Irish anarchist Joe C describes his political journey and prison experiences. This article was first published by the Workers Solidarity Movement.
In 2010 I was sentenced to 6 years for having possession of 20 grams of explosive powder. I was to serve 4 years and 8 months in Portlaoise prison. This is not an in-depth study into prison and jails, and it is not an academic piece. It is simply an experience. My experience of jail will be different than other people’s experience because no two people’s experience will ever be the same. The other person’s experience will always be different no matter how great or small.
My experience started with 3 days questioning in a Garda station in Mountjoy. After the questioning was over I was charged with having an explosive substance, having materials used to build explosives and membership of an illegal organization.
From the Garda station I was brought straight to the special criminal court which was in Green Street courthouse at the time. I was brought to the holding cell, which resembled something out of a cowboy film or a medievil film. There was no door on the cell, there was a gate made from bars. On the wall of the cell were messages written on the wall by people that have come through here, messages of support, people's names with numbers beside their name indicating how many years the person got, names of different republican groups, pictures of soldiers with guns, symbols such as the hammer and sickle.
At the time, I think these things gave me a tiny bit of inspiration, the graffiti showed I wasn't the only person to come through here. From my bit of knowledge of Republican history I knew Robert Emmet was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered in this court. Also O'Donovan Rossa and many other Fenian and Republicans passed through the court house. A lot of Republican history is tied up with this court, with this building. The car park out the back of the building, in which a convoy of Garda vans and Military jeeps were waiting to bring me to jail, in the past had been used as the gallows.
When I was brought into the court I sat down on the seat in the bench I was put in by the screws. Next the court cleric came in and said “All rise”, I stayed sitting in my seat as an act of defiance not recognizing the court. The 3 judges went through the fake proceedings like a pantomime. I sat there not bothered to listen because I knew I was fucked. The judges came to the part where they were reading my charges out, for this I was asked to stand, while not saying anything I refused by just sitting there not acknowledging the court. The court cleric repeated for me to stand but this time I could hear in his voice that he wasn't asking me but ordering me. I still didn't budge. They read out my charges after a minute, the judges ordered me to be put in custody.
The screws led me downstairs back into the holding cell. It didn't phase me that I was going to prison because I already knew I was going there. From the very first second I saw the cops in my parents’ front garden banging on the front door I knew I was fucked. A screw came into the cell, put handcuffs on me and put an extra handcuff on my right wrist and cuffed the other to his left wrist. A bunch of screws and cops walked me through the underground of the court out to the car park out the back.
I was a bit shocked to see the amount of cop vans and military in the car park, seeing soldiers walking about with rifles. It was now dark out and the blue siren lights of the the vans were flashing, I could see this weird blue glow flashing around the car park, the blue lights flickering off the walls.
I was put in a van with a few cops and screws, there were about 8 altogether sitting in the back with me. The vans and jeeps drove out of the car park in a convoy led by cops on motor bikes. The whole journey from the court to Portloaise prison was surreal. The convoy didn't stop once at traffic lights - from start to finish it didn't stop once, the cops’ motor bikes were being used to drive on ahead to stop or move on any traffic that might have been in the way.
When the convoy reached the jail a screw came to the van and asked what group I was with, I was still in the mindset that I was in when I was in the Garda station being questioned to which I repeatedly said no comment for the the 3 days. I told the screw I was not with a group, he then asked “which one I was aligned to”. I said I “wasn't aligned to any”. He then asked if I support any group, to which I told him which one I supported.
They then took me from the van leading me to the booking-in area. As they brought me through the grounds of the prison it was dark, here and there were big bright lights, all I could make out were big fences, cage-like, with razor wire wrapped around the tops. When I reached the booking-in area the screw there again asked which group I support, I told him. He then went to get the Officer Commanding (OC) of the group to come talk to me.
After a few minutes the screw came back with 2 people, one was the OC the other was his adjutant. I told them my story. They told the screws I was grand to go with them to the group landing. The screws brought us to D-block, on the ground floor of this block, the republican group had control of it. The other 2 floors were used to house social prisoners.
The first thing I noticed on the wall of the republican landing was a large painting of a man wearing a balaclava, military clothes and holding an AK47. The OC brought me to a cell and said I could have this one. Next the OC brought me to the kitchen and said I could help myself to breakfast cereal and fruit. He gave me an empty 2-liter bottle and told me to fill it with water for the night. I was then brought back to the cell I was allocated. The cell was about 10 foot long and 5 or 6 foot wide. All that was in it was a bed that was pushed up against the wall, the wall had a hole about 2 foot wide and 3 foot in length, the hole went through the wall to the outside. When looking in the hole, it showed how thick the walls were, which was about 2 to 3 foot, at the outside part of the hole were thick steel bars with steel mesh over the hole. On the wall that was at the end of the bed was a counter with a tv sitting on it, beside the counter was a filing cabinet that could be used for storing your belongings.
Other than that there wasn’t much else in the cell that I could see. the first thing I asked the OC was, "Where's the toilet?" He laughed and pointed under the counter at a small white plastic bucket that had a lid on it, "That's your toilet!" In the cell there was no running water or sink.
The OC then gave me a box of smokes and a lighter and left, I was locked into the cell for the night by the screw.
Over the next few days I had conflicting thoughts about what was next, what did the future hold? How was my family taking all this? What would my parents say when I saw them?
When a new person arrives in the jail, a lot of the time you can see the anxiety on them, you can see it on their face, in their body language, hear it in their voice. But there are also people that seem perfectly fine.
I spent a few days hanging about the landing chain-smoking, getting to know the people I was living on the landing with. At every meal time we would all sit together and eat, in the evenings some of us would make a meal and sit together watching tv.
The more time you spend with a person, or people, the more you get to know them, this repeated itself throughout my prison sentence. It doesn't take long for you to figure out if you like a person or a if person can be trusted. When I say trusted I don't mean in the sense of if they are a rat, but if you trust them enough that you want them in your life, trust them enough with your business.
After about 4 months the landing I was in in D-Block was to be transferred to E-Block. There are 4 landings on E-Block, there is E1, E2, E3, E4 and there was also the base, which was in the basement but wasn't in use while I was in Portloaise. I first went to Portloaise in late 2009, at this time E1 housed gangland prisoners, E2, E3 and E4 were republican landings. A different group occupied each landing. E4 held the INLA, E3 held the Real IRA, and E2 was mix of republicans.
