Text by John Bowden

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I think the true origin and source of my strength in surviving over a quarter of a century in maximum security prison lays in my experience as a child, which is probably also the source of my politicalization.            

My mother was an Irish immigrant to Britain at a time during the 1950s and 1960s when anti-Irish racism was at its height. She was an extremely proud woman from Irish traveler origins and she stood up to and confronted the racism she experienced in London and he Irish republicanism deepened in the process. As a child I directly expired racism and witnessed the pack mentality of our “white working class” neighbors in the economically and socially deprived districts and poor housing estates of south east London. Our family was frequently terrorized by those that we lived amongst and my mother always stood up to the racist bullies and encouraged her children to do the same. I regularly fought with local gang who daily subjected me and my sisters to racist abude whilst on our way to school or the local Catholic Church. From such ab experience I developed an inner pride and strength that has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

Unfortunately as a young boy and probably as a result of my experience of racism and alienation I developed what the system would define and label as “behaviounal problems”. This manifested itself in frequent arson episodes when I would break into local factories and burn them down. The response of the system was to banish me to various repressive institutions where “difficult” working class children were imprisoned, abused and brutalized. My response to such treatment was to regularly escape and return to my parents’ home in South London, which often provoked manhunts from the police and raids on my family’s home. Eventually I “graduated” to more penal like institutions for “young offenders” where brutality and repression for the purpose of maintaining “good order and discipline” was more overt and extreme. Unable to escape because of the prison-like physical conditions “young offenders” were held in, I fought back and challenged the authority of the professional sadist that operated the repression and violence. As a result I spend long periods in solitary confinement or “segregation”, where I developed an enormous inner-strength and psychological resilience. Unfortunately when released and obviously as a consequence of my now alienation from “normal society”, I become a criminal and followed a life-style of violence, robbery and existing with other criminals on the margins of society.  In 1982 I was convicted with two other men of murdering a fourth man and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In an extract of my pamphlet “Tear down the walls” I wrote,

Initially my fight against the prison system was extreme and direct. It reflected my belief that I would probably die in prison anyway, so had absolutely nothing to lose by creating situations that would provoke the system into a murderous response.” As I saw, witnessed and experienced it, the prison was terrorizing prisoners and imposing regimes designed to destroy us. I decided to terrorize it back and engage in actions that would unnerve and demoralize those employed to administer prison repression. In January 1983 at Parkhurst maximum-security prison I took an assistant governor hostage and held him captive in his office for two days. Armed police laid siege to the prison and my access to a phone resulted in the close interest and involvement of the national media in what was going on. Eventually my demand that my legal representive and a journalist at my choice be allowed access to the prison to hear and publicly communicate mycomplains against the prison system was conceded to and I released the governor unarmed. I was convicted of hostage – taking and given an additional ten years imprisonment and then buried in solitary confinement for four consecutive years. During these four years the prison system made a determined attempt to physically and psychological destroy me and punished me to the very edge of human endurance. Apart from being held in almost clinical isolation in brutal and very austere punishment/segregation units, I was also moved around between different prison every 28 days in an attempt to keep me constantly disoriented and unsettled. This was deliberately intended to keep me an a constant state of psychological stress so as to grind me down mentally. I was also subjected to frequent assaults and beatings and made to feel at the complete mercy of my guards. Far from destroying me, however, I was made immeasurably stronger and more resilient by what was being inflicted on me and I came to feel like a soldier in battle, capable of enormous endurance and psychological resourcefulness. The harder they tried to break my spirit the greater became my will to survive and somehow fight back. I also became deeply radicalized by the experience and contextualized my struggle in the much wider struggle of oppressed people everywhere.

In terms of meaningful prison time, I apply a simple and straight forward rule: Only engage in activity that strengthens and develops you, such as use of whatever educational facilities exist in the prison and physical training in the gym. Mental and physical strength must be maintained and increased first and foremost. And negative activity such as drugs and gang activity which ultimately weakens you must be avoided. Always one must be aware that prison is intrinsically designed to destroy and subdue the human spirit, so one must adopt a revolutionary attitude and soldier-like mentality, and always maintain and develop ones inner and outer strength.

John Bowden

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