To work or not to work...?

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Feature by Janet Kilburn

As a nonviolent activist who has been to prison for short periods on a number of occasions over anumber of years, the issue of how much we, as prisoners and as activists, participate in our own incarceration is something I have found quite perplexing.

Take - for example - the issue of work in prison as a simple starting point. The vast majority of prisons worldwide depend very heavily - if not entirely - on the goodwill and complicity of their captives, backed up by a range of promised punishments. Prisoners perform a large proportion of the basic tasks necessary to ensure that the prison functions to even the most minimum standard. On a practical level this means cooking and cleaning and perhaps producing goods for sale - the profits of which either go back into the prison system, or to a third party exploiter.

A prison for your mind

On a more psychological level, prisoners also exert both overt and covert pressure on each other to help create, enforce and maintain, social control within the prison walls. This can be encouraged through a culture or through quite mechanistic systems of domination. Think of the 18th Century British “prison reformer” Jeremy Bentham, and his proposed pan-opticon system. Bentham believed that the suggestion of 100% surveillance of prisoners through architectural domination would create a prison population that would self-regulate its behaviour. He was right! Of course, it is easy to argue that on a simple, ideological level one should never help the prison in imprisoning you. But when we look at what that actually means in real-life situations, or where we end up if we follow such a principle to its logical conclusion, some difficult political questions are revealed for nonviolent activists.

Political versus personal

So, returning to the question of work: imagine you are imprisoned for one year for your heroic political action. You are ordered to work while in the prison system in the prison garden for two hours a day (imagine you are that lucky!). Now imagine that the price for not accepting this fantastic job offer is spending 23 hours a day locked up and being sent repeatedly to the punishment block for breaking the prison work rule. Sometimes the choice between personal needs and political ideals can be quite stark. So, perhaps we need to step back a little and examine how we perceive our own incarceration and what we believe its political value to be:

  • Do we see imprisonment as an important political act in itself, or as an unfortunate but likely consequence of our actions?
  • Do we see value in our being known publicly as political prisoners in relation to highlighting our concerns and campaigns?
  • Do we want to be accountable to the judiciary and thus the state for our actions?

    Perhaps if we see political value in all of these we might see less problem in participating in our own incarceration and may indeed find resonance in Gandhi's stated belief that prison was a useful aspect of nonviolent struggle because it presented an opportunity for transforming our “enemies” through their exposure to our deeply and sincerely held beliefs.

    The price of non-compliance

    But what if we don't see value, or at least see less value in this level of interaction with state actors (as opposed to our interaction with wider society - something which can be very useful and positive if our opportunities for reaching out from prison are well-used and supported). Where does that leave us? Unaccountable actions, not participating in the likely (if not inevitable) legal process and not participating in our own incarceration. Whatever the merits, taking such a principled stance exerts a heavy price. Non-compliance with the legal process and prison regime - even in the most liberal of “democracies” - has negative repercussions for the protagonist.

    I don't think there is any easy answer to this tension for those of us who do not embrace the Gandhian ideal. But what I do think is that what matters is that our conduct - during action, the legal process and prison - should reflect our own personal cocktail of:

  • Our analysis of the notion and manifestations of state (and thus the “criminal justice” system);
  • Our understanding of the tactical and strategic value of our imprisonment and how we act on this understanding;
  • Our personal needs and ability to sustain our activism both inside and outside prison.

    Staying in control

    However we conduct ourselves while imprisoned, and whatever our high ideals, the most important thing for me is that my behaviour is considered and controlled. That I am neither stuck in such a rut of principle that I make my life a misery, nor so terrified by authority that I agree to anything, nor so firm in my conviction that I can inspire change in my captors that I am blind to my own oppression at the hands of functionaries of a militarised and violent state.

Topics: Prison