Action And Worth Reading...
issue 249 - November 1993
The following groups deal with certain aspects of liberty:
NCC Program on Racism
Women Against Pornography
Campaign Against Racial Exploitation
Women’s Liberation Movement Centre
Canadian Ethnocultural Council
Campaign Against Pornography and Censorship
Commission for Racial Equality
The Myth of the Market by Jeremy Seabrook, 1990, Green Books, Bideford, UK. In a style that’s immensely readable, he unravels one the most persuasive and corrosive illusions that rule our world and our age: that freedom and market economics somehow go together. Feminism Unmodified by Catharine MacKinnon, Harvard 1987. This is powerful stuff, MacKinnon applying her legal and academic mind incisively and unswervingly. She’s better on theory than popularity - but the sparks fly and the writing gets better when she lets her anger at injustice show. Democracy and Capitalism by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Basic Books, New York, 1987. A clear and constructive attempt by two political economists to analyze liberalism’s failure and suggest how liberty might be deepened and a radical, democratic culture created. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, Oxford, 1859. It’s a classic. Mill wrote like a humane angel, and – a rarity among fellow liberal thinkers – was actually concerned about the status of women. But the lack of a deeper understanding of the destructive power of patriarchy and imperialism restricts his vision. Truth Tales, stories by Indian women, Kali for Women, India, 1987 and the forthcoming In Other Words, new writing by Indian women, edited by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, Kali for Women, India, 1993. The writing is good, eye- and mind-opening, and the realities are refreshingly not white, male or imperialist. Both titles are available in editions by The Women’s Press, London.
At the age of 44, I was arrested and put into prison for the first time in my life. It was a hard blow. I had hitherto regarded myself as a ‘free spirit’, priding myself on being able to make up my own mind about issues rather than accept what was said by others. I enjoyed life, especially nature. Walking in local woods and parks was my favourite pastime.
My personal freedom had its financial constraints. In these days of unemployment, how free can one really be from the threat of poverty? But like most people, I took liberty for granted. And I was lucky in that I had a job and a car. The job meant I could afford to keep the car. The car meant I could get to the job.
I never gave a second thought to those in prison. Films and TV programs dealing with prison life just didn’t register. I could watch them and remain pretty much devoid of any empathy. ‘They probably deserved it,’ was my main thought.
But then something went wrong in my life. I was arrested and placed on remand in an allocation prison: ‘banged up’ in a cell 22 hours a day. I thought it was some kind of nightmare; the uncertainty of what was happening to me a form of mental torture. Whilst awaiting trial I tried to block out the prospect of this existence becoming my reality.
The prison clothes, the food, the noise... all were alien. It was very confusing to no longer have any choice over my actions. I found it especially puzzling that my door was slammed shut on me by someone I didn’t know. I awaited the day of my sentencing with the delirious expectation of ‘walking’, being set free. I needed that freedom.
When the judge pronounced three years, it was like a kick in the stomach. My immediate thought was how old my children would be before I could get to see them again.
But I quickly realised that I was going to have a lot of time on my hands, so I had best put it to good use. I had always considered time idly spent on the outside as something of a luxury. But in the drab environment of prison, time just hangs around your neck like a millstone. What I needed was something to occupy my mind during those long daylight hours.
I decided to learn to type, something I’d always wanted to do. By writing down my feelings about prison, I thought I would understand myself better. I even tried to inject some humour into these writings, but somehow the humour had a hollow ring in this environment. It was sadness that ruled my thoughts.
My naturally ebullient nature has been put on ‘hold’ in order for me to co-exist with a large number of men with whom I have nothing in common apart from the same address. My impatience with others less quick on the uptake than myself has also been checked. I no longer have the freedom of choice to walk away from any situation that I find unpleasant – and I have taken a bashing on account of this. Voicing my opinions now is subject to the censure of others. My intrinsic nature has been stifled. This is a pity – I used to be light-hearted.
I wish that like Dostoevsky in his prison story The Peasant Marey, I could still feel Christian charity for my fellow prisoners, no matter how wretched. Unfortunately, I can’t. Sometimes in my cell late at night I suffer a bout of anger and my thoughts tend to revenge rather than remorse. Why should I be denied the sight of a flower, or a plant or a tree? Why am I not allowed to see bright colours like red and orange and yellow? How I would love to be able to walk to the corner shop and back! Losing my freedom is the saddest thing that has happened to me.
But I am amazed at how quickly I have become inured to certain aspects of this loss. Far better the drab clothes I am obliged to wear than none at all. Using a bucket for a toilet is not really humiliating, is it? And whereas I wouldn’t eat the diet at first, unappetizing stodge mainly, now I find myself shovelling it down without thinking. I even look forward to the quiet of the cell.
But I hope I never take my liberty for granted again. To breathe fresh air is a wonderful thing. I wish I could do it.
Michael Franklin writes from a prison somewhere in the south of England.