40 Years in Prison, 40 Years of Struggle: An Interview with John Bowden

by Connor Woodman

19 November 2020

John Bowden, a long-time prison organiser and member of the Prisoner Solidarity Network, was recently released after 40 years of incarceration. While all those who were sent down with him were released after 20 years, Bowden was kept back as punishment for his anti-prison organising.

Connor Woodman sat down with Bowden to discuss the prison system, including the dynamics of struggle between guards and prisoners, the role of gangs in today’s prisons, and his involvement in an uprising in one of the most repressive segregation units in the UK.

CW: Based on your 40 years in the UK prison system, what would you say the function and purpose of prison is?

JB: If there is a relationship between prisons and public protection, it’s very much an inverse one. Prisons actually create and produce alienated and de-socialised individuals.

We’re dealing with people that already exist on the margins of society and have for most of their lives. To put them into a total institution, to disempower them, brutalise them if necessary – all that effectively does is further alienate and isolate them. That’s why you have such a high rate of reoffending. People who spend long periods of time in prison encounter incredible difficulties trying to adapt to the society they then emerge into. Prison doesn’t rehabilitate anybody in any sense; it further damages them.

The fundamental purpose of prison is social control. The social composition of the prison population illustrates that perfectly: mostly poor, disproportionately young Black people. Those who really don’t have a place in society are disappeared into the prison system.

CW: You were a committed prison organiser. What were the core principles that guided your organising?

JB: I committed and devoted my life not just to the personal struggle against brutality but to a wider struggle against the prison system generally, and spent almost 40 years trying to organise and mobilise prisoners.

Our aim was to collectively empower prisoners. By collectively empowering them we could shift the balance between us and those with the keys.

You had to see where the balance of power lay, not just with the screws but between prisoners themselves, and try and change that incrementally by creating a common purpose or consciousness amongst as many prisoners as you could. You have to establish the roots of organisation amongst the prisoners before you can confront the system itself.

CW: What were the key tactics of struggle you would use in prison?

JB: Once you had successfully created a structure of organisation and solidarity, there were many issues you could focus on: the brutalisation of particular prisoners, the maltreatment of prisoners in segregation, the behaviour of particular prison officers. The tactics we would deploy would include sit-down protests, refusal to lock-up, refusal to work, food strikes.

Even in places like close supervision centres, where you’re in virtual solitary confinement, if you’re able to communicate with those around you – for example through the cell windows – you could organise collective protests. Organisation even in the most oppressive situations was possible.

CW: What was the most successful prison uprising you were involved in?

JB: The one that gave me the greatest inspiration and faith in struggle occurred in probably the worst segregation unit in the UK: Wakefield segregation unit, or F-Wing.

During the seventies they set up this control unit in Wakefield Prison, based on the principles of behaviour modification, Pavlovian methods. It was absolutely brutal. A lot of the lessons they learnt from that were applied in Northern Ireland in the H-Blocks – it was very much an experiment in behaviour modification.

They would use F-Wing as a national facility for the most ‘difficult’ or ‘unmanageable’ prisoners in the system. People were held in total and absolute isolation and were frequently brutalised by the staff. There was a high level of suicide, mental illness etc.

I took a prison governor hostage at Parkhurst Prison in the early eighties, and after that I was sent to Wakefield F-Wing. I was placed in a subterranean cage. It was an atmosphere of total and absolute control and terror.

When I got there, they’d got so confident of being able to control and break so-called prison subversives that it was quite overpopulated by Irish Republican prisoners and others.

I was able to open up lines of communication with them, and we started to withdraw our cooperation, engage in dirty protests, wreck the cells etc. And the whole place came together in absolute and total unity. For two days, we had more or less control of it. It was unprecedented, they shut F-Wing Wakefield for about two months and ghosted us all elsewhere. Despite the fact we were in individual cells, there was this great feeling of togetherness, that we had won.

