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Activism and... Prison
I was really frightened of going to prison. I’d had a really bad experience of being in a boys-only boarding school, and I thought prison would be like that except worse.
To be honest, I think quite a lot of it was classism. Being a middle-class person from a privileged background, the thing that I thought would be ‘worse’ was that it would be a working-class men-only environment.
I don’t know whether that meant I was frightened of it being violent (my upper-middle-class private school was violent enough) or whether I was afraid of people hating me because I was middle-class. I’m not sure quite what it was.
Anyhow, I’d never spent any appreciable time in a predominantly working-class social situation, and my first experience was being locked up for 10 days in Pentonville.
As it turned out, no one cared that I was middle-class; I’m not absolutely sure anyone noticed, apart from my cellmate, who was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He had a habit of driving despite being disqualified for epilepsy, but otherwise was a socially-responsible person and excellent company.
What I hadn’t realised beforehand was that the prison guards, like the police, were also mainly working-class. I’ve been in prison a few times over the past 15 years and the attitudes of the guards I’ve met has really improved.
The most horrible person I ever met in prison was a white South African guard in Pentonville, but he actually helped me. I was complaining (again) about not getting a vegan food box and he said: ‘You better top yourself.’ I couldn’t help laughing, and strangely it cheered me up.
A boarding school education really is the perfect preparation for prison. But it’s more violent.