leedsabc | 20.11.2012 00:12
John Bowden was arrested in 1980 for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1992, after years of brutality and repression, he managed to escape and was on the run from the police for a year and a half. He was recaptured in March 1994 and has since been in Perth Prison in Scotland. Here he talks about various aspects of being inside, including the reasons as to why he committed murder and his subsequent politicisation.
How do you justify asking for our support, having taken a life?
The murder itself cannot be looked upon as an isolated incident, it has to be tied in with my history. Being identified as Irish I experienced racism as well as extreme poverty very early on in life. Unfortunately my instinctive rebellion against both sets of disadvantages was always blind and misdirected. I rebelled early by committing serious anti-social acts (I burnt a factory to the ground when I was nine!) and so was criminalised and incarcerated quite early on in life. I was fed into the ‘criminal justice system’ as a mere child and systematically brutalised and de-socialised to the extent where I became a complete outsider, made hard and violent by institutionalisation and predatory in my relationship to ‘straight’ society.
The writer Norman Mailer has drawn some interesting and profoundly accurate parallels between the condition of ‘state raised convicts’ (people who had literally grown up in penal institutions) and that of the rebellious slaves sold into the gladiator schools of ancient Rome. Both groups suffered extreme dehumanisation and were turned into killers - the gladiators so that they would kill each other for the entertainment of the rich; the state raised convicts so that they would represent the ultimate social folk devil from which ‘normal’ society must be protected and carefully policed against.
By the time I had reached my early twenties I had already spent the bulk of my time locked away in various prison-type institutions and had accumulated a long criminal record, composed mostly of violent offences, which were becoming increasingly more violent. There was therefore a certain inevitability about my arrest for murder in 1980 and subsequent imprisonment for life. Within a year of being sentenced I was involved in a highly publicised hostage taking incident at Parkhurst Prison when an assistant governor was seized in protest over the murder of a prisoner in the hospital wing. I was sentenced to an additional ten years imprisonment, on top of life, and buried in solitary confinement for over four years. At that point my life was effectively over, and yet in a very real sense it was only just beginning. Somehow in the midst of all that hopelessness, pain and repression I actually began to discover my true humanity and experienced a process of deep politicisation which drew me closer to my fellow prisoners and oppressed people everywhere. From a brutalised and anti social criminal I metamorphasised into a totally committed revolutionary.
My politicisation happened while I was being held in solitary confinement and I suppose it had the intensity of a religious conversion almost. I was held in solitary for over four consecutive years at one point and so read and thought a great deal, and began to make connections between the struggle that I’d been fighting all of my life, albeit in an individualistic and self-destructive way, and the far wider struggles of oppressed people everywhere. I was also radicalised by my direct experience of struggle in prison essentially because in its treatment of rebellious prisoners, the state always reveals its true nature which of course is pure fascism. Revolutionary politics helped me to properly contextualise my struggle in prison and also to sustain and inspire me when I experienced repression of the most brutal and soul-destroying sort.
...Malcolm X once described prisons as universities of revolution. I discovered myself in prison and also a sort of freedom that I had never before known - my body might have been imprisoned but my mind and spirit became completely liberated...
What’s it like being in prison?
The pain of my recapture and the soul-destroying reality of being back in prison wounded me terribly and at one point caused me to contemplate offering up my life in one final struggle against the system - but then you made contact and I felt as if I still had some link with the outside.
Life here is much the same; I eat, I exercise, I sleep. Someone once described prisons as huge human battery farms, designed simply to warehouse people and maintain their biological existence. We’re fed (badly), clothed and housed in tiny boxes devoid of even the most basic human comforts. Though physically sustained men are spiritually crushed and driven insane almost routinely.
One day there will be a ‘carnival of the oppressed’ (my favourite description of revolution) and these bastards will be held accountable for their actions.
During summer prison becomes even harder to endure and accept and right now my longing for freedom is so painfully overwhelming and desperate. I want to be away from this awful place and free to wander with the sun on my face and the sounds and colours of summer all around me.
There are moments here, especially in the early mornings when I first awake and struggle to make the psychological adjustment from dreams of freedom to the hard edged reality of captivity, when I feel totally overwhelmed by depression and deep deep sadness. It sometimes requires a real Herculean effort of will power just to climb upright each morning and endure yet another soul-destroying day in this place, another day filled with dead time and frustrated desires, with such a desperate craving for freedom. Prison is a veritable evil exactly because it is so deliberately designed and structured to destroy the human spirit. I feel that psychological and emotional violence very keenly.
The experience of such extreme oppression, however, will never break or diminish me because in a sense I’ve been held captive all my life and so have grown hardened to their efforts of breaking me. Being imprisoned wounds and injures me but never will it touch my essential core, that vital source of strength and resistance. Despite all the pain and hardship of prison, I do somehow manage to survive with dignity and integrity and even humour.
...no matter how overwhelmingly bad the odds, retain a powerful hope and belief in the possibility of struggle and a far better world as a result of it...
I’m fortunate that I have apolitical perspective on prisons and so can universalise my struggle and relate it to the struggle of oppressed people everywhere. That awareness does provide a real source of strength and hope in this situation. In prison, especially you learn to understand the importance of collective struggle and mutual support and there really is no way that I could endure and survive this experience merely as an individual prisoner, depending on my own individual dreams and hopes.
How important is it to write to prisoners?
Prison, more than anything, is designed to isolate and alienate people from any source of support on the outside, and it is exactly that sensation of isolation that often destroys prisoner activists and political prisoners especially. There is no greater feeling of demoralisation than that created by the feeling that one is completely alone and isolated here, because no matter how strong or committed one is we all still need to feel that we are part of a much wider struggle with comrades supporting and assisting us even if they are not physically present. If I know that people on the outside recognise and support my struggle here in prison then I can endure and continue to resist infinitely even if buried in the deepest solitary confinement unit. Your own expressions of solidarity are a constant inspiration and source of so much that makes life bearable at the moment. A single letter is always sufficient to restore my belief in struggling on and reaching beyond all that presently exists to oppress and crush me.
Support John Bowden