From the archive: The freedom you gave away [an ex-prisoner’s perspective]

Prisoner Ben /   February 3, 2013 at 8:33 PM 2,013 views

1984

So I was out of the loop for a while. I say a while, I mean 32 years. In that time politics rolled on, nations came and fell, new empires were born, and laws rolled off the production line like tins of beans. Things changed whilst I was away.

Not that these changes pass prisoners by; imprisonment is not a Rip Van Winkle experience. Through newspapers, TV, radio, staff, visitors and – mostly – through the perpetual influx of new prisoners who obviously bring cultural shifts along with their Court Warrant through the gates. Being out of the way needn’t mean being out of touch.

And yet….There are parts of prison culture which are unalterable. One of these is a complete lack of privacy. At whim, staff can descend upon you and insist you undress, peel back your foreskin and squat over a mirror. Every item in your possession can be pawed over, read, copied, every letter censored, every phonecall recorded. Being a modern prisoner is to live in a fishbowl that sits on the desk of the Secretary of State.

Such freedoms as privacy may be circumscribed out of necessity in prisons, although even that argument has had to take on a nuanced hue. Letters across most of the estate are no longer routinely censored, though the right for staff to do so remains. Every word whispered across a table in the visits room is not listened to, because there are not enough staff to position one at each table. In these ways, although the right to privacy has been lost, the practicalities of intrusion limit the malign effect of that.

Privacy is but a useful illustrative point. I could be referring to any of the rights which individuals assert as the legitimate limits of State power. And during the years I was subjected to that power I resisted in every sphere of my existence. Devouring political theory and history, which was then honed in the daily machinations of prison life where State power is at its most naked, I have slowly become something of a libertarian. Essentially, there should be strict limits on State power to intrude into the private sphere.

However, as I was busy fighting to create a personal sphere in prison, and struggling to escape prison for “freedom”, you lot were all busy signing away all that had been fought for since, at least, Magna Carta. I have been released into a society which not only fails to appreciate its freedoms but which has forgotten the most important lesson of history – governments may indeed be necessary, but they are to be treated with suspicion and scepticism. Like prison governors, in fact.

At what point did we think it was a good idea to get rid of a suspect’s right to silence? If the State wants to throw a person in prison, why do we equivocate over the idea that they should damn well prove their case? When did we find it acceptable that the local council can install hidden cameras and set spies upon us over our school choices and bin over-filling? When did it seem a clever idea to institute secret courts, with secret evidence? And detention without charge or trial?

These are but mere examples of the intrusion, not just into privacy but physical liberty itself, which society blithely surrendered. As important, but more subtle, is the censorship of thought and speech which has inveigled its way into the dominant discourse.

It is utterly repugnant that unpleasant, offensive ideas cannot be discussed. It is an outrage that society swapped the freedom to speak for the right not to be offended. And it is disgraceful that society has abandoned the idea of challenging horrible or dangerous ideas by argument or ridicule and instead turned to the State to enforce this pathetic demand not to hear anything we find distasteful.

Perhaps it takes a man who has been without freedom for most of his life to appreciate the very concept. Because those of you who have enjoyed it all along have treated the very idea of freedom with contempt.

Courtesy of Ben’s Prison Blog

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