(Translated from the German)
We are documenting a personal report from a prison inmate in France. He reports—without any claims to exhaustive analysis—on how he is dealing with it, the nature of the surveillance, from particular experiences, and to the power of both help and solidarity.
Sunday morning services. A large room named the “multi-purpose room” with no windows and green stuff on the carpet, which can barely be differentiated from the filth. Thick, angular pipes penetrate the room from all angles, and one quickly gets over the noise coming from the ventilation. On the wall, some naïve prisoner artwork—built, crafted, or painted—they manage to bring some colour into the room. Three or four rows of chairs are arranged around the alter. About forty prisoners are here: at the front on the left side, there are the old white guys who are from the so-called “child fucker floor”, the Blacks, the Russians, the Germans, the young Alsatians. For the majority of prisoners though, this Christians offers them nothing; they are kids of the banlieu [suburbs], predominately coming from Arab backgrounds. It is one of the few opportunities to meet prisoners from others parts of the prison. Although there is never enough time to sit and chat, before or after the service. There are far more important things to talk about, especially for those who sit at the back. The first few times, I got excited about the change of pace: a new room, different people, listening to French and maybe learn a thing or two. But the more I understand and the more I sit in the windowless room with the neon pipes on the wall, the more it makes me sick. The fact alone that I have to sit and listen is bad enough. I could have stayed in the cell, but I spend already 20 hours a day there. The Pastor says that prison is a test which God has made for us, and that God is always with us during these times. As if it wasn't the work of people that brought us here: the agents of justice, who since Sarkozy are even more repressive and racist, and a society which can think of nothing better than locking away tens of thousands of people instead of tackling real problems and their roots.
If were to sit and stew over this, I could really get myself going—thereby being unfair to a lot of Christians. But the fact is, I can only think that the role of the church is one of further ensuring the domination: it's an embassy. You must accept everything here and pray for better times. God wants for you to be poor. The main thing: do nothing forbidden, even if you don't get many chances to.
I want to have control of my person and my life. I don't want to be advised by a judge nor “tested” by a god. But are the opportunities here to take one's life into one's own hands. Here, where everything, even movement itself, is controlled so intensely?
Hunger strike? Leads most probably to forced feeding and weakens the body even more than the restrictions on movement. One can even lose control of basic bodily functions. Resistance? Recently in another prison, the prisoners refused to return to their cells after the end of their daily exercises. After a few hours, a special group of police arrived (ERIS) and beat everyone back into their cells. The apparent ringleaders were moved or place in the hole, or isolation custody. Break out? Walls, fences, barbed wires, cameras, watchtower—so many hindrances that it makes it look impossible.
Church service is over, and I am terrified by my thoughts. We chat a little more, but soon we have to get out. On the way back to the cell, there are four gates to go through. Before each door, one must stand in front and dance in front of cameras until someone in an invisible control center presses on a button and the doors open with a metallic klang. Reaching our floor, the guard of the day locks us in. At the beginning, I often said “Thanks” simply out of habit, as if someone held the door for me out of kindness. So quickly did it become “normal” to be locked up. Or, I perhaps wished so much for a certain kind of “normalcy” that it expressed itself in these gestures. . To be on par with someone, to stand beside someone as an equal—hold open the door-- “Thanks!”
Back in the cell. Two people in eight square meters: 20 hours a day, eating, toilette, exercise, reading, writing, laundry, sleeping, all of this in eight square meters. Two meters wide, four meters long. The door has a small window, where the eyes of a guard usually appear regularly at night. At the other end of the cell is the window, large and wide, with double bars. One coarse bar more or less how one would imagine it. In front of it is another very fine, very tight bar, through which one could barely put through two fingers. When you enter the cell, there are two cupboards, on the left side a sink and a toilet. A wall made of glass block visually obscures from the metal bunk bed. Two small tables, two chairs, a television. No more could fit into the cell. My cellmate is nice, I like him a lot. Often it's really nice that there are two of us. Eating together, talking about God and the world, swapping news about letters or whatever, cursing the judge or just playing around...but 20 hours a day? The only time we don't see one another is when we are both in bed or when one of us is sitting on the toilet. One knows every move the other makes. One can barely look away, you have to almost watch yourself. Only seldom am I alone, and never longer than two hours. Only then do I remember something that I otherwise forget: one can never be certain of being alone here. Constantly listening to the sound of footsteps, the rattling of key in the corridor, or the squeak of the doors leading to the stairway. Suddenly, a guard shows up in the cell, to check on the bars or to hand out mail. One can write a little note with the word “Toilette” on it and send it under the door, then they will not come in, or at least they knock.
