Thursday, October 29, 2009

Living in Truth

A mate of mine went off to Open prison recently, only to find himself ejected back to some crappy local nick within 24 hours. This borders on a record in itself. The reason we have heard for these events is that he took exception to having to wear prison clothes and live in a dormitory. To the uninitiated, these must sound a feeble platform for rebellion and to risk another couple of years in prison. I can't feel anything other than pride in his stance. With the carrot of release being dangled before him and the weight of the prison system at his back, he still had the fortitude to stay true to himself. Clothing and dormitories are merely the symptom of a web of untruths, and he refused to play the game and buy into the lie. Open prisons are intended to test us in conditions that resemble the community rather than prison. We are forced to stay in prison another few years solely to undergo this process. Of course, this is all untrue. Open prisons are nothing like the community and so the excuse for keeping us there is threadbare. To be forced to wear prison uniform is a step too far. Bear in mind that most long-term prisoners wear their own clothing for much of their sentence, and so to be forced into uniform at the precise juncture when we are meant to be given more responsibility and freedom is an utter nonsense. Ditto with living in a dorm. Officially, his crime will be listed on file as refusing a lawful order. In reality, though, his offence was to refuse to subscribe to a regime based on a lie. For living in Truth, for shining a spotlight on a naked Emperor, he will be made to suffer. Was he wrong? If one is a pragmatist, if gaining release at the earliest possible moment is the goal, then this is clearly a bad decision. And most people (prisoners included) adopt that line of least resistance whilst navigating the vagaries of life. That has never been my chosen path. Doing what is perceived to be "the right thing" has always been more important, but that is my particular quirk and it carries its own consequences. I never criticise others for the path they chose. And yet there is a powerful testament given by those like my mate who refuse to accept an institutional lie and be bullied. The philosophy of pragmatism has its adherents and such people make a huge contribution to life. At the same time, there are those for whom fundamental values and beliefs are paramount, regardless of personal cost. These are the people whose struggles echo through the ages and we should thank them more for the service they render all of us, for they teach us two lessons. First, that "speaking Truth to Power" is vital to making those who rule our lives pause in their machinations. And second, that standing up as a sovereign individual reinforces the human dignity that we should all cherish. Of course, our grapevine being as unreliable as it is speedy, none of the above may be correct!


  1. Ben, I wanted to ask this question when you invited us to open up, but I thought I would leave the serious questions to the other commentators.

    But since this post relates to what I wanted to ask, then I will ask it after all: It is all well and good to take principled stances on issues and rules that you disagree with (I recognise that this is often the only way rightful change is achieved), but ultimately is it not dangerous to propogate (especially in a prison) the idea that the individual should be the arbiter of what is right and wrong with the rules or the "system"?

    I'm sure there are many examples of legitimate "rule breakers" who helped to bring about rightful change (Ghandi, I'm sure broke a few rules along the way) but it is arguably arrogant of you to assume the role of conscientous objecter, using the consequences you bring upon yourself to legitimise what you are doing and justify it as right (I'm not saying you do do or think this, but if you do your argument might go, "who in their right mind would open themselves up to the consequences of taking such a rule-breaking stance, unless they knew it was objectively right"). Of course "objectively right" is always going to be a mirage.

    Sometimes it is easier to change the system from within, which means playing by the rules. In your situation, that might mean getting out of prision, into the outside world where you would (arguably) be able to make a greater impact, utilising the system as a free man, without hindrance.

    Hopefully you can use any profile you get from your blog to make an impact on the issues you care about when you get out, and I hope your rule breaking ways don't prohibit you from getting out before that profile fades...

  2. On reflection I agree with Benn, this seems like a strange point to take a principled stand on.

    The uniform bit is easy to see the point of for the community outside the open prison. Since the prison is open it is much easier for inmates to abscond and so it is in the interests of the communities around the prison that they can identify prisoners. In this case I'm afraid the rights of the community trump the inmate's. You will not win that one.

    As to dormitories, I was not previously under the impression that those in bail hostels got their own rooms. IOW your assumptions about life on the outside are showing.

    As a scientist attending international conferences sometimes I have found myself sleeping in a shared room. I remember a converted cistercian monastery in Switzerland, we slept about 8 to a room on mattresses on the floor. In the service of something better, we accepted it.

    I do wonder if the combination of your youth on entry to the criminal justice system and the time you have spent inside have not given you skewed priorities when it comes to such things.

    I do not doubt that they seem important to you, but if you behave like that on the outside you will encounter conflict, much of it unnecessary. I humbly and with trepidation suggest it is this, rather than adherence to the rules per se that the prison system is worried about with you and why you are still not released.

    I have always been a good one for principled stands myself, but it is important to choose the right battles. Fight the good fight through your PhD project, for which you need to get out (and which may just find you living in student digs, remember). Proportionality can be hard to find without keeping the greater aim in mind at all times. From the outside you will see it all differently. Come and see.

  3. The comments above also reflect my views.

    As to Open Prisons. I understand that many are very old and former military bases - hence the dormitories that you mention. I do not understand the issue with wearing personal clothing. The majority of prisoners in open conditions are apparently working in the community and wear their own clothes whilst at work. I have read many prison memoirs which indicate that prisoners feel more normal in open conditions as there are no fences, locks and they can exercise some choice in their day to day living.

    I know that it was a Quaker historian who coined the phrase "speaking truth to power" relating to the two antagonists in the cold war. Now it is widely used to depict an attitude toward government and other intitutionalised forms of power. It is the attitude I had in my youth and whilst at university. It went out the window in the real world of earning my living and maturing. I am sorry Ben but you will never persuade me that any closed institution can operate without rules that you may well dislike. However, if I was in the same intitution as you I may well welcome them. As long as the rules apply to all and are known then this is OK. Prisons hold a wide variety of people and professional staff and reflect society. I am sure you have encountered all sorts throughout your sentence. Whether in prison or not, we all have to negotiate in an appropriate way in order to survive. I worry that the authorities may think that you may not be able to do this. You can still retain your values of honesty and integrity but with this comes respect for others values which may not be in accord with your own.

  4. The point seems obvious to me. Long termers get to wear their own clothes even in high security. To get to a prison whose purpose is to reintegrate them to the community and be thrown into uniform is insulting and perverse. And remember, prison is a continuous sucession of insults- which one is the one where you draw the line?