He went to prison for civil disobedience. His cell mate was convicted of murder. Together, they struggled with guilt and redemption.

Arrested for trying to disarm a nuclear submarine, an activist shares reflections from his time behind bars.
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Altogether, Stellan Vinthagen has spent more than a year in prison for various civil disobedience actions since the 1980s. Now a professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Endowed Chair in the Study of Nonviolent Direct Action and Civil Disobedience. Stellan has published 12 books, travels regularly to India, Brazil, and other places to visit frontline communities, and teaches resistance studies at UMass every year. 

In a collection of journal entries, Stellan recounts stories from his longest stretch of time in jail, when he was locked up for half a year in Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) in Preston, U.K. from 1998 to 1999.

In 1998, Stellan was one of three people in the group Bread Not Bombs Plowshares that participated in a nonviolent direct action to disarm a Trident nuclear submarine. Trident is the deadliest weapon in human history — an underwater mass murder machine, able to destroy 200 cities all over the world in one single strike, with bombs bigger than the one that destroyed Hiroshima.

On September 13, Annika Spalde, AnnBritt Sternfeldt and Stellan conducted a disarmament action at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, England, the shipyard where the Trident submarines were produced. They later argued that since states are not disarming, citizens have to try to do it themselves. To advance this vision, these three activists began by dismantling one of the platforms used for military production. They left a statement at the site, and moved further inside to get inside the main control room of one nearly completed submarine. 

They intended to use their household hammers and bolt cutters to destroy the panels, computers and handles that enable the submarine to fire nuclear missiles. But they were apprehended by guards. 

The action was a part of the Plowshares Movement, which has disarmed weapons in about 100 nonviolent actions in the United States, Germany, Sweden, England, Holland, New Zealand, Ireland and Australia since 1980. Some activists have gone to prison for up to 20 years, while others have been acquitted by juries or judges who agree that nuclear weapons are illegal, dangerous, and unnecessary for security.

Trident Ploughshares activists work to disarm the UK Trident nuclear weapons system in a non-violent manner. (Trident Ploughshares/www.tridentploughshares.org)

The three Plowshares activists who conducted this citizen disarmament, then in their 30s, came from the West Coast of Sweden. Annika was a nurse studying International Relations at the University of Gothenburg. AnnBritt a former town Councillor for the Green Party, as well as an author and solidarity worker. Stellan was doing his Ph.D. on nonviolent resistance at the Peace  and Development Research Institute at Gothenburg University.

They spent six months in jail, and faced trial in 1999 at Preston Crown Court. They argued for the moral obligation and political necessity to disarm these genocidal weapons, and they also tried, with the help of experts, lawyers and one German judge, to argue that international law — which outlaws the use of nuclear weapons — is on their side. 

In the first trial, they ended up with a so-called “hung jury.” They convinced enough members of the jury to make a majority decision impossible, because 10 out of 12 need to agree to reach a verdict. They had a retrial several months later,  where they were sentenced to one year in prison as punishment for their “crimes.” Since they had already served half a year, they were released after the sentencing — free to go home and conspire with others to commit more “crimes.”

The following is one journal entry from Stellan’s time in the HMP Prison.

October 18, 1998

HMP Prison Preston, U.K.

Mike was sitting at the desk, smoking a cigarette. I lay on the bed and counted bricks in the cell ceiling. There was autumn cold coming in from the window that had been open since breakfast.

“I know I deserve the punishment,” Mike said, looking away at the cell door. “There is nothing I can do to make him live again. I’m worthless.”

I searched his eyes, tried to find something to say, but I couldn’t. I was convinced he was wrong — no murderer gets better, and no one who is murdered comes alive through a cruel punishment — but I didn’t know how to say it. I felt inadequate and my words all sound like clichés.

Mike was plagued by guilt after killing his best friend in a drunken fight. No one offered to talk to him about his feelings. The police just wanted to know the facts. The lawyer was interested in the legal defense and reducing the sentence. The judge wanted to know if he felt guilty or not for committing the crime. The guards were not interested in talking to him at all. For them, it was enough to make sure he was not trying to escape. His family had not been in contact for several years. Mike had lived on the streets as a homeless alcoholic. Since he disliked the church, he did not want to talk to the priest. So, he and I were talking instead.

I felt like a spoiled, upper-class kid. I thought it was embarrassing that he had no one to talk to and did not receive letters – not even from the lawyer who promised to keep him informed – while I received more letters than I could answer. He was too proud to complain, but yesterday he said, “How do you handle getting so much mail?”

No one in prison or the courts asks the big questions about forgiveness, reconciliation or community healing. It is an impersonal system that treats everyone as if it were self-evident that crimes were linked to punishment and nothing else.

Before I could respond, we heard an echoing call across the prison block: “Church!”

Our cell door opened, and Mr MacIntyre said, “Religious service, guys! Come on now, you need it!”

I decided to go for the first time. I asked Mike if he wanted to join, but he just muttered and didn’t look up from reading The Guardian.

I first saw a church hall with grilles for the church windows, with a figure of Jesus hanging from the cross. Jesus’ judgment, and the death penalty for disobedience to the Roman Empire, took on a new and closer meaning in this environment. The guards of the English Empire stood along the walls. The prison church in HMP Preston is located inside the walls. Our own church, for the criminals.

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For us prisoners, the church service is a chance to meet those who aren’t from the same block. It is also an opportunity to get out of the cell. For some, however, Christianity is a token savior that gives hope and meaning to life in prison. While several prisoners murmured, the priest preached that Jesus would comfort and deliver the captives. Colin turned around. Our eyes met, and we smiled. I wondered how long it would take – another 2000 years? The church should be the right place to meet grace and reconciliation.

I have long been inspired by Jesus, but have never been able to regard myself as a Christian. For many years I was a seeker, but have long since stopped searching for God. Nevertheless, I have a great fondness for being in the church, being filled with silence and tranquility. A few times I have also participated in worship services; meditative worship with repetitive song verses has appealed to me, like medieval music and a monk’s melancholy song.

While we were singing, those who wanted to could approach the priest and whisper about their difficulties to receive the priest’s blessing. Several prisoners joined the queue. Joe, one of the toughest guys in prison, went forward with his head bowed under his burdens. We read joint prayers for John, Michael and Sam who were sick, had relatives in distress, someone who had died, a child born, refugees from war and environmental catastrophes, and the starving people in the world. We were all united in suffering and stress. I enjoyed singing, no matter what we were singing. It was a nice contrast to the rest of life in prison.

When it was time for communion, I was one of those who stayed among the benches and watched. In a semicircle, men were waiting to participate in Jesus’ final meal with the disciples. One was a large man — a mountain of muscle with tattoos on arms, hands and neck. Another was a small, slim boy with thin hair and an uncertain look. Then came an alcoholic with a broad stomach, marked by years in the gutter, with large gaps between his teeth. Two brothers followed, both drug addicts with watery, flickering eyes. All these hard men and frightened boys stood in a semi-circle, waiting for God’s grace and fellowship, in front of Jesus on the cross and the church’s prison grilles.

In some way, it felt like the most meaningful service I have ever attended. I felt touched by something sacred. Whether it was Jesus or God, I have no idea. It was probably the social ritual that the priest created, a ritual that gave us all a longed-for moment of grace, forgiveness and fellowship. I wish Mike had come along so we could have shared the moment together.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies

Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.