Bending The Bars - Prison Stories by John Barker [Review]

Despite the occasional ghostwritten biographies of would-be gangsters, the cod-Porridge rubbish The Guardian is fond of, the more recent bullshit of ex-Government ministers, and the genuinely informative articles written by the likes of John Bowden, prison for the most part is still very much a closed world.

John Barker is someone from our own movement, one of those comrades sent down in the 1970's for daring to take on the British State as members of the Angry Brigade. John went to prison in 1971, and stayed there for 7 long years. This is a collection of stories written then, and published together now for the first time. As John says in the introduction to Bending The Bars: "Impossible to convey the longeur - the 'length' and 'tedious parts' of those 7 years, but what is possible is to give a feel for the jail, the times, and the crack for cons who aimed to eat as little shit as possible."

The world John describes is the world of the 1970's high security prison, a world of uniformed warders in slashed-peaked caps, of piss-pots, pig-meal porridge, and 'diesal' (prison tea), but one where through collective solidarity long-term prisoners were able to win a few concessions to humanity. Despite in-cell TVs and toilets, conditions for today's long-term prisoner are as John readily accepts in many ways even worse than they were in the 1970's.

I was first imprisoned in 1980, and so for me there was a certain familiarity in the compelling tales contained in this book. Many things may have changed over the years, but psychologically the reality of prison life is much the same - crushing boredom, frustration, casual brutality, and constant attempts to dehumanise people. For those aware of the possibility of imprisonment there's a great deal to be learned from Bending The Bars, and it provides a unique insight into a piece of all but forgotten history.

In 'The Sit Down' John describes the effect outside political action (in this case the miners strike) has on the prisoners, with working-class militancy beyond the bars being reflected by the growing militancy of those locked-up. Little victories, like the smuggling in of a radio, encourage the boldness to greater expectation and the willingness to fight for better prison conditions. "Action causes its own momentum." Resistance is it's own celebration. Unfortunately, the concessions to humanity John and other prisoners fought so hard to achieve in the 70's and 80's have been virtually handed back to the System on a plate by today's cons.

The militancy of prisoners on the Scrubs long-term wing forced some screws to take a pragmatic approach, others inevitably remained as hard-line as ever, taking any opportunity to wind the cons up. John and his mates thought a lesson was in order, and an exciting account is given of how a full-scale gloss paint attack was launched on the worst screws in reprisal for their behaviour.

Another feature of the nicks back then were the Firms, with alliances struck between groups of cons for better or worse. Escape was also very much on the agenda, but unfortunately for John, it wasn't to be.

John writes of all aspects of prison life, from racism, to the workshop routine, to seeing the doctor and being down the block. Nothing is shied away from, and his accounts have an easy flowing style.

Of prison work, John tells us "It was nearly all unskilled manual work, as if they wanted cons to feel at home doing the kind of work they'd become criminals to avoid."

Receiving mail is usually the highlight of every prisoner's day, and this was particularly the case back in the days of monthly visits, and before the introduction of card phones. Like most cons John liked to savour the experience, "I hate rushing a letter, it's something to take slowly like a bath."

Not many things in prison can be enjoyed at length, and that is certainly the case with 'association', when just as you're enjoying stretching your legs or having a laugh with your mates, some sour-faced little man shouts, "End of Association", and it's time to be locked behind your door for yet another night. "Now this is the time you really know you're not free. You're talking, feeling good, but it ends not when it's ready to end but when that fucking tannoy starts."

In 'Manoeuvres' John suffers his first attack caused by the sensory deprivation of solitary confinement, a condition most long-term prisoners will be familiar with even if they cannot name it, the notorious 'K Complex'.

Later in the same chapter reports reach the cons at Long Lartin of the 1976 Hull Prison uprising. John feels frustrated at not being in a position to offer solidarity, but when two ex-Hull screws, right bastards, are posted to Lartin in the wake of the riot, it's a provocation too far. "I could do with some adrenalin, half the time I feel I'm coasting through this too easy." The cons talk of what to do, and a sit-in protest is organised to follow the showing of the weekly film. The collective show of strength by the prisoners forces the departure of the two ex-Hull screws.

For the political prisoner there is a daily struggle to maintain integrity behind bars. "Every question that should be political becomes one of self, of whether or not I lived up to my standards, to the way I see myself."

After an inter-prison visit to Holloway to see his co-defendant and lover, John expounds, "It's a truism and it's true that jail can only work if the cons let it work, but there's another side to the story. There's the knowing how to live with people in a small space, a necessary respect between cons that gave us the chance of coming out sane." Words as relevant now as when they were written.

John went to prison in 1971 aged 23, and came out in 1978 aged 30. Near the end of the book, he tells us "We can understand conditioning, understand such a process exists, even the hows and whys, but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened to us." None of us who go through the nightmare of long-term incarceration survive it undamaged, all we can hope to do is survive. John most certainly did, and 25 years later he's still fighting for a better world. His courageous spirit, his endurance, his unwillingness to surrender, his continued passion, these alone are an act of vengeance against the system that imprisoned him, and a testimony to a great man.

Like all great prison memoirs Bending The Bars captures the spirit of indominitable humanity, a defiant slap in the face for all those twisted little men who may have held the keys to John's freedom, but who never ever came close to breaking him. It is a tragedy that it has taken so long to publish these stories, but they are still a relevant, compelling and hugely enjoyable read, the best insight I've read into the closed world of British high security prisons in the 1970's. Buy it.

Mark Barnsley, May 2003