An Animal Rights Activist in Prison

This is a guest post by Mel Broughton, describing his experiences of arrest, trial, and imprisonment during the campaign against the new laboratory at Oxford University. Please also read in this connection the post for 15 January, 2016, ‘In Prison and You Visited Me‘: (https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/in-prison-and-you-visited-me/).

 

In December 2007 I was arrested and charged with a number of serious offences which included ‘conspiracy to commit arson’.  A determined and controversial campaign had been waged against the building of a new animal research laboratory in Oxford.  I was spokesperson and co-founder of SPEAK, the group which had taken up the fight to stop the Oxford animal lab.  The campaign had found itself at the centre of a media storm and was fighting a High Court injunction bought by the University of Oxford.  In 2004 work had been stopped at the lab site as contractors withdrew after pressure from animal rights activists.  But after an eighteen month suspension work was resumed by anonymous contractors whose workers wore balaclavas, while building materials were delivered in unmarked lorries escorted by plainclothes security men in cars.  A surreal and at times menacing atmosphere descended over Oxford and its animal lab.

It was during this turbulent period that my home was raided and I was taken away. At 5.50 a.m. on 13th December, 2007, my sleep was disturbed by bright blue flashing lights outside my window. There were lots of voices and car doors being slammed. I sat up in bed and Bella, my dog, jumped up from her sleep. The next noise was an ear-splitting crash as the police battering ram went through the front door of the house. In the half-light I became aware of voices in the corridor, and I got up as the door to my room was opened and police officers in riot gear entered my flat. My first thought was for Bella, who was by now in a state of real fear and panic. In the half-light she passed the officers in my room and the growing number filing into the corridor, none of whom made any effort to stop her running out into the road.

My only concern at this point was my dog, the chaos and confusion of the police’s uninvited entry being secondary. One of the officers (a regular at the weekly Oxford protests) started to read from a charge sheet. In the confusion I heard the words “conspiracy”, “arson” and “blackmail”, but they meant little as I could only think of Bella running around outside in a state of panic. I remember saying to the officers, who were hyped up to the point of hysteria, that they should calm down. I was then instructed to get dressed as I was to be transferred to a police station for questioning. At this point I made it clear that I was going nowhere until they called my parents to come over and wait for my dog to return. This they agreed to, sensing that I meant what I said and that my accusation that they had deliberately let my dog out carried some truth.

My hands were cuffed behind my back and I was led out into the still dark of a winter’s morning. I passed officers as they filed into my small flat ready to take it apart. I was led to a waiting police car and saw the vans that had ferried the search teams parked in a line outside.

After a journey through the countryside in the dawn light I arrived at Banbury police station where I was to spend the next two and a half days being questioned.  It was made clear to me by my legal representative that I would be remanded to prison and any bail application at that time would be futile.  The public perception of anti-vivisection campaigners had been distorted by an alliance of police, media and animal research apologists.  It meant that increasingly the only voices listened to were those of vivisectionists.  That, combined with some high-profile arrests (some of which were filmed by invited media), pointed to a government-backed attack on the animal rights movement.

I made my appearance in court at Banbury, and after a few legal arguments was remanded.  I was taken to Woodhill prison where I was processed and informed I was a “high-risk” Category A prisoner. I was made to strip for a search and then to put on a Cat A boiler suit to be photographed and then fingerprinted. As a Cat A prisoner I would not be entitled to the usual visiting regime, so I would have to make applications for each potential visitor, who would then be subject to a police check and visit to the potential visitor’s home address. This process took up to three months to complete, and even my family visits were conducted under closed conditions behind a glass screen.

At this point I informed the reception staff that I was a strict ethical vegan.  There is always a level of disdain or hostility to those who do not conform to the norm and at this time veganism was still considered ‘extreme’ and, for the prison, troublesome.  Still it’s important that your ethical principles are recognised, and being vegan is far more than just a lifestyle choice.  Many ‘ordinary’ prisoners are curious or even confused why someone would end up in prison for standing up on behalf of nonhumans.  Most are there because of selfish motivations and unfortunately, as you soon learn, they are also largely poorly educated and from the margins of ‘respectable’ society themselves.  With some invaluable help from outside (Vegan Prisoners Support Group) and my own dogged determination I secured vegan food and toiletries.

My stay at Woodhill was to be marked by some unsettling developments when my cat A status was removed and then two weeks later put back on again.  This sense of unease was to be further confounded when I was moved into the Closed Supervision Unit (C.S.U.), a prison within the prison. The unit was small, consisting of just 24 cells, but there were only 9 prisoners there and, as I later learnt, most of them had allegedly committed politically motivated crimes or the most serious non-political crimes. It was claustrophobic, with cameras on the walls and outside the cells. There were six officers to nine prisoners; there was no exercise yard – just a “cage” where you could stand for twenty minutes per day to get some air. I refused to enter the cage, telling the officers that I had spent my life fighting to keep other animals out of cages and I was not prepared to voluntarily walk into one myself. As such, I was not to get any outside exercise for a year. I suspected the move to the CSU was meant to make me look as ‘mad’ and ‘dangerous’ as possible, and my suspicions were confirmed when I was informed that it was at the request of outside agencies that my cat A status had been reinstated.

