Taking The Fight Inside
Twenty years ago, on the day before my release from Maidstone Prison, where I was serving a sentence for ‘possession of military plastic explosives’, I confronted a ritual already familiar from Ealing comedies and the like. Prior to a prisoner’s release, he (for it was always a ‘he’ in the films) was marched over to meet the governor or a senior screw. The con would be wished good luck, and a perfunctory handshake would take place as a show that there was no remaining ill-feeling.
There were two of us to be released from my wing, myself and George, one of life’s natural forelock-tuggers. George, who worked in the screws’ mess, put on a new pullover and prison ‘greys’ (grey flannel trousers) before going to see the ‘Chief’. No doubt a few jokes were cracked, and it was handshakes all round, and “Good luck George, make sure you don’t come back.”
My own meeting went somewhat differently. I wasn’t at work because having waged a war of attrition in the workshops, the prison authorities had surrendered and paid me the top wage of £2.30 per week NOT to go to work. So the screws had to get me out of bed, and I made sure I kept the Chief waiting.
There were no new pullovers or pressed ‘greys’, I wore only a pair of bib & brace overalls and flip-flops, and I hadn’t had my hair cut throughout my imprisonment. I’d never actually met the ‘Chief’ (a quasi-military rank long-since abolished) before, but I guess he’d known more or less what to expect. My appearance was in stark contrast to the spit and polish of his office, and you could cut the air of resentment with a knife.
I immediately initiated a row about withheld Anarchist publications, and the Chief’s face turned scarlet. There were no handshakes, no good wishes, he went through the brief formal procedures with clenched teeth before spluttering, “If you do come back Barnsley, don’t come back here.”
That was a long time ago, and I’ve been in a lot of prisons since then (I’ve been moved 22 times in the past 7 1/2 years alone), but I take pride in the fact that the Chief screw’s words echo down the years. Not a single maximum security prison wants me back, which is how I prefer to have it. We are talking about prisons after all, the last thing you want is them saying, “Come back any time, always glad to have you.”
I’ve written a fair bit in the past about the duty of revolutionary movements to properly support their imprisoned militants, a duty for the most part the Anarchist movement fails in. But revolutionaries behind bars also have a duty, a duty to behave with integrity, and in line with the principles we claim to hold dear.
Few of the Irish Republican prisoners ever needed to be reminded of this duty, nor did the Angry Brigade prisoners – older cons here still remember Jake Prescott, who served 8 years and 2 months out of a 10 stretch. Times in prison are now harder in many ways than they have been for decades, prison militants are in a small minority, and resistance is at an all-time low. Nonetheless, when Anarchists come into prison they have to find the courage and fortitude to at least behave with integrity. We are not just individuals, but representatives of a movement, and nobody will take our politics seriously if we are personally unworthy of respect. If nothing else, that means not grovelling, not playing up to the screws to get preferential treatment over other cons (under the ‘Incentives and Earned Privileges’ scheme), not being a grass, not being a ‘Stepford Prisoner’. Really the sort of behaviour nobody should have to think twice about. For committed revolutionaries it should entail a great deal more.
I’m just some poor mug the cops fitted-up, but those brave enough to deliberately risk their liberty for political ends need to maintain that courage once inside, or else they debase their original commitment. Prison should be seen as just another area of struggle, not somewhere we have to suspend our principles and surrender to the Enemy (“For you, the class war is over.”) Sure, think tactically, this is a guerrilla war, nobody wants you to start head-butting tanks, but don’t just roll over in your eagerness to get back to the streets. If you refuse to be crushed, if you show courage in the face of adversity, then you have at least salvaged something from your imprisonment. I want to get out of here just like everyone else, but I want to walk through the gates, not crawl through them. If we can find strength, find resistance, even when at our weakest, even when we’re in the hands of the Enemy, then we turn the system against itself, we become the virus inside the machine.
There is a struggle to be fought in here. Even if you’re only locked-up for 6 months, don’t simply go limp and surrender to get a TV set and a ‘quiet life’ -If that’s the sort of life you want you’re in the wrong business. Don’t become complicit in your own incarceration, sitting in an open nick with not even a wall between you and your loved ones. Tell them to shove their electronic ball and chain where the sun doesn’t shine. Don’t surrender to a living death, resistance will sustain you better than TV sets and table-tennis.
This is something that people need to think about before they even put themselves in a position which increases their chances of being locked-up, it’s all part of the commitment we make when we become revolutionaries. For those willing to live up to that commitment there are plenty of opportunities to play an active part in the fightback against prison repression.
The struggle in here is hard, but it’s one no incarcerated militant can afford to turn their back on. Those outside need to build the prisoner solidarity movement imprisoned activists deserve, but Anarchist prisoners also need to be deserving of it.
April 2002. Whitemoor Prison.
Written for ‘Freedom’.