Write To A Prisoner, Not Your MP

Merrick, 21st May 2003ce

Most great radical social changes have been catalysed by the actions of people who were, at the time, vilified criminals: from Martin Luther King to the women of Greenham Common, from Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes (whose cause our ‘Greatest Briton’ Churchill dismissed as ‘silly’, saying women had enough say in the future of a country by giving birth to the next generation), up to the eco-protesters of the 90s; progressive and humane people have been jailed.

And it’s not just the historical hindsight that lends support to prisoners of conscience. Despite massive support at the time for their cause in the outside world, there are those who were jailed for their resistance to the brutalities of apartheid in South Africa, Israeli occupation of Lebanon, British occupation of Ireland, Saddam Hussain’s rule of Iraq. These are just the examples that we commonly hear about cos they’ve been put in front of us on the news, but there are similar cases around the world.

The British state is like all others; for as long as it has had prisons, it has had prisoners of conscience.

Governments who proclaim a belief in ‘the rule of law’ believe nothing of the kind. They believe in the rule of their authority, the authority of the most powerful. Dissent is punished not in proportion to its legality or morality, but in proportion to its effectiveness. So it is that animal rights activists who have never harmed or threatened anyone find themselves serving 18 year sentences. And so it is that peace activists are behind bars for actually defending international law against governments who break it.

Ploughshares is a group dedicated to peacefully damaging military equipment then getting arrested and explaining why. Because it’s the same state powers who run both the military and the courts, Ploughshares activists are usually convicted and imprisoned. As I write this, two men are in jail in Gloucester for an action against the British-based American planes that were bombing Iraq.

In 1996 the International Court of Justice gave an opinion that the use, or the threat to use (ie ownership) of nuclear weapons was against international law. This means that all nuclear weapons are illegal weapons of mass destruction. The Nuremberg Charter makes it very clear that it is the duty of all citizens to comply with international law, and that national law or ‘following orders’ is never an excuse.

Trident Ploughshares has been set up to run an ongoing direct action campaign against Trident, Britain’s armoury of nuclear weapons. They’ve had a few people acquitted, many get their charges dropped, and a lot get imprisoned.

We all know of things that are immoral yet legal. We all know of things that are moral yet illegal. Once we consciously realise that ‘moral’ and ‘legal’ are not the synonyms that politicians, journalists and police use them as, we have to accept that there are and always will be people unjustly imprisoned. And if we want to consider ourselves moral people, we must support them.

Whatever your morality and principles, there are people in jail for doing things you’d applaud. And yet they are in jailed in your name, paid for with your money. Simply by being a citizen you give your consent to this. To redress it you cannot be passive, you have to actively withdraw your consent.

If you really want to write a letter that gives hope to a better tomorrow, write to a political prisoner, not your MP.

Much of the progress to liberty has been won by campaigns of illegal activity with the prisoners being sustained by support from those of us outside. If a prisoner comes out having had tremendous support then they are likely to be unbroken and their struggle continues. If they found it to be an isolating experience that broke their spirit, their resistance is over.

Prison is boring; it is designed to be so. The prisoner is malnourished, locked in a room for up to 23 hours a day and/or working as a slave doing mindless jobs for £5 a week under threat of solitary confinement if they refuse. Prison is an institution designed to break the human spirit.

Getting the mail is, for many prisoners, the highlight of the day. A card or letter is proof that there are people who care. Descriptions and pictures of things outside inspire dreams and hope.


Don’t think that just cos you don’t personally know a prisoner you don’t have anything to say. Write not only about why their cause matters to you, but about whatever it is you do.

Remember that all mail will be read by the authorities, so don’t put anything that’d incriminate anyone.

Different prisons have different rules about what you can enclose with letters. If you want to send a book or something like that, check first with the prison that it’s OK. A directory of prisons including their phone numbers is online at http://www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk/prisons/

Be sure to put a sender’s address on the back of the envelope; it gives the screws less excuse to stop your letter getting through.

Don’t be disappointed if you don’t receive a reply. Many prisoners cannot afford the stamps to reply to everyone. If you can send them in, stamps and blank stationery are really useful for prisoners (though some prisons don’t allow it, as a way to force prisoners to pay the inflated prices at the prison shop).


The weekly direct action/alternative news source Schnews usually has a section called Inside Schnews with details of prisoners inside for a variety of worthy political causes. Schnews is free to subscribe to by post or email.

MOJO, the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation set up by Birmingham Six convict Paddy Joe Hill, supports past and present prisoners convicted for crimes they did not commit.

Solidarity South Pacific is a British based network of support for tribes in the South Pacific who are resisting attacks on their land and people from military, logging, mining and missionary organisations. Just ringing up the prison and ranting in English but being sure to repeatedly include the name of the prisoner has secured better treatment for many inmates, and in one case the improved conditions provided successful opportunity to escape.

And the two guys mentioned earlier who were caught trying to trash an American B52 in Gloucestershire can do with support too.

Phil Pritchard JT5131
Toby Olditch JT5132

HMP Gloucester,
[address deleted: see update below]

update: 'B52 Two' freed!

On Friday June 20 2003 Philip Pritchard and Toby Olditch were freed on bail. A trial date has not been set as yet.

The B52 Two website – for all the latest news and information