I still tried to make the best possible use of time by immersing myself in reading and study.  At first it was difficult to gain any material about animal rights because the censors and prison security deemed it a risk.  It is strange that rights for nonhumans had become such a threat to the status quo, but on reflection it doesn’t take an academic to work it out.  The truth is that animal exploitation is big business and most peoples’ lives are connected to it in some way.  The fact that nonhuman animals can and do suffer in the same ways that we can should cause everyone concern, but it has been a recurring fact in human society that we often suspend our rational thought to replace it with stories and agendas that hide the truth.  Add to this the powerful influence of an institution like Oxford University and I could see why my predicament was as it was.

I was asked often by other prisoners why would I think that animals deserved any consideration, let alone basic rights.  I always took time to explain why I held the views I did and often I would earn their respect, even if they didn’t fully understand.  There are human victims in prison, people with obvious mental health problems who should have received help not captivity.  It only served to strengthen my dislike for the principle ‘might is right’.  I could get a proper sense of what it is to be an animal locked in a cage.  The difference is that I still had some rights, something no nonhuman can rely on to alleviate their torment and abuse.  As time passed I managed to secure more vegan items to supplement my diet and on one occasion delivered a talk to some fellow inmates on veganism.  I also had to prepare for my first trial which meant reading a lot of legal papers and trying to understand some of the extremely complex arguments that were to surface in the science of Low Tandem DNA (LTDna) profiling.

My trips from prison to the courthouse in Oxford were long drawn-out affairs.  As a category A prisoner I had to travel in a prison van on my own.  I was required to wear a green and yellow boiler suit with a large A on the back (and, though it was winter, only prison shorts and a T-shirt underneath).  This again, as I learned from a prison officer, was to heighten the sense of menace at the court and put me in as bad a light as possible.  On my arriving at court, other prisoners were told to move back as I was led to a holding cell whilst cuffed to other officers.  I caught the looks on their faces as if I was someone who at any moment was likely to attack them, and I never got used to that. I was to discover that the police had also requested I be shackled in the courtroom and be accompanied by five prison officers.  The judge refused the last request and said, “He is not a dangerous man. I don’t want to see all those officers in the courtroom”.

I was to endure a total of three trials before I was finally sentenced to 10 years.  After a hung jury at the first trial I was re-tried, and after a guilty verdict at the second trial I appealed my conviction.  I was to win my appeal against the verdict but a ruling that it was a misdirection from the judge in the second trial meant the prosecution could call for a third trial – which they did.  The courtroom had a large screen on which to play selected segments of speeches I had made at demonstrations in Oxford and elsewhere.  It is surprising how cleverly-edited pieces of media put together can produce what amounts to unbridled support for direct action.   It would take too much time to recount the details of all three trials but it was clear I was to be ‘dealt’ with and the guilty verdict came almost as a release.  I was returned to prison to continue my sentence.

On my release from prison I was to be subject to five years of ‘bespoke’ licence conditions.  Among these conditions were: “vii, Not to contact or associate with anyone currently or formerly associated with the campaign currently or formerly known as SPEAK without prior approval of your supervising officer.” And “viii, Not to contact directly or indirectly any person whom you know or believe to have been charged or convicted of any offence related to animal liberation/rights, without the prior approval of your supervising officer.”  This amounted to social isolation for someone whose friends and colleagues were drawn from the animal rights movement.  Each visit to see my supervising officer was always prefaced by the question “Have you seen anyone?”  The number of people who attended SPEAK protests or were supporters was in the thousands; how could I possibly know who they all were?  I dealt with the situation by arguing back at every opportunity, but it’s difficult to argue with the faceless agencies who design these conditions.  The point is you are meant to feel helpless, and in such circumstances to become disillusioned.  But for me that was never going to happen; it only served to make me more determined to return to the animal rights movement the moment my conditions lapsed.

The Oxford animal lab had been opened in 2008, and in 2017 a total of 236,429 animals including mice, rats, ferrets, guinea pigs, nonhuman primates, pigs, jungle fowl, and zebra fish suffered and died there.  SPEAK is still there; for fourteen years the weekly protests have been a presence, a reminder to Oxford University that we have not forgotten those nonhuman victims.  The university blandly states that medical progress is not possible without animal experimentation. But this is the 21st century; science, like all human endeavours, moves on or should.  And what of our understanding of the complex nature and cognitive capacities of nonhuman animals?  Oxford University ignores and loftily dismisses the suffering it creates inside its animal lab, but it will not be allowed to silence us.

 

Mel Broughton

 

 

 

 

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