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FRFI 197 June / July 2007

Hands off John Bowden!

On 18 April 2007, after nine months in an open prison and shortly before a parole hearing to decide his suitability for release after 25 years in prison, John Bowden was placed in solitary confinement. The next day he was moved to a closed prison. NICKI JAMESON writes.

On the day of John’s transfer the Dundee Courier’s front-page headline proclaimed ‘Castle Huntly killer has terror links’. The article begins: ‘A Castle Huntly prison social worker fears a brutal killer, due for parole in two weeks, has links to terrorists. A report by the social worker claims that low-security inmate John “Ginger” Bowden is in continual contact with “eco-terrorists or paramilitary members” and has received visits from “people involved in terrorism”.’

The ‘social worker’ in question is Matt Stillman, whom John describes as ‘a right-wing American entrenched in punitive ideas about the role of the parole and probation system’, and who appears to have been chosen specifically for this reason for the task of writing a vital report for consideration by the Parole Board panel that will determine if John is to be released.

The alleged ‘terrorists’ are in fact Brighton Anarchist Black Cross (ABC). ABC is a longstanding organisation, with small but active groups in many countries, dedicated to supporting ‘class struggle prisoners’. FRFI has worked with ABC groups for many years, united by our shared understanding of the importance of the struggle within prison. ABC’s main activities are writing to prisoners, organising benefits to raise funds for prisoners’ welfare and supporting or organising solidarity pickets of prisons. To label Brighton ABC as ‘terrorist’ is ridiculous and easily refutable; however this attack on John Bowden and ABC is intended to send a message to prisoners in British gaols that they stand up for themselves and others at their peril, and to prison support activists to back off or risk being blamed for decisions not to release. Neither John nor ABC are bowing to this pressure and are fighting the attack politically. All FRFI readers in and out of prison are encouraged to support their campaign.

John Bowden was imprisoned for murder in 1980, and has been in contact with FRFI since 1983. In 1984, following a trial resulting from a protest at Parkhurst the previous year, he wrote: ‘I was banished from open society for a serious infringement of criminal law – yet here I am deprived of any legal or civil protection from the murderous intentions and actions of a barbaric and antiquated penal system...I shall continue the struggle in every way possible to tear down that cloak of state secrecy and reveal the gross inhumanity that it seeks to hide.’

John has been good to his pledge, taking every opportunity that has presented itself to organise, educate and empower prisoners, to encourage political activists outside prison to be interested in and understand the use of prison as a weapon of oppression against the working class, to write for radical publications and to correspond with political and politicised prisoners around the world.

During this time the prison system itself has undergone many changes. John has always been quick to seize the opportunities presented by ‘liberal’ moments but has never been taken in by the promises of reform. In 1989-91 John worked within Long Lartin maximum security prison to organise a series of forums at which outside speakers, prisoners and prison staff would openly debate aspects of imprisonment. The prison responded well initially, allowing John and others to invite in guests who would never ordinarily have been permitted, including representatives of FRFI, but, just as the first and biggest forum was about to take place and the prison was basking in the reflected glory, the ‘liberal’ governor had John ghosted to Winson Green prison, where he was viciously assaulted by screws. The forum went ahead without him and John later successfully sued the Prison Service for the attack.

After the 1990 Strangeways uprising, John wrote a manifesto for prisoners’ rights, which he and other Long Lartin prisoners submitted to the Woolf Inquiry into the revolt. He also contributed to Larkin Publications’ 1995 book on the uprising: Strangeways 1990: a serious disturbance, writing:

‘Within a prison system that had relied so heavily on brutality and an institutionalised denial of basic human rights, the Strangeways uprising represented an eloquent statement that things would never again be quite the same...Prisoners had shown that even one of the most brutal gaols in England, a true bastion of screw power and authority, could be reduced to a burning wreck if and when prisoners said enough was enough. The lesson was certainly not lost on those who manage and administer the prison regime...The liberal façade of Woolf was coupled with a hidden agenda motivated by revenge and a determination to eradicate protest on the scale of Strangeways for ever more.’

Indeed, between 1990 and 2000 the British prison system was completely overhauled and hundreds of new divide-and-rule measures introduced, with the aim of preventing resistance on the scale of Strangeways ever occurring again. This attack has had a significant degree of success and by 2000, when Turkish prisoners were on hunger-strike, and John and Mark Barnsley were attempting to initiate solidarity within the British prison system, the smallest of group actions had become something many prisoners would shy away from for fear of loss of privileges, bad reports and ultimately denial of release.

In this climate John continued to operate politically, organising where possible and talking at length with younger prisoners, encouraging them to read about and understand the alienating and oppressive situation they found themselves in. At the same time, he began to prepare himself for his own possible release. Prior to April he had spent two years working unsupervised in the outside community as a volunteer on projects for the mentally ill and socially vulnerable, and had qualified as a literacy tutor for people with learning difficulties. He had been allowed frequent home leaves. As he wrote recently: ‘The two fundamental criteria determining a life sentence prisoner’s suitability for release, the expiry of the recommended period of time served in the interests of retribution, and the absence of any risk to the public, were both sufficiently established in my case’.

However, two decades of exposing and confronting the reality of British prisons were not going to be forgiven. John writes: ‘The truth is that my treatment is politically motivated and inspired by a determination to continuously punish me for having fought the system in the past and encouraging others to do so, and also by a determination to render me intellectually and politically compliant and submissive. As far as the prison system is concerned, the imperative now is not about negating any genuine risk that I might pose to the community – that stopped being an issue many years ago – but primarily about eradicating my political identity and spirit. From this point on, therefore, my continuing imprisonment is nakedly political and centres wholly on what I continue to represent to a prison system ever fearful of a politically awakened and militant prisoner movement.’

Join the protest by sending cards reading ‘Hands Off John Bowden!’ to Scottish Prison Service Headquarters, Communications Branch, Room 338, Calton House, 5 Redheughs Rigg, Edinburgh, EH12 9HW. Scotland.
Letters of support can be sent to John at: John Bowden, 6729, HMP Glenochil, King O’ Muir Road, Tullibody, Clackmannanshire, FK10 3AD. Scotland.
Tear down the walls!, a pamphlet containing two pieces by John Bowden, with an introduction by Mark Barnsley, is available from Leeds ABC, PO Box 53, Leeds, LS8 4WP, price £1.50 plus 50p postage; free to prisoners.
Join the demonstration in support of John, on Friday 8 June 12-2pm outside the Parole Board headquarters at Grenadier House 99-105 Horseferry Road, London SW1P 2DD.