Naturally, I don't think about the surveillance and the control the whole time. I simply forget it, it's become a everyday thing, something “normal.” Then it doesn't feel so bad to be here. Actually, this forgetting is important for protecting oneself: should I think constantly about the surveillance, I would already be crazy.
How many other people are situations outside of their own control? I take comfort in the fact that it could be much worse. True, we do have enough to eat, a roof over our heads, more or less clean, somethings to do like sports and school. For a lot of people in the world, it's actually much more fucked up than this outside of jail. But that is naturally no accept with poor living conditions.
The most wonderful things are the letters. Often with pictures and photos—but above all the stories, with info, questions, full of support, trust, love. This helps out a lot, as does answering these letters. Thankfully, I have many wonderful memories, many people whom I enjoy thinking about. Ideas for the future, books and newspaper are also important for me: many suggestions and ideas about “changing the world”, books that I have always wanted to read, and a theme that has only become interesting since being here: the locking up of human beings.
A crackly voice over the loudspeaker above the door: “For yard exercises, please press the button.” Often, the voice is barely sensible, but they are few other announcements. Both of us jump out of bed, and press the button, outside the door a red light goes on. We get ready quickly; we don't know how fast they will come. Often, we sit around for a while, before anything gets going. In the hall, we have to wait by the doors on the wall. After a couple minutes, we hear “GO.” Handshakes with friends: “Hey how are you?” “yeah, okay. And you?” “I guess same as ever, normal.” Herded down the steps, followed by a guard. Through a metal detector then we're out! Between barb wired walls we enter a door to the courts. Left is “our” court. When everyone is inside, the doors are locked—after about an hour and a half, they are open again. Our court still has a yard which is still green. Walking the perimeter requires about 150 paces: 50, 25, 50, 25 then it repeats. Off to the side there is a tin roof to protect against the rain and sun, supported by concrete pillars. A water spigot drips at all times.
On the way to the gully, one stumbles upon the “wetland,” as we have come to call it. Constantly changing in small ways, once every lap over the little bit of running water. Newspapers float around or float slowly in the water. There is no garbage can.
The concrete wall around the court is a bit over two meters high, and on top of that are about two meters of fencing, with an overhang on our side. On this overhang, one finds the so-called “NATO Wire”--that is, barbwire with of about 80 centimeter caliber. The metal tape is clamped and have barbwire and little bells. On three sides, the main prison building stretches over the walls. A five-floor chunk of concrete in Plattenbau style (socialist prefabricated mass housing), which look like a fort from the courtyard. Above the fourth part of the wall reigns a watchtower. Often times, the prisoners climb up on top of eachother reaching high enough to look into the other court. The guard in the tower ignores this mostly, but sometimes they are pulled down. Above the courts, some steel netting blocks possible escape by helicopter.
It is often wonderful to see the sky: passing clouds, the sun, a couple of birds. And if it rains, it's also a good feeling. It's proof that were are still in the world. When I feel the raindrops, I notice that this spaceship, this prison complex cut off from the outside world, it is sill on earth. When I walk around the court, I feel as if I have fallen into a kind of pocket of time when I came here.
The first days three months ago seem to have been eons ago. On the flipside, though, nothing much has changed. What happens, the little that unfolds during the course of a day, rarely changes: it could be yesterday, last week, or a month ago. And tomorrow, next week, or in the next months, not much will happen. The days pass by pretty quickly, as do the weeks. But this is only one of many weeks, some of which have passed, others to come.
