Prison and nonviolent Struggle

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Feature by Ippy D

Timed to coincide with the annual Prisoners for Peace list and associated articles, Peace News takes a look at prison and nonviolent struggle.

Not only because nonviolent activists and war resisters frequently end up in prison—and have to continue their struggle while inside - but also because the core issues of prison poses many conceptual challenges to nonviolence, challenges which we also feel we have failed to address adequately in this issue.

What is in there then?

So, having lowered your expectations, let's have a look at what is inside - perhaps we sold ourselves short! In the cover story Simo Hellsten looks at a specific symbolic action to liberate an imprisoned total objector from a Finnish prison (p27). This is one of the many and varied ways nonviolent activists, both in and out of prison can deal with their - or their comrades - imprisonment. Do we accept the prison sentence and try to change the "oppressors" by reaching their heart, as Gandhi suggested? Or do we highlight the injustice of our imprisonment, through a wide range of actions, and try to continue our resistance in prison?

Taking action in prison

Jyotibhai Desai, a Gandhian activist from India, looks at the positive aspects of prison and shows examples of Gandhians being imprisoned and of working with prisoners, with a touching tale of things coming full cycle in Indian prisons (p26). Angie Zelter (p28) tells empowering stories of continuing resistance in prison, both at home (in Britain) and abroad - not just of resisting the prison system, but of continuing to struggle for the cause that lead to imprisonment in the first place. And Janet Kilburn asks, how much should and do we contribute to our own incarceration? In contributing to the functioning of the prison system, through working in prison, or complying with the often ludicrous and bureaucratic prison system - a system designed to dis-empower - how much do we expand the prison into our own mind, how much do we remain in control of our situation?

The psychological impact

Turkish activist Coskun Üsterzi was imprisoned for almost 12 years in Turkey, and later supported the Turkish conscientious objector, Osman Murat Ülke, when he was imprisoned. Andreas Speck talks with him about his experiences of prison, taking solidarity actions, the Turkish hunger strike, and his personal path to nonviolence (p20). Continuing the theme of the psychological impact of prison - on both the individual and society - Roberta Bacic looks at the difficult and complex relationships between torturer and victim, and the public acceptance of torture within society (p30). Matt Meyer links the issue of political prisoners in the United States with the attacks of 11 September (p22). He raises important and difficult questions for peace activists concerning their attitude towards political prisoners who were not imprisoned for taking nonviolent action. He asks whether we can, or should, ignore their inhumane treatment at the hands of a violent, militarist state just because they have not met our ideals of nonviolence (an issue all too important when we consider the Turkish hunger strike)?

Writing from her US prison cell, Claire Hanrahan provides us with an insight into the realities and concerns of women prisoners in Federal prison. Their lack of enthusiasm for the war on Afghanistan - in spite of TV overdoses - should offer us all some hope.

All prisoners are political!

Prisoners don't just find themselves in prison as a result of committing crime, or because of their political struggle. Lots of people end up in prison because they are poor, desperate, seeking numbness from reality through drugs, or whose behaviour consistently sets them outside of what is expected within their society. Because of this there is a strong case for arguing that all prisoners are political prisoners.

Prisoners are also used by governments and guerrillas as bargaining tools in conflict. The treatment of Basque separatists and Irish Republican prisoners offer good examples of how parties to conflict use the issue of political prisoners/POWs in negotiating settlements or, conversely, maintaining conflict. Social problems are reflected in prison and often magnified. It is common knowledge that proportionately more black people end up in prison than whites, and more youths than adults. Pedro Enrique Polo Soltero from Gais Antimilitaristas looks at the situation of gay prisoners—what he calls prisoners of homophile conscience - and links the struggle for gay rights in prison with the broader struggle against homophobia, and against militarism.

Six months ago, Peace News looked at the economics of militarism. Continuing with a theme highlighted in that issue, Tikiri now looks at the economics of the prison system, especially the increasing use of &quote;private&quote; prisons. No surprise then that some of the companies involved are all too familiar to nonviolent activists working against the arms trade and in anti-nuclear campaigns.

What's missing?

So, what is missing in this issue? Well, to be honest quite a lot: issues such as race, class and gender are touched on by most authors, but none in any detail. A discussion of the specific experience of women in prison, and a comprehensive explanation of why, where, and how some activists - particularly ploughshares activists - place prison, philosophically, in their strategies are also absent. Perhaps most importantly the discussion on alternatives to prison is missing and, perhaps even more specifically, a coherent argument - from an antimilitarist perspective - for the complete abolition of notions of state or community inflicted punishments. Although Clara Wichmann argued already in 1919 (p34), that prison doesn't do any good, and is no solution to the problem of crime (and is crime really the problem?), so far it seems that nonviolent movements have failed to come up with any real alternatives to prison. So, do we ignore the issue? Is it more comfortable for us to comply with a system that locks people up? Do we believe that through prison reform something like a “nonviolent” prison could be developed?

The question of what alternatives there may be to prison is closely linked to the question of what we believe constitutes justice? Do we consider justice to be done when the perpetrator is locked up behind bars? What can justice mean if we exclude prison from the answers. A famous antimilitarist slogan goes "if war is the answer, the question must be fucking stupid". If the same answer is true for prison, what then would an intelligent question be?

Topics: Prison