Taking action in prison

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Feature by Angie Zelter

After experiencing my first couple of week-long prison sentences in the 1980`s - when all I did was keep my head down - I started to learn how to continue my actions and resistance from “inside”. I decided that I must be myself and really live, wherever I was, and that I did not stop being a conscious, political person just because the state had incarcerated me.

I now consider nonviolent resistance whilst in prison to be part of our struggle for a better world—a way of confronting and changing the status quo and of acting out an alternative vision of society and relationships: creating a questioning space and an opportunity to continue to experiment with resisting power abuses.


Miri Prison, Sarawak, Malaysia, 1991

A group of eight of us, from five different countries, occupied two barges on the Baram river to prevent the loading of logs which had been cut from old-growth forests on Penan land. We had decided beforehand that we would hide our passports and not give our nationalities or correct names for two weeks in order to prevent our immediate deportation. My name was “Chipko Mendes Penan - Stop the Logging - Save the Rainforests”.

A nonviolent response

After two weeks in prison we all gave our real names and explained where our passports could be found. But we were given no indication of charges, had not been brought before a court and were being held incommunicado with no access to phones or lawyers. We women (four of us) decided that in response we would nonviolently blockade the only entrance to the women's section of the prison. We did this by sitting with our backs to the gate leading into the compound and handed in a written copy of our verbal demands: that we would not move until allowed access to our embassies; contact with our four male colleagues in order to determine that they were safe and well; and use of a telephone to contact our families.

When our female guards could not persuade us to return to our cell, ten male guards pushed through into the compound along with the prison governor. The governor demanded that we get up voluntarily or we would de disciplined by his men - who by this point were lined up in front of us with their batons and looking very aggressive. We feared a severe beating. However, maybe because we were internationals or because the other three did decide to move, I was eventually picked up by four guards and placed - without harm - into a solitary cell for one week: with only a blanket for the concrete floor.


Our blockade had been the first “protest” the prison had ever had and we soon got to see our male colleagues, had visits from our embassies and lawyer, and were eventually given court dates. The anti- logging protest had become very much more effective because of our prison action of withholding our names and papers. Later we were reliably informed by government officials that we would have been deported immediately with very little notice being taken of our action if we had given our identities straight away. The two-week delay had given time for political pressure to build up to such an extent that the Chief Minister had to charge us and put us on trial. This gave us the opportunity of four months' continuous press coverage (see PN's coverage in PN 2345 & 2349) and public debate on the issues of bribery, corruption and human rights abuses in the timber industry and the Malaysian government.


Cornton Vale Women's Prison,
Scotland, 1998

Five of us were on remand for a month after taking action during the first Trident Ploughshares nuclear disarmament camp at Coulport and Falsane (Scottish Trident warhead and submarine base, respectively). During our imprisonment HMS Vengeance - the fourth Trident nuclear submarine - was being launched from Barrow-in-Furness, in the north of England. Had we been free we would have joined the demonstrations taking place, to express our condemnation. We decided that whether in or out of prison, we were not only potential victims of nuclear annihilation, but also continue to have joint responsibility for the British government's illegal and immoral actions.

So we made some banners and wrote a note to the prison governor explaining that our protest was against the government's nuclear weapons policy and the launching of Vengeance - a vessel we considered to be a machine for mass murder. We stated that our protest was not against the prison, would only last one day, was completely nonviolent and would only consist of us dropping a banner (which read “No Escape from Nuclear Weapons”) from the cell windows and us remaining in our cells all day without eating or speaking.

Crime and punishment

Our plan was discovered the day before our action was due to take place through a phone call we had made to the press being monitored by prison staff. Our shared cells were “turned over”, the banners and notes discovered and after being strip-searched we were moved to single cells in the punishment block, unable to communicate with each other. The next morning, the day Vengeance was launched, I handed a new note to the prison officer who came in the morning to check on me. The note explained that I was fulfilling my commitment to anti-nuclear protest by refusing to eat, speak, or move out of the cell for the day.

The result was that I was finally “removed” to a disciplinary hearing by having my wrists forced back by two male officers until I was screaming in pain. I was then dragged with my wrists at breaking point into another building where I was thrown on the floor in shock. After the hearing - at which I said nothing while still slumped on the floor - I was told to move again and as I continued to refuse to move or speak I was again assaulted with my wrists tortured, until I was thrown face-down on the floor of a bare concrete cell, sat upon by several officers and forcibly strip-searched. I was left naked for 24- hours. The following day I was allowed clothes and taken back to the original solitary cell. The rest of my remand period was spent in solitary confinement with only one hour of solitary exercise per day, taken in a small yard. Evidently nonviolent protest is quite a threat to some prison authorities!

A luta continua!

I feel that nonviolent protest within prison is an essential part of our struggle for a better world and that it becomes more relevant as more and more of us end up inside them.

We need to strengthen our support and communication networks for prisoners and also to support prison reforms. I now always write up a detailed formal report of the conditions of prisons I have been in and send copies to the British Prisons Inspectorate, Home Office, Prison Ombudsman, prison reform NGOs, and the press. I also follow up complaints. For instance, it took three years with the help of a sympathetic Scottish MP to get a half-hearted apology and small ex-gratia payment from the Scottish Prison Service for the assault at Cornton Vale, but for me the effort was a necessary part of the follow- up work to nonviolent direct action.

I also think it necessary to point out that I believe no state can claim to be a “civilised democracy” whilst it holds a large proportion of its people in prison. Rather, such statistics should be taken as an indication that deep-rooted social injustices, inequities and conflicts need to be resolved as soon as possible.