During his incarceration in HMP Wormwood Scrubs for disrupting the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, Oldfield wrote to Blueprint about life 'inside'


The activist and founder of This Is Not A Gateway has won his appeal against deportation to his native Australia after being jailed for six months earlier this year for causing a public nuisance when he swam out in front of the Oxford v Cambridge boat race in protest against elitism and inequality in the UK. While incarcerated, Oldfield wrote to Blueprint about life in a British prison.

Urban activist Trenton Oldfield wins appeal against deportation

Trenton Oldfield writing from HMP Wormwood Scrubs, London, 26 November 2012

'To date, nobody at Her Majesty's Prison Wormwood Scrubs has been able to explain to me what the point of prison is. Is prison for punishment, retribution, public safety and/or rehabilitation? The usual answer to this question is a vague: "a bit of everything, I think... What do you think?" Prison seems to be an institution from another era propelled by its own momentum - its purpose and existence seemingly unquestioned While some of the material conditions are better than when Wormwood Scrubs was first built - toilets rather than buckets, for example - the ideas propping up its walls seem as old as the building itself. Despite 'advances' in many human endeavours, it is still totally okay to maintain an approach to people that is at least 200 years out of date. And despite the scale of prisons and increasing prison population, these seem to be forgotten spaces, forgotten people, in our cities. Yet in fact Britain is on a prison-building spree on a scale not seen since the 1800s. Looking around at my fellow prisoners its seems very unlikely the new cells will be for the criminally corrupt and incompetent politicians, 'journalists' and bankers that have deliberately undermined so many people's lives in their pursuit of capital accumulation.

I've been in Wormwood Scrubs since 19 October 2012. I was given a 6-month custodial sentence for swimming into the course of a 'famous' university rowing race. I did this to protest against the shocking rise in inequalities in Britain today and the underlying logic of elitism that pushes policy and culture to promote intolerable ideas of strong/weak, innovative/lazy, deserving/undeserving... The Oxbridge boat race is a symbol of this unequal and elitist culture, and Oxbridge is where many in the current government learned such ideas. In the three days preceding my protest action the Queen's coalition government introduced the Communications Data Bill to spy on and store people's digital data; the Queen herself gave royal assent to the fire sale of the National Health Service; and a minister for the Olympics, Hugh Robertson encouraged subjects to report on neighbours they suspected might protest at the 2012 Olympic Games.

The day of my sentence I packed a bag with books, under-clothing and writing materials. Knowing well the vindictive nature and insecurity of those who wish to 'Rule Britannia', I anticipated a prison sentence for my direct action protest, despite no laws being broken. One only needs to have read just some people's history of this nation and know a little about its abhorrent wars and aggression to know this is the way that the Crown likes to roll. From the moment the Crown dredged up an ancient common law to charge me, the question became "how long" would the sentence be?

Almost simultaneously with the judge stating "I sentence you to six months", I was led out of the secured glass box, hand-cuffed, and taken on my first of many walks down long windowless corridors. I ended up underground in a blank concrete cell beneath the courthouse. There was a gasp from the custody staff - none had expected to see me. I waited for several hours. So began my experience in the great white void that is the 21st-century prison in Britain.

Around 4pm that day, as every day, hundreds of white vans ('sweat boxes') set off from courts on their way to a few giant prisons. My journey in this austere white van, with its heavily tinted window that made everything outside already dark, seemed to be to a destination whose culture and language were unknown to me. Unexpectedly my mind started to flood with clich├ęd urban myths, television and film images of life inside prison. This was happening even though I knew these stories and images are the actual panopticon - the real discipline being the 'fear of prison'.

It was difficult to block these images, and difficult to slow my heart rate when I was popped out of the van and into my first 'holding pen', where the latest 40 or so prisoners waited to be 'inducted' into Wormwood Scrubs. Despite the time-travel disorientation of sitting in a 19th-century vault, I was quickly put at ease when a number of soon-to-be fellow prisoners greeted me - some coming over to shake my hand, suggesting their favourite swimming spots and sharing comments along the lines of 'fuck the system'. It's been like this ever since, whichever wing I've been moved to; brilliant banter and gestures of solidarity.

Movement, believe it or not, is one of the main factors of life at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs. The Peoples Movement Office - perhaps the ultimate gatekeepers in this great void in the city - can make a substantial difference in the quality of everyday life in here. It's where visits are agreed, notifications posted, religious services and lectures requested, and gym schedules set up. It's also the office that arranges the transfer of prisoners between wings and to different prisons. The material conditions of different wings, even in the same prison, can be significant. If you find yourself on 'D Wing', as I did, your dignity is stripped right back - something that makes no sense to me. Maltreating people who likely had very little comfort 'outside' seems to create a self-fulfilling prophecy - certainly in making 'rehabilitation' unlikely. Who, where and how one is moved makes an enormous difference to life in and out of prison.

Movement sets the rhythm to each day. There are four 'rush hours' - officially called 'free flow' - when prisoners are being released, going to court or to classes or jobs within the prison. They are not usually announced but one becomes aware as a volcano of noise erupts and then gets louder and louder as more and more prisoners join the queue to make it through the gate. Many hundreds of prisoners (perhaps 900 or more) make their way down a central hallway connecting all wings to the main facilities. The first mass movement is around 8am, the second when people return at 11am , then 2pm, and again around 4pm. And on each occasion there is banter and laughter. In many ways it's a short walk to the next place - a bit like living in the Barbican?

In between these rush hours the wing more or less falls silent, the volcano of noise dropping decibel by decibel with the thud of cell doors closing. This is the time I read and write, the time I look forward to the most. My cell mate sleeps; most prisoners are now somewhere else - either on education courses or working to make fellow prisoners lives better (in the kitchen, in the yard, inducting new prisoners at reception, or doing vast amounts of laundry). The vast majority of prisoners want to work and some jobs are very sought after.

Movement also seems to be an important method in injecting a sense of vulnerability and instability. As soon as you feel settled, start getting into a routine or develop an understanding with a cell mate, you can be moved to another cell, wing or prison. It is my understanding 'the screws' are regularly rotated between landings, wings and prisons to prevent them from forming relationships and alliances with other guards and prisoners; alienation seems at the very core of the prison logic . In my second week I was issued with a notice to move to HMP Birmingham - something that didn't happen. Each day I hesitate when I hear keys outside the door - hoping I won't get the "pack your stuff, you've got 10 minutes to get downstairs". Moves usually result in spending long periods in 'holding pens' and it's these I struggle with. They can be anywhere - in between gates in the main corridor, on stairs, in specific rooms, in shower rooms etc. The wait without anything to do can be deeply energy zapping. Mostly, however, it doesn't take long for some true characters to start cracking jokes, keeping everyone entertained and upbeat. There is a comradery in here between fellow prisoners that is every bit the opposite to the brutal Darwinist 'survival of the fittest' culture shown on television and particularly in films about prisons.

This is my experience of one prison and other prisoners at other prisons might have very different experiences. What I do know is that prisons are great white voids in our contemporary cities, a result of outdated ideas and judicial systems. Is it not here that 'reform' needs to happen?'

Trenton Oldfield has worked for over a decade in non-governmental organisations specialising in urban renewal, cultural and environmental programmes. He founded the not-for-profit organisation This Is Not A Gateway with Deepa Naik in 2007.