In December 2009 the gangland prisoners were moved to C-Block (along with the social prisoners from the rest of D-Block) and E-Block became a republican block. In January 2010 the landing I was on got moved to E1, the group I was a supporter of was given one side of E1 while non-aligned republican prisoners were given the other side. These non-aligned prisoners had left the groups they were with and for whatever reason they chose to do their time on their own.
In August 2010, I and another prisoner left E1 because of a split within the group we were supporters of. We were taken onto E4 as guests of the INLA. I spent the next 4 years on E4.
E-Block is a long building, it stretches from north to south, there are two yards, one on the west side of the block and one on the east side. There are many lengths of wire that run from the high fences and walls that surround the yards. These wires are to prevent helicopters from landing in the yards.
The fences and walls that surround the yards and blocks are topped with razor wire. On top of E-Block there are watch boxes that armed soldiers sit in day and night. On the roof of the block there is a high-calibre gun that can shoot down aircraft if need be. Aircraft are banned from flying too close to the prison and if an aircraft flies too close there are warning flares that are shot from the roof. There are soldiers stationed in Portloise prison 24 hours a day.
The armed soldiers and razor wire are against EU standards and the Irish state gets fined every year for the use of these.
Inside E-block it is bee hive like, there are rows and rows of doors going up both sides of the each landing. On E1 the landing is like a hall, if you look up while on the landing you can see onto the other landings right all the way up. What separates the different landings isn't a ceiling, but a mesh like cage. On the north end of the block there are stairs going from E1 onto E2, then from E2 to E3, and then from there up onto E4. Also, the north end of each of the landings is where the showers and toilets are.
On the south end of each landing is the recreational (rec) area. The rec area is like a small landing in itself. It’s a 15 foot wide corridor. On the walls going down are doors, in the doors are rooms that are used for different things, there is a gym, workshop, classrooms and a hangout area that has chairs and a tv. Back years ago these rec area were actually landings and the doors were into cells and not gyms or workshops. Walls of cells were removed to make bigger rooms used for the rec area.
Also on the south end of the block there are stairs that run up through each landing. As the stairs reach each landing there is a gate that separates the landing from the stairs, the gate is to prevent prisoners from getting to the stairs.
Between the north end and south end of the block on landings higher than the ground floor, there are walkways that will bring you from one end to the other. These walkways are about 4 foot wide, on the walkways are rows and rows of doors, these doors lead into cells. A cell is about 12 foot in length and about 7 foot wide. The ceilings in the cells in E4 were very high up, I’d say probably 15 to 18 foot high. Back years ago there would have been bunk beds in these cells. Barred window cut into the thick wall. In spring and summer I would be woken early in the morning by chirping birds that nest in the air vents that are on the outside wall. These vents are beside most windows in the block.
The Special Criminal Court
For the first 6 months of being in jail I was brought back and forth to the Special Criminal Court once every month. On the 4th month I plead guilty. At the time I was arrested I had a 3 month suspended sentence hanging over me. This suspended sentence was hanging over me for 2 years.
When I was arrested for what I was in jail for I had only 2 weeks left on the suspended sentence. When I pleaded guilty the court reactivated the 3 month sentence. I was sent off to carry out sentences. Months later when it was completed I was brought back to the Special Criminal Court for hearing and then sentencing.
Detectives took their turn in the stand stating their evidence against me. One detective said I had enough explosives to make either 1 big pipe bomb or 10 smaller pipe bombs. This evidence, if it had been given in any other court would not have been taken into consideration by the judges, because it was hearsay. Yes I was caught with some explosive powder, but I had no pipes or plumbing fittings, so there was no evidence that I was making pipe bombs.
I was sentenced to 6 years for having possession of 20 grams of explosive powder. If I had been sentenced in any other court I would have been given much less of a sentence. I remember one case I read about in the newspaper throughout my sentence, a case of 2 men who had stolen a serious amount of plastic explosives and they openly admitted they were planning to sell the explosives to "a criminal gang". Both men got 2 year sentences. The difference is big, I had a few grams of powder, they had kilos of plastic explosives.
The day of my hearing, another man had a hearing too. Just after I was sentenced, this man was up. Usually when you’re finished in court the screws will bring the prisoner back to the holding cell, but this day they didn't bring me back to the cell straight away, I was left sitting in the court.
The next man's hearing started, he came into the court in a wheelchair, he sat right beside where I was sitting. His trial began. He was accused of being a member of an illegal organization. The line of detectives took turns giving evidence against this man. One detective said at one point in his statement that he seen the accused man run across one side of the road to the other. The accused man had been paraplegic since the 1980s! This detective blatantly lied on the stand, but yet the case against the accused went on. And he was still sentenced to 3 years in jail.
In the Special Criminal Courts if you are accused of being a member of an illegal organization, the state doesn’t need any evidence against you. Once the superintendent stands up in the box and swears on the bible and then states that you are a member of an illegal organization, that's all that's needed to sentence you to a few years in jail. If it's your first offence in the special criminal court you could get 2 to 4 years in jail. The maximum is 7 years.
My sentence was a normal enough one for the time. Most prisoners were serving between 4 and 7 years. But there were other prisoners that were doing 12 years, 20 years, 25 years, 40 years. There were four men doing forty year sentences. They were originally sentenced to death but had their sentence commuted to 40 years without remission. The four men were part of two different cases. Two men were found guilty of shooting a detective in 1980 and the other two were found guilty of shooting a cop in 1985.
One of the four was fighting in the European court that they should be in entitled to remission. For years he fought it out. Eventually they won. When I had one year left on my sentence two of the men had been in jail over 30 years, they were allowed to be released straight away. But only one of them left straight away, the other refused to leave till the state got him somewhere to live, he stayed on in the jail for another few weeks till they got him somewhere. The other two men are now coming near the end of their sentences.
When I looked at the cases of men that were doing way over life sentences each, I didn't feel too bad about the six year sentence I got. Realistically I wouldn't have to do a full 6 years. Every prisoner is entitled to remission. Remission in the South of Ireland is 1/3 off your sentence. So, in all, I had to do 4 and 6 months for the explosive powder and I’d have to do 2 months for the suspended sentence I had previously.
