'Solidarity Is Our Only Weapon' by John Bowden (UK)

“The power of effective and dynamic prisoner support was, in my experience, never better illustrated than in the way a prison authority climbed down on this occasion, and it was an incredibly empowering experience to be a part of it.”
John Bowden

There are important lessons to be learned from last year’s successful campaign in support of prisoner John Bowden, and in defence of the Anarchist Black Cross. When comrades are attacked, it is not a time for complacency, but a time for determined and decisive action. In our struggle against the State, our collective strength and solidarity is the only weapon we have.

Below, John Bowden gives an assessment of the campaign to defend himself and the ABC against the lies of prison social worker Matt Stillman, who in a crucial parole report, described the ABC as a “terrorist” and “paramilitary” organisation with whom John was in contact.

The decision to mount a campaign against Stillman’s lies about the ABC was made some time before the system actually moved against me, and a view shared by some friends and comrades on the outside was that the decision was premature and would prove ultimately counter-productive by inviting repression against me and seriously prejudicing a parole hearing scheduled for that summer. As far as I was concerned, however, the decision to highlight Stillman’s lies was very much a strategic one and motivated by my concern that should I avoid confronting the prison authorities over Stillman’s report at the earliest possible stage then the report would have gone unchallenged before the parole board that summer. On the basis of his claim that I was linked to a terrorist group my release would have been denied almost indefinitely by the parole board, and no amount of protesting afterwards would have had the slightest effect on that. I knew that any campaign to expose Stillman as a liar had to be organised immediately, no matter what the short-term consequences to myself, and I was, therefore, absolutely clear in my appeal for immediate solidarity from the ABC. Fortunately ex-prisoner Mark Barnsley trusted my judgement implicitly and threw his support behind me right away.

The repression when it came was predictably vicious and cruel, but by then I’d already publicly exposed Stillman’s lies and given warning that I was under attack by the Scottish prison authorities. Their subsequent behaviour in moving me back to maximum-security conditions was therefore immediately seen for what it was – straightforward revenge. As a result, they were never particularly confident about the situation, especially as their treatment of me was now clearly seen as being motivated by the ludicrous claims of Stillman, as opposed to any serious allegation concerning my actual behaviour. By managing to organise a campaign against Stillman early on not only did I provoke the Scottish prison service into moving against me but also pre-empted their actions to a large extent and established the real context of the repression when it came. They were always resentful that I’d managed to do that and frequently accused me of creating a political context to their punishment of me, which eventually would weaken and destroy their attempts to justify and excuse their treatment of me in any other way.

In a very real sense the behaviour of the Scottish Prison Service authorities following my removal back to a maximum-security prison came to be largely dictated by the increasing pressure being applied on them by the campaign outside and the imperative they were now clearly feeling to “resolve” the problem. There was established early on a relationship between the growing intensity and determination of the campaign outside and the increasing involvement of more senior prison bureaucrats and professionals in attempts to deal with the situation – all responsibility for the system’s strategy was being removed from those who had initiated the chain of events, the administration at Castle Huntly Prison, and passed to those with a more direct input at H.Q. level. Had there been no visible campaign of solidarity and support then I’d have rotted away indefinitely in a maximum-security hell-hole while the system did nothing.

Apart from the obvious effect that the campaign was having on the Scottish prison authorities, its psychological effect on me was significant. Even during my lowest moments when I really struggled to make the re-adjustment to being back in conditions of maximum-security, the knowledge that on the outside good committed comrades were campaigning and fighting on my behalf sustained and strengthened me immeasurably. Isolation is a weapon used by the prison system to weaken and dis-empower prisoners, and my removal back to a high-security prison was clearly intended to demoralise and dispirit me, as well as sever my contact with friends and sources of emotional and psychological support on the outside. Leeds ABC, especially, were determined that wasn’t going to happen and so flooded the jail I was in with letters and cards of support every day, reassuring and encouraging me that no matter how deeply the system buried me in here I would not be forgotten, and in fact the longer I was held the more intense the campaign on my behalf would become. The volume of mail I was receiving at this time was also being monitored and handled by screws and administration of the prison holding me and it had an obvious effect on their treatment of me. They were clearly anxious to avoid confrontation with me and risk an escalation in the claims of victimisation being made by my supporters on the outside. This provided me with valuable psychological space in which to adapt to my surroundings and focus on exposing Stillman’s lies.

