Prisoner visiting room. (Wikimedia/Boardhead)

Forging human connections in prison — even when the system treats them as garbage

While in prison for protesting nuclear weapons, I found myself struggling with loneliness, until I received an unexpected visitor.
Prisoner visiting room. (Wikimedia/Boardhead)

Often our social lives become limited due to intensive work periods, social media bubbles or social restrictions owing to the COVID pandemic. One of the more socially restricted environments is the total institution we call “prison.” Here I reminisce about the time I made a deep human connection during a long period of seclusion in prison. I was at Her Majesty’s Prison Preston, U.K., during six months from Sept. 13, 1998, on charges of “conspiracy to commit criminal damage” to a Trident nuclear weapon submarine. See also the introduction to this series of diary notes, and my reflections on prison as part of resistance.

October 15, 1998,
Her Majesty’s Prison Preston, U.K.

Day 33 of imprisonment for a Plowshares disarmament action

Today I was told I had a visitor. I waited in the visiting room but didn’t know who was coming. It was noisy; a lot of people talking, babies crying, announcements being made. A tall slender man with long black hair came up to me, stretched out his hand and said in broken English:

Previous Coverage
  • He went to prison for civil disobedience. His cell mate was convicted of murder. Together, they struggled with guilt and redemption.
  • “Hi Stellan! My name is Alexandro. I am from Italy but live in Preston. I am a priest of the Xavarians, a Catholic order.”

    We sat down in front of each other, separated by a long visitor’s desk, and he continued: “We have contact with Liverpool Catholic Worker and Ciaron O`Reilly. When I heard that you were in prison here in Preston, I thought I should visit you. Hear how you feel.” Alexandro spread his hands in a wide gesture and smiled warmly at me.

    “Thanks, I appreciate it. I do well here in prison even though my mood goes up and down. Do you know anything about prisons?” I asked.

    His face turned somber, he hesitated for a second and then said, ”Some, but not English prisons. I am a priest and will soon be allowed to visit here regularly. If I only get my permit and keys, I will try to have regular conversations with those who want.”

    “What kind of prisons do you know then?” I was now curious.

    ”I worked in Brazil before. Nine years. In the poor northeastern parts of the country. I was a priest but became so involved in the farmers’ struggle for their rights that I was arrested during a land occupation. I spent a couple of weeks in jail before I was released,” he said. 

    Noam Chomsky, who I am very inspired by, believes that the poor farmers’ land occupation movement is one of the most significant movements today in the world. I asked Alexandro if the movement is strong. 

    ”Yes, we were a few thousand just during the land occupation I was with,” Alexandro said. He straightened himself. 

    A guard walked past behind my back. I did not look up but continued: “I am a peace researcher and read a lot about political movements. It is frustrating that Western movement researchers only talk about movements as if they consist of a young middle class seeking and forming new identities. They do not recognize the movements of the Global South. They only see their own backyard of lifestyle orientation.”

    Continuing, Alexandro said, ”I don’t know, but the farmers I met were driven by a strong faith. They helped me maintain my Christian faith. Otherwise, it’s hard to cope with. Death squads shoot farmers and street children. I was threatened with murder and had to escape. I did not want to; my duty was to stay with my brothers and sisters, but the other priests said I had to. So now I’m here. For how long, I do not know. But tell me now, is there anything you want to talk about?”

    “Resistance in the Global South,” I said. “Sometimes the prison makes me sick to my stomach. It is a strange existence. What is most difficult for me is the lack of intimacy, and the impossibility of showing any kind of weakness. I’m pretty tough, and know that showing fear can provoke some violent men. I can get along with the strangest kind of people. I have worked some years at a psychiatric ward, but somewhere, sometimes, I need an emotional intimacy and connection. Otherwise, it is difficult to cope with everything in the long run.” 

    At that instant I caught myself breathing fast, and realizing this, I took a few deep breaths. I then continued: “I get depressed, lose energy when I cannot be honest with anyone. Here, inside the prison, there is no such possibility. You can’t even find a place to be by yourself and cry. There is always someone around you. Inside this place, it seems, the only alternatives offered are to become an emotionally-contained brick stone, emotionally-stunted drug zombie, or emotion-releasing wacko…” I stopped speaking suddenly, realizing that I may have said too much. 

