In Prison, and You Visited Me

 other002             CatMiceEtc3a

The moderate antivivisection and animal rights groups,” says the Understanding Animal Research web-site, giving such groups as VERO its undesired blessing, “campaign within the law – by leafletting, peaceful demonstrations, lobbying, etc – and society must protect their right to do so.” How revealing that “etc” is! a patrician wafture of the hand towards the various other harmless pursuits of the law-abiders, not even staying with them long enough to see to the full stop. However, there’s “a small minority of radical animal rights extremists who attempt to force their views on others with illegal actions”, and to these the UAR devotes more sincere attention; indeed, it runs a separate web-site on the subject, at

Illegality seems to work, then – if only to the extent of attracting attention of a kind authenticated by self-interest. Such was in fact the larger or even sole reason for what the suffragettes did in the way of illegality: as Christabel Pankhurst wrote, “Women will never get the vote except by creating an intolerable situation for all the selfish and apathetic people who stand in their way.” And of course from this safe historical distance, and given their success, even the UAR has to admire what they did: you can read on its web-site a little about “the suffragette movement and its heroic struggle to win the vote for women”.

I guess that the UAR would likewise approve of what the American rebels achieved by forcing their views on Britain in the 1770s, or of what Henry David Thoreau did in 1846 when he refused to pay taxes to a government which countenanced slavery, preferring to go to prison. For there is, fortunately, a populous tradition behind the sort of “illegal actions” which the UAR selectively deplores. Most, perhaps all, of the really elementary reforms have had their share of it. And of course we acknowledge it with enthusiasm in the legends of high-minded outlaws like Robin Hood and William Tell.

Needless to say, breaking the law doesn’t prove anyone right, any more than leafletting does; it just makes being right that much more crucial, and being wrong more deplorable and tragic. (There’s a finely sardonic song by Georges Brassens on this theme, entitled ‘Mourir pour des Idées’.) Either way, the activist takes that risk and, if caught, endures the penalty. And the penalty is commonly a much more severe one than society imposes upon those more routine criminals who abide by its looser principles of greed and selfishness, and offend only its rules, not its mind-set. Certainly it has been so for animal rights activists. One such has written, from prison, “They’ve arrested us, made sure we got totally disproportionate and excessive sentences, and separated a lot of us into different jails across the country in a vain attempt to isolate us and break our spirits.” In fact the few things which I’d like to say about breaking the law for a political cause, and paying the penalty, I shall say as far as possible in the words of those who have known what it means from experience, especially words written in prison, which surely have an almost hieratic claim on our attention. (True, Mein Kampf was written in a sort of prison – though an extremely comfortable one, more of a political salon – and it’s a great pity that it wasn’t taken more seriously outside Germany at the time.)

The first thing to acknowledge is that the law as it stands is always the principal obstacle to reform; after all, it’s what any really important reform has to start by altering. Hence what the anarchist/pacifist Emma Goldman, charged with inducing others to resist conscription, said to a U.S. court in 1917:  “no new faith – not even the most humane and peaceable – has ever been considered ‘within the law’ by those who were in power. The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside the law.” Accordingly she got two years, followed by deportation to Russia.

Henry Thoreau was more fortunate, spending less than 24 hours in prison (someone paid his fine for him, very much against his will). Even that brief sojourn had a profound effect upon his thinking (It was like travelling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night.”). Out of the experience came his celebrated essay Civil Disobedience, in which he put the question, very much as Emma Goldman was to do, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

You note the word “do”. Thoreau, for different reasons, shared UAR’s low estimation of the politer campaigning arts, and its practitioners: “They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.” And later he says, “Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was.”

Yes, “the perception and the performance of right”: here we begin to see that breaking the law may after all be its own kind of demonstration, aimed not at making a noise and nuisance about a desired change, but rather at instancing that change. Probably there was some element of that in the suffragette campaigns, conclusively demonstrating, as they did, that women have more than home-making powers: strength of will, bravery, daring, ability to organise, all the powers which had been traditionally cornered by men.

Most of the animal rights illegality has indeed been of this kind (although less well-judged or downright wrong-headed stunts have often been given more media attention): that is, they have demonstrated the justice and beauty of animal freedom by effecting it. An early example was set in 1977, when the so-called ‘Undersea Railroad’ liberated two dolphins from their barren tanks in a Hawaii University laboratory. A note left on site said simply “Gone Surfing”. When right is performed in this way, we don’t need a leaflet to explain it: the life within ourselves, which we share with all the other animals, recognises it at once, and rejoices in it. So must it also at the sight of dog-animal-testing-research-picturewrecked hunting-towers, broken cages, smashed traps and the like: every one of these is an appeal to the moral imagination, an emblem of freedom.

