Until a couple of years ago, I would not have imagined I would ever go to prison. Then the moment came when I realised that the forms of climate protest I had participated in for 30 years – petitions, marches, letters to my MP, joining environmental organisations – were not working. So with time running out, I stepped into civil resistance, and in September 2022, joined fifty other activists in an injunction-breaking sit-in at the gates of Kingsbury Oil Depot. The aim was to have a large number of protesters in prison on remand, creating headline news to highlight the climate emergency and bring more people into the movement to get the government to act.
At the Royal Courts of Justice in London we were sent to the courtroom for our plea hearing in groups. Here, as planned, we ‘disobeyed in the dock’ by not standing when the judge entered and announcing that we did not recognise the authority of the court in supporting large oil corporations bent on carrying on with business as usual, when we know that fossil fuels are killing us. We said that if we were released, we would go back to Kingsbury and protest again. This practically guaranteed we would be sent to prison on remand.
One of my fellow arrestees, Mitch, told the judge that her mother’s family was from Barbados, an island at risk from ferocious hurricanes and rising sea levels – “and we know it doesn’t go well for migrants with dark skin.” When my turn came, I said that the government’s plan to grant permission for 130 new oil developments in the North Sea was obscene, which was why ordinary citizens like me were engaging in civil resistance. The judge listened patiently, and said we had conducted ourselves moderately – which made me wish I had said a lot more. He sent us on remand until our trial and sentencing, 8 days later. On the way out of the court chamber, the guard told us his family was from St Lucia and he’d known nothing about the threat of climate change to the island. He seemed shaken and said he would find out more.
Back in our holding cell in the bowels of the building, we waited for transport to our respective prisons – the men to Pentonville and the women to HMP Bronzefield. Here we were given food, ID cards, a hasty health check, and a bag of clothes, underwear, plastic plates, cutlery, tea and coffee sachets, and basic toiletries.
Fellow protester and writer Sue Hampton and I were among the first to be locked up. After the camaraderie of being with the other protesters, the sight of the heavy metal cell door with its array of locks was sobering. As we went to bed at one am, exhausted, prison suddenly seemed horribly real. The cell was about 8 x 12 feet with bunk beds, a toilet, a TV, a washbasin, a cabinet with a curved wall to give toilet privacy, and a work surface. Through the thick bars of the window, we could see trees in the distance.
Sharing a cell gave me and Sue the chance to know each other better, and we had long, deep conversations about our lives. We were both anxious about our sentences when the trial came: would we be sent back to prison or would we get a fine, a tag or maybe community service? Although we were worried, we were certain that we had done the right thing in following our consciences.
On Sunday when a chaplain visited with an envelope containing a Christian diary and calendar, I stuck the September page on the wall with toothpaste and crossed off the days. Getting a big hug from one of my fellow activists on the way to chapel brought tears to my eyes but once inside, I almost broke down completely: I had a raging toothache, and the uncertainty about how long I’d be incarcerated was taking its toll. But the service was uplifting and it was a relief to be away from the cell.
My encounters with prison wardens were mixed. Later that day, during a short spell in the communal area, someone put on a CD of British soul and we had a dance: one of the officers even joined in for a moment and persuaded her more hardcore colleague to show willing too. It was a raucous, light-hearted few minutes, but when I went to get painkillers for the tooth, a senior officer bollocked me for not swallowing them in front of the nurse, and then bollocked the nurse for not making sure I did.
The days developed a rhythm that revolved around meals. Breakfast was toast, marge, jam and rice krispies. We filled our flasks and queued for meds, if we had been prescribed them. We had 20 – 40 minutes outside every day for exercise. Some people sat and socialised or just kept to themselves. The best meal was Sunday lunch – nut loaf, carrots, roast spuds and gravy. I’d been afraid we would not get fresh fruit or salad, but there was plenty available.
In the cell, we tried our best to manage our anxiety. We worked out which TV programs we could watch to help us escape our situation for a while, avoiding the almost blanket coverage of the queen’s recent death. We talked, read, and did some colouring in of the ‘distraction’ sheets we had been given. I worked on my mitigation statement for my trial, and Sue began a prison diary.
Five days after arriving at Bronzefield, she was taken for her trial. I waited nervously to hear the outcome. That evening her husband told me she had been released with a fine and a suspended sentence. It was joyful, hopeful news to share with the others. Alone in the cell, I rearranged the space, did some more writing and finished the novel I was reading. I missed my absorbing conversations with Sue, but by now I was able to speak on the phone with my loved ones, which was hugely comforting.
My experience in prison has told me that loss of freedom is a shock, but it is bearable. The hardest part was the uncertainty about how long I would be there, and what prison life would do to me. Would I get another cellmate, or be moved to another cell with barely any notice? Would I be able to see a dentist? With three trials coming up for Public Nuisance in 2023 for protesting with Insulate Britain in 2021, I could well find myself locked up again. Being on remand has helped demystify prison. At least now I have an idea of what to expect as a prisoner of conscience.
Because that is what I was, and may be again. Once I became aware of what it will mean for humanity and Nature to go beyond the 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures that the Paris Climate Agreement set and that the government is wilfully ignoring the science, it left me with little choice but to put my body and mind into civil resistance. As Einstein said, “Those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act.”
Janine Eagling is a former IT Project Manager and bicycle instructor and is now retired. She was released from Birmingham Crown Court after eight days on remand, with a £424 fine and a suspended sentence. 14 climate protesters spent Christmas 2022 in prison. In 2023 she faces three more trials, for actions with Insulate Britain on the M25 and at Dover.
CALL TO ACTION
To find out how to get involved, see https://juststopoil.org/events/. There is a great deal of training and support available (some of it is mandatory) before and after you take part in action. The community is solid and your life will be changed forever. Can’t take part in action? How about donating https://juststopoil.org/donate/ or taking on a support role? Administrators, legal and court support, police station support and prison buddies are needed. If not now, when?