    I was surprised that I talked so openly with someone I had just met. Was I that desperate for human contact? As I reflect now, I realize that I may have shared my feelings openly because I felt that Alexandro and I had some common ground, a connection. 

    Alexandro observed my pause, and then slowly said, ”Loneliness of the soul is the worst. Worse than anything else.”

    I nodded and we sat quietly together. It felt wonderful; my body felt at ease, my head felt lighter. Around us, there was chatter and chairs scratching.

    When Alexandro still said nothing, I started to talk again, now completely without inhibitions: ”Personal relationships are treated as garbage by the system. No one asks who you want to share a cell with; no one talks about where you will ‘live’ until just when you are moved for some reason. Even if you ask to share with someone special, it is not accepted. ‘Do you think this is a hotel?’ you are told by the sneering guard.”

    ”When I was in prison in Brazil, we were 20 people in a cell meant for four. People were suffocated to death by the heat and the congestion. We barely got any food. Far too little water. Compared to that prison, this seems like a hotel,” Alexandro said, shrugging his shoulders.

    I was quiet before I burst out laughing. ”You are fucking right! I hate to complain, I am sorry. But I was actually thinking about how it is for all the others, the ordinary criminals, those who do not have the support I have.” However, this was only partly true, and I knew it. In actuality, I was complaining, feeling sorry for myself.   

    Alexandro nodded seriously, and I felt encouraged to continue: ”Those who cannot read, and have no interests to focus on during the endless hours in the cell, smoke and listen to music all day long. And sleep a lot. Their lives are empty because they have no stimulation, and have never experienced anything  else. They die an emotional and social death in prison.”

    Alexandro agreed, mentioning that this a class issue. He then said that he was a liberation theologian.

    ”But both my Christianity and my Marxism are weak nowadays. What keeps me up, and gives me faith, is the faith of those economically the poorest. The memories of them carry me,” he said, as his gaze turned foggy. 

    My mind buzzed: Could one meet a soul mate, inside a prison, in just half an hour?

    Previous Coverage
  • Prison as an unavoidable and useful part of resistance
  • Still, I felt a bit differently about this, and told him so: “I think it is my job as a white man from the middle class in the Western world to use my privileges in the struggle. The poor can figure out their lives themselves if we stop oppressing them. It is our duty to fight  oppression, and it is easier to fight if you are not poor and don’t have to struggle to survive….”

    Alexandro raised his hand and interrupted my speech: ”I do not know. The poor are the ones who fight. The middle class are trapped in their own wealth or make a career of the struggle for justice.”

    ”Yes, clearly, the middle-class as a whole but not everyone,” I said. “There are many from the middle class who try. And when those who have resources resist, things can change; if it is done in solidarity with the poor. If I am treated badly, I can resist in a way more forceful than the deaf-mute guy who lives in the cell next to me, or Dave who is illiterate. I try to be stoic and be well-behaved when facing the daily humiliation in this strange house of oppression, but show me a guard who oppresses people and I am ready to pick a fight … I will contact my support people and that damned oppressor will be drowned in letters, lawsuits and complaints! Demonstrations outside the walls and other actions …” 

    Right when I blurted out all that, I regretted it. I realized that my tongue ran along my feelings. I had just revealed my naïve willingness to be in solidarity with the poor. Alexandro was too respectful and kind to not humiliate this arrogant do-gooder. He said instead, “Sounds good. Would be interesting to hear about some of the fights you have fought that have benefited the oppressed in prison.”

    Before I could compensate for my excesses, the guard leaned forward and said, ”End the conspiracies. Time is over, comrades!”

    I stood, smiled at Alexandro and asked him to visit me again. He promised to visit, and pushed his chair back in its place. I leaned over the visitor’s table, embraced him and whispered: ”Maybe I can borrow your prison keys next time?”

    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.

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