act up — if inmates are consistently good for several months they get to play footie (at least in the male prison). If you fight, you don’t get to play. And while we met one guy who had stabbed another inmate (at another prison), he’d done it after he’d been in prison three years, and so he’d had the time to build up a lot of anger towards the person he stabbed. Grudges involving knives don’t normally form in a week. His advice to us was “don’t accept anything for free — trades are OK, but what appears to be free, isn’t.”
None of us left our cells for the first 36 hours, as they somehow forgot us for both exercise and induction training on our first day. So we learnt pretty quickly — if we wanted something we had to bang on the cell door until someone came by, and even then we might have to ask several people before our needs were met. Also when we asked nicely, we were more likely to get attention, and we built up rapport with the guards after a couple of days.
However, prisons are also violent institutions — the sometimes intense noise, the shouting, the screaming, the banging, the frustration, the systemic lack of empowerment. Some of this could be triggering, which could open up previously traumatising experiences, and a person could find themselves quickly undoing. There is a risk in going to prison, and it comes with a serious health warning. As best you can, be aware of your shadows before you go, and prepare yourself mentally.
So who did you meet?
Basically, we met a bunch of normal and nice people who were either friendly, curious, or simply ignored us, and who were pretty open about why they were in there. Many of the women Genny spoke with struggled with their mental health, including self harm, drug addiction, and they were often repeat offenders.
In HMP Thameside most of the prison population were black Londoners — probably around 6 out of every 8 people — with a few other people of colour, some white eastern europeans, and a few white Brits. Although we were aware that the Met Police and prison system is racist (which BAME police admit (and other police try to cover up)), seeing it with our own eyes was another thing (only 1 in 8 Londoners are black), and it hammered home the extreme racism of the so-called ‘justice system’.
It was also obvious that — far from being the ‘dangerous criminals’ of the Daily Mail’s deranged ravings — people were often in prison due to poverty, addiction, an unstable and/or abusive childhood, or domestic violence. Prisons are where the State shuts away people that it wants to hide, as the existence of these people brings into question the legitimacy of the State itself. Given the banksters and CEOs that plunder our planet and communities are still walking free, maybe the courts and prison system should instead be called the ‘injustice system’!
Can you contact people?
After the initial 3 minute phone call we couldn’t call anyone for 36 hours (not even our solicitor).
In order to make a phone call (beyond your initial one) you have to fill out a form and have the number approved. However, Genny didn’t get any further phone-calls because the form asks for the address and date of birth of your contact. During the induction the males were told to just make those fields up if we didn’t know them (who memorises the date of birth of their friends!?!), but since Genny was on her own and missed her induction she never got that memo. We were only allowed a maximum of 15 contacts.
Once the numbers were approved, we had a phone in our room and could call when we wanted. It costs ~18p/min to mobile and ~8p/min to landlines (cheaper after 7pm). Given you’re only allowed a certain amount of private cash (£47.50/week on remand) you don’t have unlimited time on the phone, yet it is possible to talk for several hours each week. This is also the only way to call your solicitor, and people couldn’t call in to us.
Phone calls may be monitored.
Can you have visitors?
At HMP Thameside, it looked like you could only book visits that were 2–4 weeks in the future. So since we were on remand for one week, we couldn’t. At public prisons, people can apply to visit you on the government website, while for (some?) private prisons it’s up to the inmate to apply for visitors.
People can also write letters to you. They might be opened and monitored, and if they don’t reach you before you’re released they’ll be shredded. Genny received some (which lifted her spirits), whereas the males never got the letters that were sent to them.
Any other practical info to share?
For the males our room consisted of: bunk beds, 2 chairs, a desk, digital TV/radio/computer, phone, kettle, shelving unit, sink, toilet and shower (behind a partition). The female prison had shower cubicles and baths outside of the cells. We had control of our own lightswitch, a barred window, and a telecom button that could be pressed in case of emergency. It was well heated, and we could somewhat control the temperature by opening and closing vents. Both prisons were solid metal and concrete, and sound echoed around.
The computer system, or ‘pod’, allowed us to select our meals (two days in advance), as well as add phone numbers, add money to our phone account, sign up for classes, book an appointment with the nurse, and register for religious services. It’s worth thinking ahead, and so using the pod/computer as soon as you can in order to sign up/apply for the things you want to do. The male prison had a computer in each room, whereas the female prison only had one pod on the wing, which there was often a long line-up for.
The pod even allowed us to buy things from the ‘online’ (intranet) shop. There was a lot to choose from, including snack food, stationery, toiletries (you get the basics free), basic medication and vitamins, and even some electronics like radio/CD players and watches. However, office staff didn’t work on the weekend, so make sure you add phone numbers, request meetings, and order items, etc. ASAP.
Genny was sent to HMP Bronzefield, which is run by a private multinational company, Sodexo, (Justice Services), and the three males were in HMP Thameside, which is a fairly new prison, also privately run. They’ve been built for efficiency (i.e. profit), and every corner that can be cut was being cut.
Having said all of that, the most practical part of it all is about your state of mind going in. If you prepare yourself mentally, you probably won’t care whether there’s a TV in your room, cigarette butts in your mattress, or whether you remember to sign up for the meal option you want. Peace and happiness lie within!
Can you say a little more about the prison system?
This article is struggling with a tension. On the one hand, we want to dispel the fear for other activists who are considering going to prison, because our experiences in there were interesting and empowering. Although mixed, our own experiences were largely positive, if a little odd.
Yet on the other hand, it’s vitally important to stress that the prison system is a bastion of oppression and manipulation of our most vulnerable, and that there are a lot of people in there who are treated like shit and massively struggling. In no way do we intend to indicate that prison is a nice place, and the fact that the prison system preys upon some of the most vulnerable amongst us is sickening and enraging.
It’s important to highlight the oppressive and violent experiences of those who are sent to prison without choice, without representation, without information, without support and without hope. Prisons are at crisis level — there is huge levels of violence, suicide and self-harm, along with a lack of prison staff and space.
Any final thoughts?
For us, being in prison for a week on remand wasn’t that hard, and at times it was even relatively enjoyable. It allowed us valuable time for reflection, and we’re glad we went through it. Prison used to be scary, and now the fear holds no power over us — a liberation worth experiencing!
Having said that, we only have our experiences. Each prison is different, and the experience of others in prison will be different — we obviously cannot guarantee anything. Going to prison contains a lot of unknowns.
Every social struggle for justice involves people going to prison. Fear of prison is a tool of the State and the oppressor. As with any step into the unknown, it’s unlikely that you’ll feel ready, yet we’re hoping that this article will help you prepare, and we commend you for your courage. Good luck!
This article was originally published here: https://medium.com/@plaosmos/why-we-chose-prison-7ddcd17c11a6 If you’d like to get an email whenever the author publishes an article on their blog, sign up here: https://eepurl.com/bGX349