The inspiring thing about that was, even in a place of total repression, where the system appeared to have absolute control, we won. And if it could be achieved there, it could be achieved anywhere. That was the most inspiring experience of my life in prison. It gave me great hope and faith in the collective power, not just of prisoners, but of poor and oppressed people everywhere. They were capable of defeating the system, providing they saw their struggle as one.

CW: How does the prison system try and prevent such uprisings?

JB: The 1990 Strangeways Uprising was incredibly positive. It really terrified the system, because they realised that prison organisation and collective rebellion was a possibility.

In response they introduced the close supervision centre system, whereby those perceived to be trouble-makers and organisers are placed in total isolation. They introduced the incentives and enhanced privileges scheme, which is a kind of class system among the prisoners. If you refuse to work, you are basically locked up with nothing. If you agree to work and cooperate, your ‘privilege’ status is increased.

State-hired psychiatrists were always used against prisoners, particularly from the fifties to the eighties. Psychiatrists would lend their blessing to the brutalisation of prisoners, usually in the form of the ‘liquid cosh’: the unlawful sedation of difficult prisoners.

Later you had the growth of psychology in the prison system. In order for prisoners to achieve parole or release, they had to accept that they suffered from a personality disorder and accept that all the problems were within their own character. They had to do behaviour modification courses, and if they didn’t, they wouldn’t receive parole, and if they were life sentence prisoners they would die in prison.

CW: How did the prison system relate to the emergence of prison gangs?

JB: I escaped from prison in 1992, and was eventually recaptured in Scotland. When I went back to Whitemoor Prison years later I was absolutely shocked by the changes in prisoner culture. Divisions among prisoners had grown, gang culture had really grown, drug culture had increased dramatically, and it was clear that the staff, the screws, were using that as a means of control. They’d almost subcontract out the discipline and control function to the most powerful gangs on the wing.

When I went to Swaleside Prison, for example, there was a mentally ill prisoner next door to me. He was banging on his door all night and a gang of screws went in and badly beat him up. The next morning a group of us said to everybody else on the wing, ‘we can’t allow this. They can come in at any time day or night and physically assault people, we need to protest’. So we tried to organise a stay-out, to refuse to lock-up at the end of the day. Initially about 70-80% of the wing agreed with us, so there was a real feeling of solidarity.

Then I noticed the screws approaching and talking to certain members of the gangs that were selling most of the drugs on the wing. And I then watched those gang members going around various cells talking to people, and by 9 o’clock that night, when they were trying to lock us up and we were going to stand out, there were just five of us left.

CW: Marshall “Eddie” Conway, a Black Panther and prison organiser who was imprisoned for about as long as you, writes that he managed to find a degree of mutual understanding and respect with the gangs within some prisons in the US. Did you ever manage something similar? 

JB: To some degree. When I was in Swaleside I interacted a lot with the young Black gangs and I tried to encourage them to see a common struggle and attempted to organise a Black prisoners representative group.

But the screws became aware of what I was doing, and they would approach leading gang members in the wing and encourage them to instruct the younger Black prisoners to ‘come out of my influence’. Sometimes it would even assume the form of blackmail with drug debts etc.

So when trying to organise – although there’s always a potential for organisation, particularly among young Black prisoners – you’re not just up against the screws and the governors and the system, you’re up against people I would describe as kapos, in the sense that the system is prepared to turn a blind eye to their drug dealing and so on provided they maintain order on the wing. And that was the hardest part of my time in prison.

CW: A debate occasionally breaks out on the British left, most recently within the Corbyn project, over the role of prison guards in the labour movement. What do you think of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA)?

JB: One of the things that really struck me during my imprisonment was how far more psychologically damaged prison officers are by prisons than prisoners. And the reason for this is that the system hands absolute power and control over prisoners to prison officers.