The special criminal court is not really a court, you are already found guilty before you go in. Its more of a show trial than anything else. The special criminal court is illegal under EU regulations, so the Irish state gets fined a good few thousand euros each time a person is in it.
In all courts before you go in you are already seen as being guilty, even though it's meant to be "innocent till proven guilty". But at least in other courts if the cop is proven to be giving false evidence the case will be thrown out. In the special criminal court it makes no odds. The cops giving evidence don't even try to get their stories straight with each beforehand. There are many, many cases where cops were proven to be lying while giving evidence but it always makes no odds. The case I gave above is a blatant example of how the cops lie.
How people pass the time
There are a few things that can be done to pass the time. Big things for me to do would be going to the gym and going to classes. The gym is good for helping you burn off the extra energy a person may have. During a prison day, a person won't move around much, you might go from one side of the landing to the other or walk up the landing to where the classrooms are or to the shower. So you won't use an awful lot of energy throughout the day.
This build-up of energy after a few weeks or months can lead to mood change, bad mood, anxiety and can cause problems while trying to sleep.
Going to the gym and working out helps a person burn off any extra energy. It will also help a person feel good, by working out you release endorphins in your brain and this will give a person a natural high. By doing the gym it gives a person something to focus on, taking the mind off jail. Working out is great for your mental health.
Going to classes is another good way to spend time. Like the gym it gives you something to focus on, it breaks the monotony. People in Portloaise have done all sorts of degrees from law to sociology. There is a good variety of classes that can be done, music, art, English, Irish, cooking, etc.
In jail, your concept of time changes, your whole daily routine revolves around time. You repeat the same daily routine over and over again, day in, day out for months and years. The only change to your day might be a visit, getting a letter, talking to someone on the phone, having a class, or a different type of dinner.
The day of the week can determine what dinner you might have. On Friday it is always fish, peas and potatoes, and rice pudding for dessert. But all the rest of the week the different dinners will rotate. The dinners can be coddle, stew, pork chop with potatoes, bacon and cabbage, mince and potatoes.
The dinners are also on a routine for 5 weeks. The dinners will be laid out over each week in a certain order, then after the fifth week it goes back to the start. After a year or so a person will probably be able to guess what dinner will be that day.
Your daily routine will become embedded in your head like the dinners. You will wake every day at the same time, you will go for breakfast at the same time, you will eat the exact same breakfast in the exact same way, you will finish your breakfast at the same time. A person’s whole day will be played out in this manner, even when you get locked into your cell for the night you will have the same ritual/routine till you go to sleep at the same time you usually do. This is not intentional, people just fall into routines.
Below is a time-table everyone goes through:
8.20am the cell doors are unlocked
12pm dinner time
12.30pm bang-up (you either get locked into your cell or locked into the rec area)
2pm bang-up ends
5.30pm bang-up ends
8.20pm locked in for the night
Every prisoner in E-block does this routine. But every prisoner will have their own routine that will be mixed in with this. Between bang-ups you can to classes, go to the yard, have showers, have a visitor, make a phone call (after 4pm you can’t get a visit).
Once your routine has been established (a person will find themselves in a routine whether they plan it or not) hours and days will pass you by fast.
How I passed the time
When I first arrived in Portloaise, for the first few weeks I spent my time between watching telly, going to the gym, reading, and helping my comrades in construction of bodhrans. Each prisoner on the landing played their part in making bodhrans. Like making anything, there are steps to be taken, a process to be followed. Each prisoner had their job in the bodhran construction process. When the bodhrans were finished, each prisoner had to paint pictures on 2 bodhrans each. These pictures would be of republican martyrs, the odd time I would paint Che Guevara.
About 3 weeks into my incarceration, a comrade from the outside sent me in a book about Fidel Castro when he was in jail. l read in the book that when Fidel was in jail he dedicated a lot of his time to study. He studied revolutionary writings and philosophies to help him understand the struggle more and learn about how to win.
I decided I was also going to do this with my time: study writings, books on revolutionary philosophy and history of revolutions and struggles. What I read mostly for the next four years and seven months was books on Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, Trotskyism. Anything to do with Marxism I tried to get my hands on to read. I read many biographies on people such as Ho Chi Minh, General Giap, Mao, Che, Fidel Castro, Lenin, Red Army Faction, Communist Party of India (Maoist); I also read a bit into anarchism and its history, I read articles and books from Bakunin, Wayne Price, Alfredo Bonanno, Proudon, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman; and I also read about the different Irish revolutionaries and many other revolutionaries around the world. I read books about the different revolutions, struggles and wars that happened around the globe. I read many books on the USSR and how the communist party attempted to build a version of socialism. I read different books from different writers that wrote different versions of the history of the USSR, each book had a different reason for why the USSR’s experiment to create socialism failed. The authors of the books took different sides in different disputes that happened in the USSR and other so called socialist countries. Each side blaming the failures on the other (all these arguments can be very confusing, especially since a lot of the time the authors weren't exactly honest about events).
About 12 months into my sentence I read a book by a Red Army Faction member called Margrit Schiller, it is called, "Remembering the Armed Struggle". As a result of her involvement with the urban guerillas she spent a few years in jail in maximum security. She spent most of the time in solitary confinement as did all RAF prisoners. In one part in the book she described how she created an educational routine for herself each day. She broke each day into section reading and studying different subjects.
I copied this and did the same. I would read revolutionary philosophies and theories in the mornings, in the afternoons I would read histories of struggles and revolutions, and in the evenings I would read a biography. By sticking to this routine I learned a good bit in a short amount of time.
I tried to compare the Anarchist and Marxist ideas on revolution, class, the state, capitalism, authoritarianism, etc, with the Irish national liberation struggle and movements. I totally got what the anarchists were saying about authoritarianism in movements. I could see it in the republican groups, living in Portlaoise prison it was a lot easier to see because in Portloaise a different group occupied each landing, this gave me a bit of an idea of what any of the republican groups that were there might be like in power, if any of them actually ever got into power.
