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John Bowden

‘Carnival of the Oppressed’

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published: 4WardEver UK – October 2010
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John Bowden was arrested in 1980, then a young man, for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1992, after years of brutality and repression, he managed to escape and was on the run from the police for a year and a half. He was recaptured in March 1994 and committed to Perth Prison in Scotland. Here he talks about various aspects of being inside, including the reasons as to why he committed murder and his subsequent politicisation.

It was said that the murder was, unfortunately, something which happens all too frequently when men quarrel while drunk. In a released pamphlet, Tear Down The Walls! John describes the killing as “a senseless, almost gratuitous killing”, which “reflected the extent of my brutalisation after years of brutalising treatment in state institutions.”

Soon after his imprisonment, in his own words, John “began to become politicized, to emerge from the hopelessness, violence, and rage that had characterised my life thus far.” As John’s self-awareness and politicization grew, he began to emerge as an effective prison organiser and an articulate spokesperson for prisoners’ rights.

In an interview John says; “The murder itself cannot be looked upon as an isolated incident, it has to be tied in with my history. Being identified as Irish I experienced racism as well as extreme poverty very early on in life. Unfortunately my instinctive rebellion against both sets of disadvantages was always blind and misdirected. I rebelled early by committing serious anti-social acts (I burnt a factory to the ground when I was nine!) and so was criminalised and incarcerated quite early on in life.

Time and time again, John’s politics, and his contact with political activists, has been highlighted by the prison system as a “risk factor” and a reason for keeping him in jail. Nonetheless, after more than a quarter of a Century behind bars, John Bowden had progressed through the system to an open prison, Castle Huntly in Scotland. He has worked outside the prison walls, been regularly released on weekend ‘home leave.

John says; “My politicisation happened while I was being held in solitary confinement and I suppose it had the intensity of a religious conversion almost. I was held in solitary for over four consecutive years at one point and so read and thought a great deal, and began to make connections between the struggle that I’d been fighting all of my life, albeit in an individualistic and self-destructive way, and the far wider struggles of oppressed people everywhere.

“I was also radicalised by my direct experience of struggle in prison essentially because in its treatment of rebellious prisoners, the state always reveals its true nature which of course is pure fascism. Revolutionary politics helped me to properly contextualise my struggle in prison and also to sustain and inspire me when I experienced repression of the most brutal and soul-destroying sort”.

John Bowden has suffered over the past 25 years; from savage beatings at the hands of prison guards; the solitary confinement; the continual attempts to break him psychologically, amount to torture. John has never been broken by these outrages however, he has never been unafraid to write in support of other prisoners being brutalised in segregation units, for example; to show solidarity with those facing injustice in jail systems all over the world; to stand up and be counted when it was needed.

John Bowden has paid a heavy price, not just for a few moments of drunken recklessness, but for his integrity, his empathy, his solidarity, and for his radicalism.


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