Surviving in prison

Stephen Hancock Prison conjures up hundreds of images and feelings. And covers a variety of institutions and experiences - from hell-holes of torture and deprivation to well-resourced open campuses. Each person's experience is shaped by myriad factors: gender, race, age, sexuality, geography, character, regime, prisoners, prison officers, family relationships, political climate, and support. Even within one country prison varies enormously. I have stayed in three different English prisons, twice for one week and once for six months. My week in Winson Green, Birmingham was a nightmare - I got beaten up by the guards, put in a tiny cell with someone in for murder and someone in for manslaughter, denied a vegan diet (so I didn't eat that week), taken before the governor three times and threatened with everything from solitary confinement to the psychiatric wing, and generally and effectively scared out of my pacifist wits. In comparison, my six months in Erlestoke, Wiltshire for disarming an F-111 nuclear-capable fighter-bomber was a holiday camp (although I suffered emotionally): table tennis, badminton, volley ball, a good library, art classes, a view into some woods from my cell window, and I even got training as a brick-layer. My experiences are those of a a well-supported Western peace activist who deliberately risks prison. At the same time I remember how I find any prisoner writings - from any century, any continent, any perspective - helpful in preparing myself, both internally and externally, and helpful for gaining gain strength from the courage and endurance of others. The prospect of my first term in prison terrified and froze me. I couldn't picture what it would be like, and yet was desperate to know. What would the cell look like? Where would the toilets be? What do you call prison officers? Who controls the light-switch? What would other prisoners think of me? Could the authorities limit the number of letters I received? How much exercise was I entitled to? How would my parents cope? How would I cope? I'm much luckier now: I know prison rules, have a good idea about how good and bad prison conditions can be, and have a certain understanding of the emotional terrain. Also, a small group of us have built up good prisoner support skills, resources and practice - a body of support which we can take it in turn to take from and give to. Prison is an undeniably vulnerable experience. No matter how well-prepared or supported you are. Going into prison is the only time I've contemplated the possibility of being raped. You can be meandering along enjoying a reasonable week and get totally blown away - by a bad letter, a vengeful prison officer, or a strange or threatening remark from a fellow prisoner. This vulnerability can have massive personal ramifications. Activists have committed suicide, partly as a result of bad prison experiences, and good activists have been released from bad times never to be active again. There were several things I found particularly helpful in preparing for and enduring prison. Writing to prisoners, talking to former prisoners, and reading books and articles by prisoners, encouraged me enormously - everything from the details of prison life, to the courage exhibited in the face of adversities I'll never have to face. Having at least one prison support co-ordinator on the outside was vital - someone to co-ordinate visits, send in pocket money, and deal with requests. Preparing worst and best possible scenario daily routines gave me confidence. (I have a whole daily schedule prepared in case of solitary confinement, and this has helped me access inner reserves should the occasion require.) Another preparation is to sit down with a friend, brainstorm worrying situations that might come up, and then ideas about how to deal with them (for example, how do you deal with the petty orders of a prison officer - obey, defy, ignore? And, what are the possible consequences of these different courses of action?). Some sort of meditative or reflective practice was an essential battery-recharger - be it yoga, meditation, day-dreaming, or regularly remembering people close to me. Inside I was faced with a daily dilemma between resting too much and resting too little - the depressing and stressful nature of prison life demanded a new, less productive self-image. I had to take naps in the afternoon and expect far less of myself, and yet I was determined not to slob out and do my time semi-comatose. News of nonviolent resistance always buoyed me and letters were a life-line. Something I hadn't imagined before going in was viewing and experiencing my fellow prisoners as my new street, my new neighbours. My life didn't stop in prison, and I discovered a great deal of warmth and friendship amongst my fellow inmates - especially rich against a background of emotional and physical deprivation. Things I'd take for granted outside became welcome nourishment: a handshake or shared joke would keep me going for a day or more. I've only encountered one prisoner who obviously didn't like me, but that was enough to cause me hours of anxiety. There again, there were welcome experiences such as the Glaswegian chef leaning over to me and Mike at the dinner line and saying, "Look, I know you're pacifists and all that, but if you get any trouble, just tell me, and I'll sort it out." Facing prison is neither easy to contemplate, nor to go through with. Some activists in the British environmental direct action and anarchist movements disparage prison as a waste of time politically and personally. Politically, I think prisoners keep us all going, maintain our focus and challenge us all to further action. On the personal level it can be a waste a time, but by no means necessarily so, and, whatever, it seems vital to recognise that going into prison isn't the end of your or someone else's life. One of the reasons many ex-prisoners, if you let them, will talk and talk about their experiences, is that we're trying to break down the isolation we felt whilst inside, to assert that our lives went on, in parallel to and sometimes touching lives on the outside - that our humanity remained and remains intact, if slightly bruised. Scanning the pages and names of all this year's prisoners for peace, there can be few of us who don't feel significant gratitude and love for our fellow resisters, who don't gain good encouragement from our shared struggle - and who won't half appreciate their support when we ourselves are inside and they themselves are enjoying the freedom they deserve.