So to sum up, how I spent my time for the 4 years and 8 months was studying a lot of revolutionary ideology, sociology and history, and trying to compare with modern day circumstances. In all that I have read a lot about Marxism and the different splits and arguments there are; books could be written about it all examining it, and there are many many books on it all. But I think a lot of it just boils down to power and who holds it. Can a party or movement, no matter how revolutionary or well intentioned, be trusted to hold power and use the power to benefit everyone?
The prison block is a minute society in itself, with its own class system - a reflection of authoritarian class society. All republican groups, in some form or another, will say unity is needed within republicanism in order to defeat imperialist occupation in the north of Ireland. But reality proves different on the subject of unity. The groups that are around now will probably never join forces or unite. I think this is because of the authoritarian nature that appears to be in modern day republicanism.
Each group wants their own power. Even if one was prepared to join with the other, it's probable that the other would not join forces or unite because they would not be able to put their differences aside or maybe they might see the group as being being beneath them, not being as staunch republicans/believers as them.
5, sometimes 6, days a week I would use the gym for an hour a day. I did different training programs, changing program every couple of months. I mostly did a mix of weightlifting and cardio, for cardio I mainly did jogging on the treadmill, usually for about 3 or 4 miles. Sometimes i wouldn't do any weights for a few months and would only do jogging, the longest I jogged was 12 miles, but I know of 2 prisoners that ran marathons on them. One INLA prisoner ran a marathon on a treadmill for charity. All the prisoners in E-Block, and all the teachers, donated money to the prisoner and the money raised went towards Autism Ireland.
Most prisoners in the block would go to the gym. Each landing had their own gym, the equipment in each gym was basic, some free weights, benches, boxing bag, treadmill, cross trainer, bike, and some old weight machines.
It's good to have a gym routine, a person will get enjoyment reaching their goals in the gym. Whether that is to jog or cycle a certain amount of miles or whether it's to be able to bench press a certain amount of weight. It gives people a sense of satisfaction.
When working out it unleashes endorphins from your brain which make you feel good and give you a buzz. It's the same as when a person takes drugs, the drugs will activate endorphins in the brain. If a person is having a bad day, it's good to go to the gym and work through it, it will help a person get rid any aggression in their body from being in a bad mood.
Some people enjoy it so much they will go to the gym twice a day. Every few months I would do training twice a day. For the first session I would do weights and for the second session I would jog, sometimes I would do other types of cardio like skipping with a rope or boxing the punching bag. For a few months I got mad into skipping, I was able to do it for 30 mins non stop, but another prisoner, one of the guys that jogged marathons on the treadmill was able to do it for 2 hours non-stop.
The same fella was a boxer. For the first year I was in jail a few of the prisoners in E-block would do boxing in the hall that was attached to E1. These boxing sessions were held twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. As prisoners got released, numbers fell in the boxing sessions, eventually everyone that had been attending got released.
Another form of exercise is walking in the yard. It is good to go outside for a walk regularly throughout the week. It can be very easy to get stuck in a routine where you don't go outside. There were many times throughout my sentence when I didn't go outside for weeks on end. It’s very easy to change from one routine to another without even realizing it.
The idea of walking up and down the yard or walking in circles can seem monotonous. But it can be a social experience also, when out in the yard there can be people from other landings walking in the yard. You might only see some people when you are out in the yard. This can give a you a chance to talk to someone you don't usually talk to.
Getting a visit is probably the highlight of the week for a prisoner (that's if they get a visit). Visits break the monotony of prison day. They can make the day go by a lot faster. Most prisoners would get a visit either once a week or every second week. Visits give a prisoner something to look forward to. A visit gives the prisoner a chance to talk about something different than you might normally talk about (in jail you tend to have similar conversations a lot, speaking about the same subjects a lot). It gives the prisoner the chance to hear about how life is going on outside.
I remember one time when I was in my teens, a person I knew that was in and out of jail told me, "The only people that will visit you when you are in jail will be your family. Your family will be the only ones to give a fuck." I learned my friend was right, for the vast majority of people that get visits, they will be from either their family or a loved one. Although occasionally prisoners do get visits from a friend or an acquaintance.
I suppose it's not that people don't give a fuck, it's more to do with the fact that people are living their own lives and probably don't have the time to visit. My family visited me regularly, coming down every weekend; after a year in jail I said to just come down every second week, there was no point coming down every week. Besides my family coming down I had two staunch Republican women comrades that visited me every month right from the start of being in jail right up till I was released. The two comrades every month would leave plenty of books, magazines, and other reading material and CDs and DVDs. Each month they would travel from Dublin to Portlaoise, bringing me news of all the different events that had happened in Dublin over the month. I really enjoyed hearing about the different protests and struggles going on outside.
Visits in Portlaosie were nice for a prison. Since we were political prisoners we could have tea and snacks on visits. The visiting area was made up of rows of rooms (they would have been cells a few years previously), on the doors to the visiting rooms there were large windows. These windows were for screws to look in, a screw would walk up and down the visiting area looking in the windows throughout the whole visiting time.
When going on a visit each prisoner would have to walk through a metal detector and then would get patted down by the screws, the process was repeated when returning from visits. Visitors would go through a worse search. Women visitors weren't allowed to wear bras with metal in them, when being searched the female visitor would have to pull their bra forward off their chest to show nothing is hidden behind it. All visitors would have to take off their shoes and then go through a metal detector. The screw would then give the visitors a test to see if there were any explosives or drugs on them. How this is done is a sheet of paper is moved around the body then the paper is tested for any traces of explosives or drugs. If there is a baby going for a visit the baby’s nappy is searched. This process can be particularly intimidating for people if they’ve never experienced anything like this before.
For the prisoner that has a partner and children the visit is the one chance they will have to spend an hour in their company. Some prisoners’ partners will have to travel from the far off corners of Ireland. If a prisoner’s partner lives in let’s say Belfast and they don't have a car, they will have to get a taxi from their house to the bus or train station in the early hours of the morning, get a bus to Dublin (which takes between 2 hours and 30 minutes to 3 hours, then get a bus from Dublin to Portlaoise (which takes about 1 and a half hours). Then repeat this journey later in the day on the way home. Then you have to take into account the price of all this traveling, you’re talking the best part of £100. This is done each week, week in week out, for years.
