the politics of incarceration

18 July 2020

 ”I was only a working-class boy from a Nationalist ghetto, but it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom. I shall not settle until I achieve liberation of my country, until Ireland becomes a sovereign, independent socialist republic. ” The words of Bobby Sands as quoted in IRIS, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 1981 (IRIS was a publication of the Sinn Fein Foreign Affairs Bureau). 

The complex patterns of rebel systems and anti-systems are intriguing and well documented. Ana Arjona’s Rebelocracy looks at rebel (FARC, ELN etc) and rightwing militia held areas of Colombia, examining how rebels create systems of governance that are often more responsive to people’s needs because of their very localised nature (my interpretation).  

Sands and his comrades set up alternate systems inside prisons, they had hierarchy and leadership. Those who were chosen for hunger strike were carefully selected. It wasn’t anarchic, it was precisely planned and executed. ‘Prison writings originating in the Cages of Long Kesh provide dramatic evidence of how Republican prisoners co-opt and appropriate the space of the prison to at least partially invert the disciplinary structures intended to break them and isolate them from their comrades’ (Lachlan Whalen). Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ situates Sands’ political activism in the physical body and mind, these becoming the embodiment of the Republican message: its actuality.

Political activism as a driving force co-opts creativity and imagination. The desire to know more about the struggles of others can tell us much about how our own battles may be fought. What has happened elsewhere can help us understand and reimagine that story as our own.  Systems, as described above, enable things to happen: they create the space where collaboration and new thinking may happen, disruptive and imaginative. 

‘Sands… read voraciously – his favourites including Frantz Fanon, Camilo Torres, Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral, George Jackson and, of Irish writers, Connolly, Pearse and Mellows’ (Ten Men Dead, David Beresford).

Inside prisons, creativity emerges, perhaps through boredom, perhaps through the need to self-express, in drawing, painting, music and writing in ways that are both allowed and forbidden. The most interesting activity is that which is of the forbidden kind. The ingenuity of prisoners in finding ways to communicate tells much about how creativity, repression and political activism may go hand in hand. Irish republicans used codenames to protect identities both within and without prison walls. Radios, code named ‘Mrs Dale’ (a popular radio soap at the time) were smuggled into Long Kesh in the usual way (i.e. hidden internally). Ngugi wa Thiong’o scammed a ball point pen from prison guards for the writing of a ‘confession’ and proceeded to write ‘Devil On The Cross’ on squares of toilet paper.  There are many other examples of such ingenuity.

Critical consciousness developing inside prisons is also well-documented: Malcolm X, George Jackson for example. Countless radical activists are well known for their prison writings: Assata Shakur, Eldridge Cleaver, Wole Soyinka, Nelson Mandela. What leads people to be imprisoned (not all people) is the brutality of oppression, often political in its motivation. But thinking cannot be crushed in this way.

There are not ‘those that have creativity and imagination’ and ‘those that don’t’. A framework for how this can be expressed and communicated would seem to be what enables some and prevents others: who has access to this framework is carefully guarded by those that seek to maintain the status quo.

The cultural sector, in the global north anyway, is obsessed with the creative/non-creative binary. There are those that ‘perform’ or ‘create’ and those that ‘consume’. Even the more imaginative and progressive organisations get stuck with this. There may not be a ‘stage’, performance may be informal or have participative elements or be immersive. I’ve been to many brilliant performances like this. But what can be learnt by looking outside of the ‘cultural sector’?

In the aftermath of Grenfell, families and survivors created the Silent Walk, happening every month on the fourteenth. You really have to see or participate in this to completely understand its power. A body of quiet movement, silently passing through the streets of North Kensington. Both disruptive and transitory. It is exactly and precisely performative: being or relating to an expression that serves to effect a transaction or that constitutes the performance of the specified act by virtue of its utterance

In 2016, a group of Australians used the same performative methodology, speaking the exact words of the leaked case files documenting physical, mental and sexual abuse on Nauru, a ‘performance’ that lasted almost ten hours. A kind of durational reading, documenting wilful torture in the name of the Australian government. 

There is much to be learnt from understanding the stories of others, from political prisoners to grass roots movements, about the communication of injustice. In these two examples there is leadership and decision making, a system in place that allows the activity to happen. But there is no creative/non creative binary at play. That kind of ‘hierarchy of worth’ is missing.  And it is more powerful for it. 

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