Interview With Militant Prisoner John Bowden

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Interview With Militant Prisoner John Bowden by From Here On In

John Bowden was arrested for murder in 1980 and sentenced to life imprisonment. After twelve years of institutionalised brutality and repression, he managed to escape in 1992 and was on the run from the police for a year and a half. He was recaptured in 1994 and has since been moved from prison to prison for constantly speaking out and acting against the prison industrial complex.

FHOI – It would seem a bit false to start an interview without knowing anything more about you than the brief introduction offers. Tell you a bit about your life and how you feel that may have affected who and where you are now.

JB – The circumstances and history of my life before prison are familiar to many long-term prisoners; a materially very poor childhood, often accentuated by racism, and an inclination to rebel and challenge rules. Then the long trek through brutal institutions; children’s ‘homes’, secure-units, youth custody institutions, and finally maximum-security prisons. Most “violent offenders” are created and manufactured within youth custody institutions, where violence is used to maintain control and discipline, and used as an expression of power. Young offenders learn quickly that an ability and willingness to use violence determines one’s place in the institutional pecking order, an order sanctified by those in charge. Before my politicisation in jail, and discovery of solidarity as a true weapon of authentic empowerment, I was a classic example of a violent state-raised offender, a creation of the system.

FHOI – Tell us about the routine of prison life. When do you wake-up, eat, exercise and sleep, and how does this affect the mentality and morale of yourself and your fellow prisoners?

JB – The daily routine of prison life is structured and designed to crush the human spirit and engender total and absolute obedience. Long-term prisoners, especially, experience what feels like an eternity of timeless, soul-destroying, rigidly-structured monotony, where one physically ages in a total vacuum of psychological stimulation and emotional experience, apart from anger, despair, and complete disempowerment. It is a man-made hell, and intrinsically designed to break and destroy any spirit of resistance. Personally, my strategy for psychological survival is to recognise and interact with the official regime here as little as possible; although confined physically within the prison, I create my own personal daily routine and a small piece of my own space. I don’t work in the jail workshops on principle, so my average day is usually spent working-out in the gym and reading and studying in my cell. Although in jail, my mind is free and unrestrained, and ultimately that’s where the final struggle takes place – a struggle to maintain the freedom and integrity of one’s mind.

FHOI – What are the current conditions of your imprisonment and the legal context surrounding your case? For instance, are you due a parole hearing in the near future, and if so, is anybody trying to prevent that?

JB – My current situation is one of impasse with the system. Last year the Parole Board reviewed my case and decided that I represented minimal risk to the community and should be transferred to an open prison in preparation for release. The prison system refused to comply with the Board’s request, and basically said that unless the Board ordered my release, the prison authorities would decide if and when I would be transferred to an open jail, and at the moment there was no intention to allow me out of maximum security conditions because of my “anti-authoritarian” attitude and refusal to comply with whatever prison management dictated. The Parole Board’s position is that I must be in an open jail before they consider my release, and so it’s a vicious circle situation, with both sides, the prison system and the Parole Board, almost colluding to prevent my release. At some point, I will probably have to see a Judicial Review and take the case to the courts, and possibly even the European Court of Human Rights. In fact, I’m now being held under a form of preventative detention, which under European human rights law is illegal.

FHOI – Have you ever worked within the prisons you’ve been incarcerated in? If not, what are your reasons for refusal, but if yes, what have been your experiences of prison labour?

JB – I have very little experience of prison labour and on principle have often refused to co-operate with it on the grounds that it amounts to forced slave labour, which under European and UN law is of course totally illegal. I have, however, often organised mass work-strikes in jail, (in Perth jail in 1994 we virtually closed the jail down for four days). So there is real potential to use the prison labour issue as an instrument for creating and mobilising real and effective solidarity in jail.

FHOI – What is your opinion on immediate issues such as a minimum wage for prisoners, or whether prisoners should get the vote? How do you see these struggles (whether they exist in action or not) within the context of the struggle against the prison system, state, and capital as a whole?

JB – I think we need to be very careful about supporting palliative reforms, like voting rights for prisoners and the minimum wage, because there’s a danger of legitimizing prison as an institution. That is the danger of the whole prison reform enterprise, that it seeks to reform an institution and system that is intrinsically irreformable, and instead should be completely abolished. We also need to ask ourselves which reforms of the prison system undermine and weaken it, and which ultimately legitimize and consolidate it. Tactically, I’m certainly not opposed to liberal reforms of the prison system, but only as a means to weakening and subverting it, and definitely NOT as an attempt at making prisons “better” and more respectable places. What has our so-called “liberal democracy” fundamentally achieved for the poor and powerless in our society? And will allowing prisoners access to that sham REALLY improve their conditions and make jails less oppressive and inhumane? I think not.