For prisoners that are aligned with a group they will receive £80 euro a month, if the prisoner has a partner and child, the partner will be given £80 a month. It takes a lot of work and effort for the prisoner support groups to raise the funding they need to give out to the different prisoners and their families. But through no fault of their own this isn't anywhere near enough to make up for money needed by families. For families that don’t have much money they might not be able to afford to come regularly. There are also prisoners that aren't aligned with any group, these prisoners don't get any help or support from the different prisoner support groups.
Visits give the prisoner, the father, the chance to see their child grow. One visit a week might be the only chance the prisoner gets to spend time with their child. It must be a terrible experience only being able to see your child or children for an hour a week (if lucky enough) and then having to watch them leave every time, and then having to return back to your cell for another week before seeing them again. (There are some prisoners that don't get to see their children at all, the family might refuse to bring them to visit as they might not agree with the reasons why they are in jail. Instead these prisoners might have to make do with a photo to see their child).
For the first 12 months of being in jail I would count time I was there. At first it was the days, then it was the weeks, then the months. After a while I just stopped counting.
Prison is the closest to being dead while at the same time being alive. While in jail, life outside passes you by, visits, letters and phone calls are when you hear about different events or problems that are happening outside. If something negative is happening outside that involves your loved ones there's not a single thing you can do about it.
A person in jail can experience being like some type of spirit looking over their loved ones from the afterlife. You hear about the good times and the bad times, but you can never take part in them, you just sit on the side watching and listening.
The main thing that changes in prison, besides people leaving the jail and new people arriving, is the changes in the season. In the summer it is roasting hot within the block, in the winter it’s freezing cold. In the summer you walk in the sunshine and heat in the yard. In winter you walk in the yard in dark evenings and grey, gloomy days. During the summer you look out your cell window (if you are up high enough in the block to be able to see out over the wall of the prison) you can see the countryside of the midlands of Ireland off in the distance, you can see the green of the country, plants, hills, and smell the scent of the countryside and nature. In the winter (likewise if you are up high enough in the block) on the other side of the block you can see Portloaise town in the dark, you can see the Christmas lights on people's houses and, far off in the distance, you can see the bright lights of a star shape on the steeple of a church.
Prison can be like a soap opera, at other times it can be like a comedy. Everyone knows each other's business, some people try to go out of their way to find out all of your business, some of these people are just nosey and are just looking for a bit of gossip. Others are trying to find out information about you that they may want to use against you at some point. The information they might find out they may use to create drama for you. Or a person may create drama and blame it on you. Drama can be created just out of badness or it might be because of power plays between people or groups.
Some people like seeing drama so they might shit stir to start a bit of drama. This all to break the monotony of prison life. Some people study, some people read, others go to the gym, but some stir shit to try help pass the time.
Some people take part in wind ups. These wind ups aren't usually out of badness, it’s mainly just for fun. I remember one wind up, one fella got out on TR (temporary release) for the weekend. While he was out, we went into his cell and glued his cutlery, piss pot and other items to the ceiling of his cell.
Another time, one guy had a favorite cup he’d had for years. He loved the cup, he drank tea from it every day. The cup had a picture of his favorite team on it, Manchester United. One day he left his cup on the long dinner table that was on the landing on E4. Someone got his cup and super glued it to the table. When the fella that owned the cup came back up to get it, he walked casually up to the table to get it, he obviously didn't expect it to be stuck to the table. When he first went to grab it he was in shock not realizing what was going on that he couldn't pick his cup up for a split second before it dawned on him what was going on.
There were loads of wind ups always going on. One of the best ones I saw was one guy got sentenced to 9 months (extremely short sentence for a person in Portlaoise).He could never get his head around getting the 9 month sentence, he done the time hard. A few weeks before he was due to be released someone managed to get a legal document from his cell that was from the state about his case. The person who took the letter went into the computer room, scanned the letter and doctored it and wrote in it that the state was taking an appeal against the leniency of the sentence against him that they wanted to put more time on his sentence.
The lad that doctored the letter gave it to a screw to give to him as a wind up. When the screw gave him the letter the fella nearly broke down, you could see his world was shattering. The OC of the landing had to calm him down and tell him it was just a wind up.
This same wind up was repeated about 2 or 3 years later on another prisoner. But the prisoner that got the letter went further in his panic, thinking he was getting extra time he rang up his solicitor's office demanding to talk to his solicitor, the secretary told him the solicitor was going away on holidays. Shouts and roars could be heard echoing around the block screaming, "Do not get on the plane, do not get on that plane". With eruption of laughter following.
Summer in jail
Summer is a particular boring season in jail, I found it very boring mainly because the school was closed for the summer. Instead of going to classes most people would sit outside in the sun, or lie on yoga mats in the yard taking in the sun. This time of year the yard is in use all day by most of the prisoners.
Depending on what time it was the sun would be shining in one yard but blocked out in the other. During the morning the sun would be in the big yard east of the block. Then in the afternoon it would be in the small yard west of the block.
The different landings would also play different sports games together in the yard. The game mainly played was volleyball, the odd time soccer would be played. The volleyball games in the yard were comical, while walking or sitting in the yard as a game was going on, all of a sudden you could hear bursts of laughter and slaggings, usually if a teammate missed a shot or hit the ball too hard out of the box giving the other team an extra point as a result. One or two people took these games very seriously and would lose the plot the odd time giving out to people. When someone lost the plot sometimes what would happen is everyone playing laughs and taunts the person. But it was all always in good humor
In the summer, inside the block would be roasting, people would wear shirts going around. In the evening when we got locked in for the night the cells would be roasting. I can remember one particularly hot summer I had removed glass from the window in my cell and I also had an electric fan. Both made no difference to my comfort. No wind came in the window, the fan just blew hot air around.
Another bad thing in the summer is early in the morning you could be woken by birds chirping and singing. On the outside wall of every cell there is an air vent just above the windows. They are tiny air vents and on some of them the covers are missing. When this is the case birds tend to go into them and make nests. This can be particularly annoying being woken up by birds every morning.
In Portloaise prison the Republican prisoners had a lot more privilege and way better conditions to do their time compared with the social and gangland prisoners. In E-Block the Republican prisoners had a lot more freedom in the block than the other prisoners elsewhere in the jail or any other jail in Ireland.
