Prison Round Trip
“Prison Round Trip” was first published in German in 2003 as “Einmal Knast und zurück.” The essay’s author, Klaus Viehmann, had been released from prison ten years earlier, after completing a 15-year sentence for his involvement in urban guerilla activities in Germany in the 1970s. The essay was subsequently reprinted in various forums. It is a reflection on prison life and on how to keep one’s sanity and political integrity within the hostile and oppressive prison environment; “survival strategies” are its central theme.
“Einmal Knast und zurück” soon found an audience extending beyond Germany’s borders. Thanks to translations by comrades and radical distribution networks, it has since been eagerly discussed amongst political prisoners from Spain to Greece. Now, thanks to the efforts of Gabriel Kuhn, it is finally available to a wider English-speaking audience.
Now i have to say, i like most of the texts i publish. Makes sense, right? But then there are texts one really likes, what i think of as “goosebump reading”, because they really are that good.
That’s how i feel about “Prison Round Trip”. This is a highly accessible text about surviving prison, not in terms of simple physical survival, but in terms of one’s psyche and political identity. As Klaus explains:
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.
Nor is this a text only directed at those who imagine that they may one day be locked up. Again, as Klaus explains:
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.
Klaus Viehmann was a member of the anarchist 2nd of June Movement in the 1970s. While he was in prison the 2JM announced that it was merging with the Red Army Faction, and Viehmann was one of a number of 2JM prisoners who publicly criticized this decision.
Prison Round Trip includes a beautiful preface by Bill Dunne, who has himself been a political prisoner, held by the u.s. government for over thirty years.
A “must read.”