FHOI – A lot has been written from radical perspectives on how society on the outside more and more resembles the prison. What is your personal or shared experience (with other prisoners) of this depiction?

JB – Prison has always existed as a microcosm of the wider society, and also as a concentrated laboratory of repression and social control. In so many ways, the society beyond jail is little more than an open prison, where people’s lives are controlled and regulated by an omnipresent state. The unfortunate difference is of course that the majority of people on the outside in the wider society are unaware of their captivity, and so are mostly compliant with it, whilst in here we KNOW we exist under the iron heel of the state, and even the most co-operative prisoner harbours a hatred of it. The state generally is becoming more oppressive and intrusive, more all-controlling, as the economic fabric of our capitalist, class-divided society disintegrates, and rich and poor become even more polarised and antagonistic. And whilst we in prison are daily confronted with even more repressive regimes, so the poor in the wider society will also experience greater repression. Ultimately, it’s one struggle and one fight against a common state enemy, inside and outside prison.

FHOI – You have written a great deal on the purpose and development of the prison industry whilst inside. Why do you do this, and how do you imagine the information continues after leaving your hands?

JB – I have written much about the development of the prison industry because I think it’s important to highlight the way prisons are being used increasingly as a source of profit and cheap enslaved labour. I hope that the information and perspective that I communicate is used to raise awareness and inform a debate and struggle.

FHOI – Finally, what has been the most inspiring or heart-warming moment of your time behind bars?My life in prison has mostly been hard and difficult, and a real struggle against overwhelming adversity. But there have been moments of victory and inspiration, when my faith in the strength and beauty of the human spirit has been deeply confirmed.

JB – I still vividly remember my first participation in an organized protest at Wormwood Scrubs prison way back in about 1981, and how it changed me deeply as a person. The guards in the jail had been routinely brutalising prisoners, and had created a regime based on absolute fear, even terror. A few days before the protest I was involved in a peaceful protest by prisoners in one wing of the jail, which had been crushed with savage violence and brutality, and its “ringleaders” beaten and batoned all the way to he punishment unit. An atmosphere of fear subsequently prevailed in the jail and the guards swaggered around with an almost omnipotent arrogance and confidence. When a prisoner on the exercise yard one day suggested we should stage a sit-down protest, in solidarity with the prisoners whose recent protest had been so inhumanely crushed, I recall how a shiver of fear and apprehension ran through everyone on the yard. To protest in such a place was to invite terrible retribution, and yet all of us silently nodded and agreed to refuse to obey the order to leave the yard on the completion of the one hour exercise period. Initially, the guards grinned and smirked when we remained on the yard and refused to return to our cells, and then their mood and demeanour grew serious and more hostile as time passed. There were about 200 of us on the yard that day, men who usually associated only with their own groups or gangs, men from a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, men who imbued with prison culture, usually treated each other with suspicion, hostility, or indifference. On this day however, on that drab prison exercise yard, with fear and anticipation in the air, a unity developed that was unbreakable and absolute. We all recognised a common purpose and humanity, and we all knew that together we were strong and would prevail, whatever brutality was inflicted on us. The guards also saw and recognised our collective defiance, and fear replaced their arrogance. For the first time in my life, a life largely spent in brutal state institutions, I felt incredibly strong and empowered, and began to understand the dynamics of true struggle and solidarity, and it changed me irrevocably. Despite countless struggles and protests in jail since, the feelings of that day remain very precious and memorable.

Recent articles about John’s situation here: and

You can download John Bowden’s pamphlet ‘Tear Down The Walls!’ free of charge from the Leeds ABC website at:

Also check out a pamphlet recently produced by Bristol ABC to which John contributed:

Other articles by John can be read on the Leeds ABC website ( ), as well on the websites of our sister ABC groups in Bristol ( ), Brighton ( ), and London ( ).

Please send letters/cards of support to John at:
John Bowden, 6729, HMP Shotts, Cantrell Road, Shotts, Scotland, ML7 4LE.
You can also send e-mails to John (or any other prisoner) via:

A guide on writing to prisoners can be found here:

Leeds ABC have printed 2000 ‘Free John Bowden stickers’ – see

They also have ‘Free John Bowden T-shirts available. See