When prisoners were not banged up in their cell they could go to the gym, go to the rec area, go to the yard, all whenever they wanted, work/art and crafts area. In the other blocks and other jails you can only go to these places at certain times. If a Republican prisoner wants to stay in their cell all day, they can if they want. Whereas in other blocks and jails at certain times you can't just stay in your cell, you will either have to go to the yard, work if you have a job, go to a class, go to the library, all this at certain times of course.
Republican prisoners have longer visits, a visit can be up to 1 hour 30 minutes, in other jails it can be for just 20 minutes. Republican prisoners also had more access to using the phone and longer phone calls. In other jails a prisoner will only have one phone call a day for 7 minutes.
But why are Republican prisoners allowed these extra privileges? The jail administration didn't give the Republican prisoners these extra privileges out of their hearts. The conditions republican prisoners have is because of struggle against the prison system over decades. The privileges were won from hard struggle.
It proves strength is in numbers and strength is in being organized to fight and struggle against an enemy. All prisoners could have these privileges in all jails if they got organized and struggled for them. Its an easy thing to say this, it’s a lot harder to put this into action. It’s a harder task for the social prisoners to organize themselves. Prisoners come from all sorts of backgrounds and this can make it harder to organize.
It’s a lot easier for the Republican prisoners to organize because most of them were groups or movements before going to jail. So when in jail the prisoners can be organized a lot easier, they are in jail because they are trying to bring the struggle to a head.
Whereas for a lot of social prisoners their struggle is a personal struggle, a struggle to live, a struggle of life. A lot of the social prisoners are in jail because of the social conditions created by capitalism.
The way each group, each landing, works in Portloaise is if the jail try to undermine one prisoner or undermine the landing, every prisoner on that landing will go on protest. The Republican prisoners have a network of support and groups outside the jail, so if a group or landing inside the jail go on protest, there will be people protesting outside the jail. There is one thing that the prison governors hate and that is protests. If there is a protest outside the gate, the governor will get onto the prisoners trying to sort it.
One time when I was on E1, I and my comrades went on a 48 hour fast in solidarity with Republican prisoners in the north that started a protest in Maghaberry. The first day we were on it we refused our dinner. After the bang-up a high up screw came to speak to our OC to see what the matter was, the jail administration was worried we were on protest because of something in Portlaoise.
Another beneficial aspect to having prisoners and landings organized was that it gave structure to prisoners and landings. Each landing on E-Block had its own structure. The structures gave people the jobs that needed doing, such as cleaning different areas of the landing. The cleaning jobs were divided up amongst the prisoners, and, as a result the cleaning jobs are more or less given out evenly, every few months the different jobs rotate. The structure can also help with disputes between different prisoners if a dispute arises. There is a rule that the first person to throw a punch or hit another prisoner is exiled off the landing; I think this rule stopped a lot of arguments from getting violent. While I was in Portlaoise in E-Block there was pretty much no violence carried out by prisoners to each other.
INLA prisoners protest
In 2009, INLA prisoners went on protest against the prison administration, because of bad treatment they were getting. A plan was put in place for their protest action. One morning when the governor came onto the landing as they regularly do, one INLA prisoner had the task of throwing the contents of a piss pot over the governor. The prisoners for the previous week had saved their piss pots and filled them with human waste and stored them in an empty cell.
As the governor went into the screws’ office on the cell the prisoner threw in the contents of the bucket, emptying it over the governor, as this happened the other prisoners threw piss pots of waist all over the place. Human waste was flowing down the stairs like a river. The governor and screws left the landing.
The riot squad was then sent in. The prisoners pulled up planks that were on a bridge that went from one side of the landing to the other. They made their escape from the riot squad by jumping down onto E3. The governor didn't want to extend the matter, bringing the E3 prisoners into the problem.
Negotiations were made between the INLA prisoners and the governor. The INLA prisoners would return to their landing if the jail stopped harassing their prisoners, the governor agreed. Also, during the protest 2 INLA prisoners were dragged off to the seg (segregation, it,s basically solitary confinement), so part of the deal was to bring the 2 prisoners back from the seg, and the INLA prisoners agreed they would do their punishment in their own cells instead of in the seg.
When you are in the seg you are kept away from the rest of the prison population, you are segregated. The only people you see are screws. Occasionally you might catch a glimpse of another prisoner. You are locked in a cell 23 hours a day, you get 1 hour of exercise in a yard on your own. A prisoner can be kept in the seg for 53 days at a time.
The INLA prisoners won 3 victories here.
1) They stopped the harassment to themselves by the prison administration
2) they forced the prison administration to bring back 2 prisoners from the seg, this had never happened before, and
3) the jail stopped using the seg when putting republican prisoners on punishment.
After the protest all of the INLA prisoners still had to do punishment but they had to do it in their own cells, where they had tv, their books and own property; they would not have had this in the seg, they still got to mix with their comrades when they weren't locked into their cells.
The INLA prisoner protest against the prison administration proves that collective organized action against the administration can work and extra privileges can be won.
In Portlaoise when you are coming to the end of your sentence you will be eligible for temporary release (TR). This is where the prison grants a prisoner a few days out, it’s usually a weekend. A prisoner gets 1 TR for every year they do in jail, and a prisoner usually gets granted a TR for their final Christmas in prison. For me, since I was sentenced to six years and four months, I had to do four years and eight months. Every prisoner gets remission, whatever sentence a person gets straight away they can take 1/3 off their sentence.
So I was entitled to four TRs. On my final Christmas I was granted TR, it was a long TR, every prisoner getting TR that Christmas was given five overnights. This means you have to come back on the 6th day.
It was a surreal feeling getting to walk outside the gate, then being picked up by my father, sitting in a car for the first time in years, walking into a house after not being in one for a good while feels really strange, everything feels shrunken and tiny. I sat in the house feeling fidgety not able to sit easy. I felt like I should be doing something and not just sitting there, I had a feeling of guilt not doing anything, but I didn't know what I should be actually doing. My comrade was back in prison, I felt I should have been doing something to enjoy myself, but I didn't know what that was.