In the courtyard, there are about something 20 prisoners, sometimes 40. They stand around, smoke, chat, sit under the tine roof or on the grass, play chess or cards. Others still go around in circles, the 150 steps, always turning right. Only rarely does someone go in the other direction, and only there are many others moving along the wall, thereby one does not have to be constantly dodging others. A group standing in the corner, once approached me and told me, “Here, we go in this direction, you're doing it wrong.” I could barely believe it: “It's good for the mind to change things up now and then,” I tried to explain to them. I don't know if they understood me.
Suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, everything goes dark in our room (or so I call the cell often, in order to make it sound better to myself). We are on the top floor, and through the bars lots of light gets through. Serious black clouds have appeared and have once implanted themselves. The rain patters in the court and crashes into the wall, accompanied by thunder and lightning. We push our noses up against the the bars in order to watch the spectacle. Hundred of cell windows look out over the same three sides of the court. Each window lies in a kinda niche, which makes the facade look like a huge concrete honeycomb. Through this architecture, the windows are separated from one another, thus one has to yell really loud to be able to be heard. The voices are distorted by the echoes and create a totally unique atmosphere. On this afternoon, the sky burst open and violent storm breaks out. A wild howling descends, becomes stronger and stronger, more and more prisoners join in on the fun and start screaming. Some sound like horses, bears, or wolves, some scream out “Ayayay!” or other unintelligible things.
Under different circumstances, I would have perhaps watched quietly feeling a bit embarrassed, were I to hear someone scream like that. But this time, I most happily joined in, to scream at the storm and that prison. So many other things come out in this scream: doubt, courage, lust for life, the wish to move around freely, the hatred from the prison, the judge, and everything that brought us here. The yearning to see people we are not allowed to see. Above all, I feel a connection, a feeling shared with other people, either screaming of silent, who are in the same boat, who have to share the same destiny. To feel similar. The rain falls and slams against the walls, lighting, thunder, the voices come hard and fast, people beating on the bars on banging on the pipes.
A couple of friends, with whom you can talk to you about everything, are something truly valuable, especially here in jail. Always being around the same people can really get on one's nerves—that is no surprise. But to be without friends here, I don't even want to think about it. We chat a lot, crack cynical jokes about the judge and share news with one another. We play cards, chat with other prisoners, and share any sweets or stamps that might come our way. Often, we speak about plans for the future, a real joy: traveling, to the mountains or to the see. Seeing friends again. To be able to walk through the city or through the forest—without walls, barb wire. And bigger plans also emerges: how can we can create a society in which prisons are not needed? A society in which people can put forward and live out their interests and capabilities, a society where needs are met to the maximal extent they can be? A society in which people can form their own lives and have a voice in what happens around them...
I have some other things to write about: for instance, the first time on the field, after about one month in jail: to have a view again, the sky, the monstrous prison complex a hundred meters away, blooming flowers and high grass.
Or maybe about the ambivalence of having visitors: friends, excitement, connection to the outside world, power and courage, but also a yearning behind it, when everything that was so close two hours ago, is even further away.
When I read what I have written,I notice how much is missing. It is also clear that months in the prisons can not be described on a few pages. My voice comes and goes, and along with it my thoughts and opinions. I can only give a peak into my personal experience. Above all, I am sure that I have made it clear, how important help, trust, and solidarity from the outside. It's both good and important to know I have not been forgotten, that we are not alone. Supported like this, one can already keep going.
Recently, a bunch of people showed up on a roof directly outside the prison wall. They called out to us, rolled out a banner and yelled chants. Suddenly there were people from the outside, not all at far from us and could be seen from the courts on this side of the prison. In the court, everyone was excited and tried to figure out what the banner said. After a quarter of an hour, the whole episode was over: the people on the roof waved one last time and went home. But the memory of it still lives on.
To write to the prisoners:
Maison d‘Arrêt de Strasbourg
67035 Strasbourg, Cedex 2
German Speaking Activists:
T , N° 36911
N , N° 36910
Matthias , N° 36909
Jan , N° 36889
Philipp , N° 36890
French activists (Only in French, please):
N, N° 36908
D, N° 670355
rtc--radical translation collective