Obviously this results in abuse, but something more disturbing and sinister happens. In order to save their consciences, most prison officers begin to see prisoners as almost subhuman. So brutalising them, beating them up, locking them up in solitary confinement is okay, because they’re not really human beings. The prison officers themselves then become dehumanised.

I remember I was in a prison van approaching Wandsworth Prison – it was an awful place, they called it the ‘hate factory’ – and like a lot of jails then, it was controlled and run by the POA. As the van drew up, I was watching the prison officers come on duty. They were there, heads down, scurrying through the gates, and as these guys entered the prison a sort of metamorphosis overcame them. The swagger would start, like they were mini-dictators.

Prison officers develop a real far-right, neo-Nazi culture. During the seventies and eighties, 70% of prison officers at Strangeways Prison – POA members – were active members of the National Front. I remember during the eighties they had to be ordered not to wear National Front uniform, so they just put on a little badge with the union jack. You can imagine the treatment of particularly ethnic minority and Black prisoners in those days.

We need to look at the history of the prison officer movement, and how it has been used, for example, against imprisoned trade unionists. I was in prison in 1984 during the miners’ strike. There were a lot of miners locked up and they were brutalised in some prisons, particularly jails like Manchester and Wakefield.

Some prison officers would come in guided by pretty noble inspirations and aspirations. But they could be singled out after a while, and if they didn’t jump in line, they were victimised and driven out. I saw terrible examples of that: some prison officers beaten up by their colleagues, some having their cars set on fire in the prison car park.

It was expected that they would keep their mouths shut, even if they witnessed actual brutality or even murder, as happened in Wormwood Scrubs segregation unit during the eighties and nineties, where prisoners were being regularly murdered. When there was a police investigation into it, the police claimed they came up against a complete wall of silence from all prison staff, including prison doctors, psychologists, social workers and chaplains. And that is why the brutality and the murder was allowed to continue for so long. I do not understand how the Labour party or the trade union movement would embrace them [the POA] as fellow workers or comrades.

CW: Were there any groups on the British left who were supportive of your organising in prison?

JB: When I tried to make contact with Marxist-Leninist groups, I was met by complete disinterest, or even hostility. We in prison were received as the ‘lumpen-proletariat’, and they thought prisoners would have to exist regardless of what sort of society we were living under.

The only exception to that was the Revolutionary Communist Group. I found that anarchist groups, the Anarchist Black Cross in particular, were far more understanding and knowledgeable about the prison struggle than traditional Marxists.

CW: How important for you was solidarity from groups outside the prison?  

JB: Very important. We organised a massive work strike in Whitemoor Prison in 1991. We were all totally locked down, and I managed to get word out to a friend involved in the Anarchist Black Cross. They organised pickets of the Home Office, Prison Department headquarters and Whitemoor Prison. Once the system became aware that we had the support of outside groups and organisations, that empowered us immeasurably.

CW: My experience of the prison abolition groups over the past few years has been that there generally aren’t that many prisoners or ex-prisoners involved in them.

That is a problem in itself. It’s critically important that prisoners have some central input. The thing to do is to try to build a network of support within the prison system itself. Open up lines of communication with prisoners.

It is difficult. At the moment you’ve got this massive lockdown of prisons, and that isn’t going to ease, regardless of what happens with this virus. The POA have made it clear that they want prisoners locked down permanently, and they’ve been campaigning for this lockdown for at least the last ten years. But solidarity can be achieved.

CW: What opportunities are there for prison organising today?

JB: I suspect that even if the lockdown continues they will ease it just to allow prisoners to work and to continue to exploit them. Because of the divisions within the prison populations in terms of race or gangs, the one area where organisation is potentially possible is in creating a loose trade union movement within prison workshops like they’ve done in parts of America. I think there’s also incredible potential for groups like the Prisoner Solidarity Network along with Black Lives Matter to highlight the purpose of prisons, why they exist, what they’re there to do, and how abolition is a reasonable alternative.

Connor Woodman writes for Novara Media and other outlets.

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