There was only one thing I really wanted to do and that was to walk down the beach looking at the ocean. Before jail I wasn't much of a lover of nature, I didn't really care too much for it. But, at the same time I did enjoy walks in nature. Before jail I didn't realize I liked it so much. For the years in jail I would daydream about being in nature, being in the mountains, being by the seaside.
Dollymount beach is a short walk from my parents’ house, to get there I'd have to walk through St. Anne’s park. As I walked through the park, even though it was winter there was still a lot of colour. A lot of the big tall trees in the park are evergreen trees so they still had their colour. As I walked through the park my head and eyes were darting around around taking in the landscape, walking under the tall trees, their canopy blocking out the sky. It was an amazing feeling being hit in the face with so many different colours, different shades of green.
When I reached the beach I walked just for a little bit and then sat on a sand dune for about 2 hours looking out into the vast ocean of green, reflecting in my thoughts.
On my final night on TR, my sister and her friend brought me on a drive. We drove up to the view point in the Dublin mountains. It was pitch black when we got there. We sat in the car looking out over Dublin. It was a fantastic sight, seeing all the lights of Dublin lit up.
When I got back to jail I had six months left to do, for the final four months I was granted a TR out for a weekend each month.
After about a year into my prison experience I could not imagine ever getting out. I could not imagine not being in jail, I couldn't imagine being outside doing normal things. I felt like this right on up till I was released. But, at the same time I would daydream about stuff I could be doing.
When I was out it didn't take long for me to realize that there was only so much I could actually do. This dawned on me as I was in the welfare office queuing to sign on the dole. After queuing for a time I finally reached the hatch. I said to the man behind the hatch and told him I wanted to sign on the dole, straight away his snotty attitude came out. He gives me the paper. It takes me a while to fill out some of the questions that I can understand, some of the questions didn't make sense in my head as my mind was racing.
I handed back the paperwork. The man said to me that I didn't fill in parts of the form. I tell him I didn't know what to write in them. He started asking me the questions. Eventually he came to, "If you haven't been on the dole for five years and haven't been working, what have you been doing?" I told him I was in prison. He asked me "What was your prison number?" "I was never given one" I said, "Well if you were in prison you would have been given a prison number", I told him again I didn't get one. "You could not have been in jail for that amount of time and never given a prison number" he says smartly and matter of factly in his voice. I told him "Political prisoners aren't given a prison number." He looked at me in amazement like I had two heads. "What jail were you in?" he said with an attitude. I told him. He reached over and pulled the office phone across the table closer to him. He called Portloise jail and they filled him in. He put the phone down and looked at me. "Look, this is not up for debate, you would have been given a prisoner number at some point." he said very slyly. He then got the paperwork I filled in, opened it and stamped the boxes. "You can collect your payment tomorrow" he said without making eye contact.
After a few days of being out I had a deep feeling of anticlimax. It took me about a year to get used to being outside again. When out in public, especially in shopping markets, being in places that had a lot of people, my mind would race, my body would fill with anxiety. I found it hard to stand in a queue in a shop, I hated the feeling when people were standing or walking too close to me.
When in prison I could see people when they were coming down the landing or walking near me. When outside in packed places people will come from every direction going about their business. One of the first days I was out I went into town to have a look in the shops, I was walking up Henry street, it was jammed with people. After a few minutes of walking before I could even go into a shop I had to turn back and go home.
When I got out of jail I had to get used to being outside, I was still waking up at the same time every morning. When I'd get up and after having breakfast I wouldn't know what to do with myself. A lot of the time I would go for a jog, the length of the coast road. I liked this route, when I was in jail jogging on the treadmill I would imagine I was jogging down the coast road on Sunday.
What I needed was a new routine. After two months of being out I applied for a course and got accepted onto it. The course was to last till May. Doing this course helped me a lot to adjust back into life. It gave me a routine to do each day, I got to meet new people, have normal conversations. When in jail the main conversations I had with people were mostly highly political. I got massive enjoyment from having normal conversations just about every day life. It was a breath of fresh air.
When I got out of jail it was like when I went in, I had to transition from one way living to another.
What I noticed most when I got out of jail was that there was no support groups or information on how to go about things. There was nowhere to find out about rent allowance, or how to get grants for college or any other information on what an ex prisoner's rights are, or what they are entitled to (such as a clothing grant for example). I didn't know much about any of these things.
I gradually found out all these things by investigating them myself or if an ex-prisoner happened to tell me. This process of trying to find out this information can be stressful.
Some people spending years in prison can develop mental health problems, because of this they may turn to drink or drugs as a way of self medicating. People have different experiences in prison some people do longer sentences, some people have a harder time. All these things can prey on a person's mental health. A person may do 10, 20, 30 years in jail, whatever the time it will have an effect on a person whether big or small. After a person does 20 years they may not be able to cope with the outside world, they might become homeless, they might become alcoholics.
Prisons were set up to (supposedly) reform offenders. But the reality is that prisons are for the punishment and revenge by bourgeois society. If you fuck with private property they will have their vengeance. An armed robber robs a bank or a bookies and gets 10 years if caught, if they get away they will have a few thousand euros; a banker swindles and robs millions, helps to destroy a country's economy, forcing many to live in poverty, the banker gets a promotion if caught. What bourgeois society shows is that what matters when robbing property is what class you are in when doing the robbing.
The person that robs with a pen and fancy office will rob and wreak a lot more people than the person that robs by using a gun.
When a prisoner is finished their sentence they are just fucked out on the street, discarded. In a lot of cases the prisoner will have family or friends that will help them get back on their feet when they are released. But there are many prisoners who, when they are released, have no support from family or friends. These prisoners will find it way harder to get back on their feet, some of them may not ever get back on their feet at all.
From Republicanism to Anarchism
While in Portlaoise I didn't read half as many books on Anarchism as I did on Marxism, but the few I did read helped to shape my mind towards bringing me closer to anarchism. Before reading anything by anarchists I thought Anarchism was an individualist philosophy where no one would be accountable to anyone. My understanding of what I thought what Anarchism is was from Lenin, Trotsky, Marx, Engels and other Marxists
So when I first read writing by an anarchist I was surprised to read that there is a lot more to Anarchism than I’d previously thought. I first read an introduction to Anarchism (I think it was by Wayne Price). Contrary to what I had thought, anarchists do believe in organizing and having organizations and movements. Anarchists emphasise organizing in a non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian and democratic way.