Soon after my return to maximum-security conditions at Glenochil Prison, the administration there decided to provide a link of communication between myself and senior governors at the prison by appointing Charlie Kelly, a Senior Psychologist, as that conduit. Initially, Kelly was instructed to try and persuade me that it could be in my interests to keep my head down and desist from rocking the boat. When knowledge of the campaign outside began to filter in to Scottish Prison Service H.Q. Kelly’s role changed from one of conveying warnings to one of seeking out negotiation and compromise. At one stage he admitted that the degree of obvious political support mobilised on my behalf had surprised and unnerved the Scottish prison authorities who were simply not accustomed to prisoners in Scotland having that sort and degree of political support. If unaccustomed to facing that degree of prisoner support, the Scottish prison authorities were also seriously hamstrung by the sheer ridiculousness of Stillman’s lies and their inability to defend them. In the usual course of events the prison system and those who administer it operate in the confident knowledge that there is no accountability to their actions and behaviour towards prisoners. Any lie, no matter how obvious, can be levelled against a prisoner, isolated from the outside world and powerless, and no restraint on the repression unleashed by that lie. When the Scottish prison authorities realised that Stillman’s lies were being publicly exposed and campaigned against by an organised political group on the outside it took fright and then began to try and distance itself from Stillman.

Six months after my transfer to Glenochil, the Scottish Prison Service commissioned an “updated psychological” risk assessment report on me, and the conclusions of its author, Senior Psychologist Dawn Harris, made a stark and bewildering contrast to Stillman’s earlier report on me. While Stillman had written of my contact with a dangerous paramilitary group fanatically dedicated to terrorism, Harris referred to the ABC as a perfectly legitimate and peaceful group committed to prisoners’ rights and in fact a very positive vehicle for my anger against the prison system! This was a complete volte-face on the part of the Scottish Prison authorities, who by now were desperate to nullify the campaign, even if it necessitated a climb-down and abandonment of Stillman. Harris recommended that I be returned to an open prison as soon as possible, and this represented a definitive gesture on the part of the system that it was anxious to call a truce and end the ABC campaign. The power of effective and dynamic prisoner support was, in my experience, never better illustrated than in the way a prison authority climbed down on this occasion, and it was an incredibly empowering experience to be a part of it.

Following the submission of Dawn Harris’ report she returned to Glenochil Prison to warn me about continuing the campaign and undermining the “corporate integrity” of the Scottish prison system by placing on the internet internal prison reports about myself, such as Stillman’s and her own. Her message was clear: the campaign had hurt the system and it wanted it stopped right now! By then I was in a position to suggest that the campaign was directly linked to my treatment in prison and would therefore remain active and vocal while I continued to be victimised. She was sent to offer a “deal” – call off the campaign and my situation would improve significantly. The reality was the ABC’s campaign had broken their will to continue the repression and now they were desperately looking for a way out.

By this time Stillman was completely abandoned by them, and three months after my return to an open jail Perth and Kinross Council officially upheld my complaint that Stillman had lied about the nature of the ABC.

The fighting spirit and commitment of Leeds ABC, especially, in defending me had succeeded and should represent a lesson to all prisoner support activists that victory against the prison system is possible providing they’re prepared and willing to actively fight on behalf of prisoners.

John Bowden

Check out this excellent zine:

Tear Down The Walls! – Pamphlet by John Bowden & Leeds ABC

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 4th, 2010 at 5:27 pm and is filed under Prison Struggle.