Prison Round Trip is a reflection on prison life and how to keep one’s sanity and political integrity behind bars. Grappling with themes of consciousness, the nature of freedom, and what it means to be alive, Klaus Viehmann wrote this essay ten years after being released from prison, having completed a 15-year sentence for his involvement in urban guerrilla activities in Germany. The preface by political prisoner Bill Dunne, held by the U.S. government for over thirty years now, shows that the nature of imprisonment, and the ways in which the human spirit can transcend it, are universal.
About the Author
Klaus Viehmann spent fifteen years in West German prisons after his arrest in 1978 for various activities carried out by the anarchist 2nd of June Movement. While in prison he wrote an essay that became the centerpiece of the book Drei zu Eins (“Three to One”), published in 1991. The book introduced the concept of “triple oppression”the interrelations between class, gender and race in oppressive social structuresto a radical German-speaking audience, and proved highly influential, especially in autonomist circles. Since his release Viehmann has been active in various left-wing projects, including solidarity campaigns for World War II forced laborers and Colombian trade unionists. He remains involved in numerous publishing activities, as an author, translator, and a graphic designer. He is also co-editor of two extensive volumes documenting the history of autonomist political poster art in Germany: Hoch die Kampf Dem (1999) and Vorwärts bis zum Nieder Mit (2001). His home is once again Berlintoday officially undivided, but, as he puts it, “a place where a lot needs to be done."
Read an Excerpt
Prison Round Trip
By Klaus Viehmann, Gabriel Kuhn
PM Press KersplebedebCopyright © 2009 PM Press and Kersplebedeb
All rights reserved.
PRISON ROUND TRIP
Bang. The door to your cell is shut. You have survived the arrest, you are mad that you weren't more careful, you worry that they will get others too, you wonder what will happen to your group and whether a lawyer has been called yet — of course you show none of this. The weapon, the fake papers, your own clothes, all gone. The prison garb and the shoes they've thrown at you are too big — maybe because they want to play silly games with you, maybe because they really blow "terrorists" out of proportion in their minds — and the control over your own appearance taken out of your hands. You look around, trying to get an understanding of where you'll spend the next few years of your life.
What is the point of talking about survival strategies today — years later? Is it worth trying to organize and sum up your experiences? It is, at any rate, difficult to bring them into words and sentences. Yet, for those who will spend time behind bars in the future, they might be useful. Besides, since the experiences of (political) prisoners are neither extra-societal nor a-historical, their survival strategies might also help those comrades who experience their everyday life as little more than a somewhat coordinated form of "getting by." To focus on what's essential, to plan your everyday life consciously, to use your energies in meaningful ways — these are all qualities that are useful. Everywhere. Survival strategies are personal (which is why this text is, also rhetorically, directed at you, no abstract third person), but not egotistical. Emancipation and liberation do not happen within the individual — they are socio-historical processes. In the words of Peter Brückner, "It was only the late bourgeois who has turned freedom and independence into a question of 'inwardness'." This shows the limits of all individual survival strategies. Surviving can only turn into living through social liberation. But this is another story, one in which prisons will hardly play a role ...
In prison, the necessity of survival strategies is immediate; without them you are at the mercy of the enemy. Prison is a hostile environment, and it has been designed as such by people who see you as their foe. Have no illusions about that. In regular prisons — especially old-fashioned ones — conditions are often atrocious and sometimes violent, but there are at least social structures. In isolation or maximum security units, social relations are controlled, regulated, abolished. Isolation means the absence of social life and the presence of yourself. You have nothing but yourself, and you have to find ways to deal with it. This is possible, but it is not possible to know beforehand who will get through prison okay and who won't. For someone with little life experience, limited political self-motivation and uncertain (possibly egotistical) future plans, it will be difficult. A colorful biography in which prison does not mark the first rough period, optimism even in the face of a dire situation and the ability not to take yourself too seriously all help.
Ernst Bloch might have said that "those who acquire their knowledge only from books should be put onto shelves," but it is not necessarily a tragedy if the knowledge about certain things only comes that way. I have not experienced physical torture, death threats or confinement in dark cells. Personal or literary descriptions of such experiences, however, can help you to understand your own experiences better and to get through them.
The empirical basis (if you will) for this text is 15 years imprisonment. Seven years — after 1978 — were spent in isolation or with small groups of inmates, five of these in maximum security units (in Moabit and Bielefeld). From 1986 until my release in 1993, I was in a special "security cell" in Werl, an old German prison. I had one hour in the yard every day with other inmates. My visits and my mail was monitored, I was separated from my lawyers by a bulletproof glass window, I was hardly ever allowed to buy extra supplies, had no visits of other prisoners in my cell, showered alone, was allowed a maximum of 30 books, no radio and five or six subscriptions to newspapers and magazines. Mail restrictions were eased during my last years there, and from 1991 to 1993 I was permitted to jog in the yard twice a week. What I am writing here is the quintessence of my experiences. During the first five or six years of my imprisonment, I learned the survival strategies that got me through the last ten. These are the experiences I'm summarizing here.