This stuck out at me as I’d seen how other groups organize, which was a hierarchical way, tasks being fed down from above, people being given positions from above.
Republicans are like Leninists in how they organize. By this I mean they organize in the Leninist "vanguardist" way. Vanguardist Leninists set out wanting to lead people; they think the people aren't "class conscious" enough or don't understand economics, social structures, etc, enough. Leninists see themselves as being educated in all the different revolutionary theory and as being "class conscious" enough to wage struggle, and wage the struggle in the correct way, they believe they have the right answers on how to approach the struggle and what tactics to use (it's generally never up for discussion. And any talk to counter their view is shouted down.) The "vanguardist" movement or party sees itself as being the saviour of the people, they are the movement truly fit to lead the people to liberation.
Since they see themselves as having the right answers they also see themselves as the one true force to bring the people to liberation. The movement wants to be the people's voice and speak for them (because of this they actually take the people's voice from them).
Because of the structures of the groups and parties, there is a leadership, a top table. The people that sit on the leadership table are seen as being the most educated, experienced, and class conscious of the whole membership of the group or party. To be on this table you will have to be a part of the elite, this generally means having spent many years in the movement and/or having prestige. As a result, other members of the group or party assume these older members have far better knowledge on the struggle and how to approach it. In essence it is the leaders of the movement who become the voice of the movement. All this can lead to the leaders making decisions (whether big or small) for the movement without the input of the membership. This is the nature of elitist, authoritarian and vanguardist methods of organizing.
Although Communists and Republicans can differ greatly on ideology, their ways of organizing can be similar. For example, Gerry Adams’ rise to power within the Republican Movement can be described as being stalinist. He understood the structure and the ways to organize within the movement. Through political maneuvers within the movement he climbed his way up the ladder. On his way up the ladder he brought his allies with him. Eventually, from years of power struggles within the movement with the other different power factions, Gerry Adams and his clique gained dominance of the leadership positions in the movement. And, because of this (whether one agrees or not), his power clique could bring the movement down the road they saw as what best suited the struggle for national liberation.
Later I read about Bakunin and his critique of Marxism and how Marx's theories on socialism and how to create it, if it ever came into fruition would be a bureaucratic nightmare and how the marxists would become the rulers. This sounded familiar to me from reading Trotsky's writings on the Soviet Union and Stalinism. Also Mao had similar arguments in writings about the Soviet Union under Khrushchev.
When I read Trotsky's and Mao’s critiques I felt there was a connection between what they were saying. Trotsky wrote about the party bureaucracy that hijacked the revolution. Trotsky's solution on how to get rid of this would be by creating actual soviets that were organised by the workers and by having a multi-party system instead of the one party dictatorship. What Mao wrote about was how the communist party in the USSR had turned into the ruling class exploiting the Russian workers and how the Chinese Communist Party was starting to do this too.
From reading Trotsky's and Mao’s critiques I still felt there were parts missing. When i read of Bakunin and what his critiques were of Marxism which he wrote decades before the creation of the USSR it got me thinking more about organizing and tactics used in struggles, and how these can determine what the outcome of the struggle might be.
The Marxists/Leninists want to take state power and transform the state into a workers’ state. What happened in reality was that Marxist/Leninists took state power in Russia and instead of giving power over to the people they placed themselves in charge of the state (the party saw itself as the vanguard of the workers’ revolution, because of this the party thought it would be better for the revolution if they took the power of the state and organized and ran it for the workers because the party saw itself as being way more conscious of the tasks needed to be carried out in order to create socialism in Russia than the workers) and would make decisions for the people on how best to reorganize society, the people didn't really have a say. The Marxists/Leninists being in charge of the state said what was ok and wasn't ok to say or do. Anyone who objected ran the risk of being jailed, put in a labor camp, or executed.
This reflects on how Marxists/Leninists organise in groups and parties for struggle, the people in leadership positions make decisions for the group or party. The groups and parties that organize in this way go into other organizations such as trade unions or community groups and try to take them over (in lots of cases they do). They use these tactics because they think the struggle needs to be centralized with them being the leaders of the struggle. Positions that are gained in trade unions or community groups by these groups are manipulated to try to push these groups in a direction they see as being best. And likewise they try to get their party members into as many positions as possible in these other organizations and groups in order that they can better influence the decision making with these groups and organizations.
From my reading and studying, what I got at this point was Republicanism was pointless without socialism. There would be no point at all in having a Republic as there would still be capitalism, exploitation and oppression. In order to get rid of this and have a truly free Ireland it would need to be a socialist society. And likewise Socialism without freedom is pointless, there is no point trying to build a socialist future if it's not the people building it themselves and the faith of society left in the hands of some “revolutionary party” or “revolutionary movement”.
Also what I got was that there needs to be a deeper look into tactics, ways of organizing and strategies; and that armed struggle was not the main tactic, there are many other forms of struggle.
I thought a lot about what Ireland would look like if one of the republican groups ever got into power. What I could imagine I didn't like. A question I asked myself a few times was how can you make a government accountable (no matter how revolutionary or well intentioned the government)?
When I was released, the water charges struggle was just beginning. I attended demonstrations and protests in Edenmore and Coolock. These were held in housing estates and outside Garda stations (after people got arrested). What I noticed at these events was that it was always the politically aligned members of groups that were doing the talking. They would stand in front of the crowds speaking, preaching to the people.
This brought me back to what I was reading about the Marxists wanting to lead the people and how the Anarchists wrote about how the people don't need party leaders they can lead themselves.
The people speaking were from different groups and parties, there were Socialists and there were Republicans. What made these groups think they had the right answers? Why were they doing the speaking and why wasn't it the people at the demonstrations and protests doing the speaking instead? After all, the reason they are out on the streets affects them the most.
This got me thinking more about how groups and parties organize, and how the ones I was involved with in the past organised. I knew shady deals and decisions get made for "The better good of the party" without the consent of the membership. It made me distrust leaderships, no one person or group of people can have the right answers all the time.
It properly clicked in my head that it's the people that have to organise themselves for their own struggles. How can a person, group or party look after your interests any better than you can yourself? From this point I am an Anarchist, and what brought me to this point influenced me to be an Anarchist.