“News came through that a con on C wing had been murdered by screws in the block beaten to pulped pulp then hanged to cover it up, a suicide story. It seemed too cynical to be true. I knew screws could be brutal but this was too much, all my deepest fears congealed.”
In the 1970s, a group called the Angry Brigade claimed responsibility for a number of actions in Britain–including the bombing of the home of employment minister Robert Carr. After other bombings, arrests took place followed by the longest conspiracy trial in the history of the British legal system. At the conclusion of the trial of the Stoke Newington Eight (this refers to the eight people eventually tried for conspiracy and weapons possession) twenty-three-year-old John Barker received a ten-year sentence for his role in the Angry Brigade. Deemed a Category A prisoner–A Danger to the State, Barker was locked up and rotated through several British prisons. After completion of seven years of this sentence (1971-1978), Barker was released. Bending the Bars is a collection of essays covering those seven years inside.
The book is not a memoir in the strictest sense. This is not a chronological account of day one forward until release–although the book does end with Barker walking out of prison. Instead this is a collection of essays highlighting some of Barker’s experiences in prison. Barker states that “the cops had framed an guilty man,” so there’s no self-pity–but there is a strong analysis of exactly what it’s like to be caught in the net and tossed into a system that attempts to manage and control Barker and his fellow cons. In spite of some very hard times, in the foreword, Barker states that his “time inside was the golden age of such prisons…. Since that time we have endured Mrs. Thatcher, Michael Howard and Tony Blair, all keen on punishing people who are not ‘Hard-working families who play by the rules’ as Blair put it. Prison is almost exclusively for working class people who do not ‘play by the rules’.”
Barker argues that prison is “like an experiment in social control” with a purpose under New Labour “to destroy what remains of collective solidarity amongst cons.” Indeed Barker cites many examples of protest solidarity amongst prison inmates, and it’s clear that to the Barker and his fellow cons, they had to stick together. The sense of unity amongst cons prevails–from Barker’s contacts with the Irish prisoners to the odd con rumble, but the cons attempt, for the most part, to retain the sense that their collective situation and condition warrants solidarity. Indeed it’s quite clear that when the cons stand together, they are at their strongest. In-fighting and the odd snitch weaken their solidarity, and tension and frustration erode friendships at times.
The first essay Early Days: Brixton covers Barker’s “comprehensive tour of misery”–his initial adjustment, his boredom, and the realization that in prison you can’t control even a tiniest detail of your own life. Everything is subject to routine–when you get up, when you go to bed, and Barker describes the feeling of power prisoners experience when they execute a seemingly minor act of independence. On the receiving end of the system, Barker recognized that “a sadist in the Home Office” dreamed up many of the conditions inside the prison (Derrick Jensen’s book Welcome to the Machine goes into the subject of prison design in some length). Barker’s argument that some sicko had to have had a hand in designing the prison and its systems of control is a point made repeatedly throughout the book–from the petty humiliations, the “shit parcels,” and the sweat box. On one occasion, the prisoners are ordered to make a large number of prison beds for Saudi Arabia, and on another occasion, the cons gather to watch a film that just happens to have a death row, execution sequence. “Asylum mode” cube shaped cells at Long Lartin Prison seem designed with a clinical interest in isolation in mind, and Barker wryly notes that he “could do without the deluxe shitting service but did not want to live in a box.” In this regimented, depersonalized and isolated world, with privacy stripped away, small kindnesses carry great weight.
The thing I found most surprising about the book is that Barker’s sense of humour prevails. In spite of confinement, in spite of losing someone he loved, he conveys moments of joy, and relates many amusing conversations amongst the prisoners. For example, in the chapter Manoeuvres, Barker recalls a conversation about Pavlov–a touchy subject given the situation. One con enrolled in an Open University course on behavior proceeds to defend Pavlov as a man who “was just describing the facts.” Barker answers: “But the facts as you call them came out of a set-up. The dog didn’t need the fucking bell to eat his dinner.” In another chapter, a con “had this thing about spaceships.”
Bending the Bars comes across as a remarkably honest, direct and unpretentious record of some of Barker’s experiences. This is not an account written by a cynical, hardened, angry individual. Instead, Barker comes across as an accepting individual who learns to cope with imprisonment, who fights depression and despair. He notes guards who seem to have some sort of standard of behavior and guards who are just sadistic and have an unhealthy enjoyment of their jobs. Included are some fascinating observations about the Irish prisoners, and this brings up the issue of hunger strikes. Barker includes his thoughts on the hunger strike as a tactic and notes that while he was willing to join such a motion in solidarity, “we didn’t believe in it as a tactic because it seemed to assume that the other side were ultimately humane people.” I’d never thought of it in those terms before.
The book makes it clear that the notion that prison is supposed to ‘rehabilitate’ inmates is ludicrous. It’s all about punishment, power, and control–although Barker did get to make a few pillowcases. On another note, I wish the book included some sort of glossary. I was able to infer meaning into some terms used, but in other cases, I had no clue what some words meant.
On an aside note, and to reiterate Barker’s observation that “prison is almost exclusively for working class people who do not “play by the rules” Z Magazine January 2008 pp. 23-24 included the “Prison Challenge Quiz.” If you haven’t seen this and are interested in the subject, get your hands on a copy. Anyway, question 12 asks: Which crime will get a stuffer sentence?
a. embezzling $5,000,000
b. stealing a doughnut.
In case you made the mistake of using common sense to gauge your answer, I’ll include the answer; it’s b: stealing a doughnut. A man pinched a doughnut. This was shoplifting, but pushing a shop worker in the process turned the incident into armed robbery. That would normally have netted a 5-15 year sentence, but a prior record could bring a sentence of 30 years to life.
The million-dollar embezzler, on the other hand, an Enron conspirator pled guilty to helping himself to more than 5 million. This landed a 6-year sentence but good behavior could shave off 2 years.
If you are interested in reading more about The Angry Brigade, I recommend Anarchy in the UK: The Angry Brigade by Tom Vague and The Angry Brigade: The Cause and The Case. Britain’s First Urban Guerilla Group by Gordon Carr.