Back to the first day in prison. You have no conception of the day you will be released. 5,500 days are beyond what is imaginable, even when I look back at it. What you see at the time is what you need to know to survive right there and then: Where do I get reading and writing material? Where do I hide secret messages? When should I expect a cell search? Where are the cells of my comrades? There is a lot to do. Boredom is the least of your concerns. Besides, you know why you are in there — an enormous advantage compared to those who have no idea. It was a radical political challenge that got you there; one that you could see as "just another step" in a life that you had chosen by engaging in militant left-wing politics. Sure, they were one up on you at that point, but prison was a new terrain and they still had to prove that they could break you. This is exactly what you must not allow them to do — and this, in turn, defines your struggle from the first day to the last.
To have a clear objective and clear front lines enables you to fight well. You must never allow them to persuade you that there are no clear front lines and that "big brother" is your friend. Ulrike Meinhof's declaration that "the fight of the people against power is the fight of remembering against forgetting" sums this up perfectly. The ability to remember requires political and/or moral conviction. Those who lose this conviction refuse to remember and get lost in self-reflection, self-pity and lack of orientation. This is the steep decline where desperation can turn into suicide and political denial into betrayal. Solitary confinement and the control of social contact (letters, visits, news), you can also call it brainwashing, aim at causing you to forget and to become egotistical. Resistance, solidarity, responsibility, collectivism and a corresponding personality shall vanish.
Maximum security prisons also follow the bourgeois-capitalist principle of "everyone is his/her own best friend." Those who adopt this principle do not survive — they turn into someone else. Not because they grew and achieved emancipation, but because they regressed and de-socialized. The consequences are de-politicization and the disintegration of the personality. True survival means to experience yourself as a human being who is socially, politically, mentally and emotionally autonomous and self-responsible. This requires breaking your isolation and finding reference points outside your cell. Those who cannot transcend their own imprisonment and who cannot understand it in a wider context will be unable to find meaning in their arduous situation. The narrower your horizon, the more paralyzing and desperate your personal fears. Jean Amery once described these "reference points" in connection with the most extreme of all experiences, that of Auschwitz:
"You must realize," a religious Jew once told me, "that your intelligence and education is worthless here. Me, however, I know that God will take revenge." A German leftist comrade, in the camp since 1933, expressed this more bluntly: "There you are, you bourgeois know-it-alls, and you shiver when the SS appears. We do not shiver, and even if we will perish in here miserably, we know that the comrades who follow us will line them all up." Both these men transcended themselves and projected themselves into the future. ... Their belief or their ideology gave them a stable point in the world that allowed them to spiritually defy the SS-State.
Günter Anders has called this the "paradox of hopelessness creating hope."
In the much less dangerous world of West German high security prisons, it is rare that your physical survival is threatened. There is enough food, clothing, warmth and hygiene — an enormous difference from the conditions in, for example, military prisons in Latin America. Despite such differences, however, you have to figure out how to survive with your personality intact. How do you protect yourself? How do you organize your defense? And when do you have to attack? The first impulse of course says: Always! But to act politically means to assess power balances and the consequences of your actions — also in prison. For example, there is no point in destroying your cell if no one on the outside will ever know about it. It might be fun, sure, but it will almost certainly cause time in the hole and repercussions. However, when in 1980 the first prisoners were meant to be transferred to the newly constructed maximum security unit in Moabit, it made sense to barricade yourself behind the dismantled furniture of your cell. This showed that you refused to go to this unit voluntarily, that you refused to accept a worsening of your conditions without resistance. If you do not show such resistance it will make them overconfident and you will feel powerless in your new surroundings. In the case of Moabit, comrades protested on the outside, there were militant actions and the media coverage was huge. For surviving the maximum security conditions, this was all extremely helpful.