The two students who freed the dolphins in Hawaii made no attempt to avoid detection; on the contrary, they signed that note and made their reasoning public at a press conference, and they were in fact subsequently charged and convicted. But even if the intention is to evade the law, such actions are necessarily a test of earnestness, and therefore constitute a tribute, paid in public (that is, in the sphere of criminal law), to the importance of a cause. So Emma Goldman said in court, “Your verdict may, of course, affect us temporarily, in a physical sense – it can have no effect whatever upon our spirit. For even if we were convicted and found guilty and the penalty were that we be placed against a wall and shot dead, I should nevertheless cry out with the great Luther: ‘Here I am and here I stand and I cannot do otherwise’.”

Is this ‘forcing views on others’? No, it’s showing what having a ‘view’ ought to imply: that is, doing “what I think right” and enduring the consequences with as good a cheer and undimmed a spirit as one can bring for testimonial to the cause. Emma Goldman illustrated the point with the story of Thoreau being visited in prison by his friend, the great philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Emerson said: ‘David, what are you doing in jail?’ And Thoreau replied: ‘Ralph, what are you doing outside, when honest people are in jail for their ideals?’” I suspect that this charming set-piece didn’t really happen, monkey-cages-lab-animal-testing-picturebut it accurately dramatizes something which Thoreau does say in Civil Disobedience: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” And who can be less justly imprisoned than animals?

I have not, of course, been talking about terrorism properly so-called, though the judiciary, in moments of hysteria, has occasionally used that term about animal rights activists. As the Observer said in 1992, “It’s a strange sort of terrorist campaign to say the least that is waged for 20 years without killing anybody.” In fact they are no more terrorists than Emma Goldman was, or Thoreau, or Emily Pankhurst. One of them has said, “I object so greatly to the use of violence that I joined the ALF. I separate violence against the individual from damage done to inanimate objects. The latter moves me not a jot, the other always will.” That doesn’t mean that they’ve always or even ever been right in what they’ve done. On the other hand, that they have been selfless, idealistic, motivated by compassion, and courageous, is certain, and those, after all, are the qualities which more or less define heroism.

From time to time, the animal rights groups which have been set up to look after the interests of imprisoned activists have published their letters from prison. I shall end with some quotations from these letters. To find oneself in prison is necessarily a painful shock, except perhaps to the habitual recidivist. The place itself is oppressive, ugly, sometimes frightening. The time spent there is not intended to be pleasant. I’ve spoken of good cheer and undimmed spirit: these letters show them not just surviving in those hard circumstances, but downright shining there.

All in all I’m in the shape of my life and very strong.

There is so much to laugh about in jail and we all do, often!

Having the privilege of being a United States prisoner, I still have it better than most 3rd World people do in their homelands. And nothing they do to me could even come close to the plight of animals.

I think humans are obsessed with the pursuit of selfish happiness, and animals live in the joy of now. It’s up to us to ensure they get the chance.

My personal ethical and moral beliefs haven’t changed one iota, nor will they.

It’s very similar to being back at my old boarding school!

They really must believe that caring for animals is the worst crime possible. I’m sure they are trying to send us a message, although I don’t understand what that message is because their dirty tactics only serve to make us stronger.

Everything here is great. I’ve kept busy while in prison at the gym, doing art and pottery and gaining a Btec qualification in Media Production.

I’ve had some wonderful visits this month and feel so loved and supported, for which I am so grateful – many women in here literally have no one and I wonder what prison life must feel like for them.

I may be in prison but I wouldn’t swap places with anyone else in the world. I am so glad I am who I am and feel the way I feel.



The Pankhurst quotation comes from Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts, Allen Lane 2001, p.256.

Emma Goldman’s fine speech can be found in The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches, ed. Brian MacArthur, 1996.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience was first published in 1849; it’s a short essay and is readily available, including online at

For a highly readable account of direct action and the animal liberation movement, mostly (and very well) written in prison, see Keith Mann’s From Dusk till Dawn, Puppy Pincher Press 2007, from which the quotations in the paragraph about terrorism are taken (pp.16 and 21): this is a remarkable and important book, strongly recommended. See also Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, Reaktion Books 2002.

Photographs are by Brian Gunn, Secretary General of the International Association against Painful Experiments on Animals (