The hunger strikes of the 1970s and 1980s were — despite the critique of their exact circumstances and certain demands — "survival strategies" for prisoners in isolation and maximum security units. The solidarity campaigns that followed the deaths of Holger Meins and Sigurd Debus — killed by medical negligence and force feeding — definitely helped the survival of their imprisoned comrades. Here is an example for an immediate survival strategy from my own experience: In 1983, the authorities intended to implement a new model of isolating small groups of prisoners in the maximum security unit in Bielefeld. It was planned to supplement the maximum security architecture with an extremely rigid regime: for a dirty sink, you would lose three days in the yard, turning off the common room's idiotic, prison-selected TV program meant confinement to your cell for two weeks, etc. Forced labor programs were added to this: assembling 3,000 clothespins in an eight-hour workday, five days a week, under CCTV surveillance, with disciplinary measures for poor output. The enforcement of repetitive and mind-numbing activities is essential in all psychological conditioning, a classic means of brainwashing directed at the body. To assemble clothespins for years equals a slow mental death. Punishment for work refusal was the hole. Since a hunger strike (possibly of several weeks) is difficult under such circumstances, and since everything seemed at stake anyway, the only available means was a thirst strike. Thirst strikes do not last long — one way or another. Public pressure has to be mounted fast, and this pressure has to become stronger than, in this case, their interest in implementing the new maximum security forced labor model. The survival strategy in this case was to challenge them to explain why 3,000 clothespins a day were worth a human being's death. Besides, there was an unspoken, yet clear, understanding that if they did implement forced labor within the maximum security units, attacks on the prison labor system would become so strong that it would be impossible to maintain prison labor even in the regular units, which would have caused substantial loss of income. They gave in after five days, having suffered significant property damage: the Revolutionary Cells (Revolutionäre Zellen, RZ) had bombed the prison bureau and the offices of two companies profiting from prison labor. Added to this were demonstrations, a riot in the maximum security unit in Köln-Ossendorf and bad press. Since then, no further attempt has ever been made to implement forced labor in maximum security facilities.
Most times, however, the life of a prisoner is less heroic. After all, the natural enemy of the hero is daily routine. Here is an example, though, of a tiny survival strategy: If your request to see the prison dentist remains "overlooked" for two days, you can tape it to the toilet which can then be demounted and, at the next opportunity, placed in front of your cell — just so it won't be "overlooked" any longer. This will lead to some money being taken from the solidarity account and will result in a disciplinary measure, but you will see the dentist. Such an action works because the denial of dental services becomes official with the property damage which needs to be registered. This means you will have the option of filing a legal complaint — something that the prison administration usually does not want to deal with in such petty cases.
* * *
Of course you cannot rattle your bars or kick against your door all day. You won't be able to keep that up for very long. However, not being able to tear down the bars or to kick in the door does not mean that you have to accept the prison's regime and be forced into norms that are a lot narrower than those on the outside. You can keep your individuality only by resisting these norms. Live or be lived. An acceptance of the norms means an end to your own development. You lose interest in social contact and refuse to accept that circumstances and situations change. To adapt to the prison regime means to forget individual strength and success. The adaptation reproduces itself endlessly, both because you fear the actual regime and the personal consequences of resistance. You lose hope. Eventually, accepting the wrongs turns into embracing the rules. Not only optimism is dependent on activity, resistance is too. Being lethargic makes you dumb. Merely thinking about resistance (what the Nazi pawns called "inner emigration") is no survival strategy; it is cynicism: you think one thing, but you do another; or you refuse to draw the consequences of your thoughts.
The praxis of imagined resistance has a name: expected behavior. When you are passive you internalize fear and hopelessness. This creates — and reproduces — the obedient, neurotic prisoner. This prisoner's daydreams about spectacular escapes or unexpected pardons fall under the authority-sanctioned category of "Give-us-our-daily-illusion." Within the "false life" of prison there can be no absolutely correct ways of acting. However, fundamental decisions about your actions can still be made — decisions that are an important part of your survival strategies. They are not dogmatic. They have to be revised again and again. Is it wrong to give in? Are the old principles still valid? You always have to know this; you always have to convince yourself anew. Your responses must not just be habits. You ought to be curious and open when it comes to the experiences and perspectives of others, and you ought to appreciate friendly advice.
To make clear decisions on the basis of your memories and your knowledge, while accepting contradictions and acknowledging the change of social and political realities, in other words, to think dialectically, is a solid basis for your own conviction. Rigid and inflexible thinking can only make an exterior frame that does not even allow for the tiniest of cracks. If one detail seems off, everything seems off ... This is why it is such tiny cracks that can sometimes cause those who once professed a "150%" conviction to crumble. The next thing they do is to look for a new framework. Not one that necessarily makes much sense, but one that might lead to an earlier release. Look at the example of Horst Mahler: after a lot of ideological meandering, he finally settled on the far right when, after studying the relevant literature extensively, he came to the brash conclusion in the late 1970s that Marx had misunderstood Hegel and that we all ought to reconsider our understanding of the State. In a Spiegel interview, he managed to outdo even the Minister of the Interior in his praise for the State institution. He was released early.
Excerpted from Prison Round Trip by Klaus Viehmann, Gabriel Kuhn. Copyright © 2009 PM Press and Kersplebedeb. Excerpted by permission of PM Press Kersplebedeb.
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