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In search of political prisoners: A dialogue with Padraic Kenney

States around the world imprison people for their beliefs or politically-motivated actions. Oppositional movements of all stripes celebrate their comrades behind bars. Yet they are more than symbols of repression and human rights. Today, we have a dialogue with Padraic Kenney, author of Dance in Chains: Political Imprisonment in the Modern World, which seeks to find universal answers to questions about the meaning and purpose of imprisonment.

Aren’t all prisoners ‘political’ in some sense?

I wish one could say with certainty who is and who is not a political prisoner, but the category is a slippery and subjective one. Some would argue that all imprisonment is political, because a state decides who is imprisoned and who isn’t. A Marxist who believes that all property is theft can argue that a burglar is only in prison because the capitalists say so. A separatist movement—say, among Kurds or Palestinians—could say that any of their community is imprisoned for their ethnicity, regardless of the acts they may have committed. At the other end of the spectrum is the much narrower category that I think most people have in their heads, thanks to groups like Amnesty International: a political prisoner is someone punished for her or his beliefs and words. Certainly, being attached to an oppositional movement has to be part of the definition, but more important, I think, is what the prisoner makes of the prison experience itself. Political prisoners are those who have a politics of the prison—that is, who recognize that incarceration can be used to further their politics. When they protest their treatment, they do so not just to alleviate their suffering but to make a point about their politics and to show that their suffering serves their cause. Great examples today would be the women of Pussy Riot, or those imprisoned in Turkey after the failed coup in 2016.

One of the ways that the public usually hears about political prisoners is when they go on hunger strike. How important are these protests?

Hunger strikes are sometimes described as born in desperation, the last weapon to use when all else has failed. That is surely true sometimes, but more important is that it’s perfectly suited to confound the imprisoning regime, more than any other type of protest. This is so because even the intent of a hunger strike is impossible for a regime and its lowly prison officials to determine. Is the prisoner really going to fast to death, or is this just a symbolic protest? Only the prisoner can know how determined he or she really is, even if the test is a new one. So a hunger strike’s power is, paradoxically, in its unpredictability. And perhaps that helps us to understand just how common hunger strikes are. Even in one of the most notorious prisons of Stalinist Poland, prisoners found they could regain some control, or at least dignity, with a hunger strike.

Are political prisoners heroes?

No, I can’t say that. Of course, our world would be the worse off without the powerful examples of prisoners like Nelson Mandela. But Adolf Hitler was also a political prisoner once. There are plenty of other bad people who have been political prisoners. Even when they are the “good guys,” we can’t expect that someone is an admirable human being because they are imprisoned by the “bad guys.” But we can definitely feel great respect for most of them (except Hitler). I know that my ideals or political beliefs have never been put to the test, and I don’t know if I could spend years in prison, maybe without books or companions, certainly without friends and family, and the freedom to enjoy the world around me. Some political prisoners have had it very easy, but most experience physical and psychic suffering that I cannot imagine experiencing myself.

Studying prisoners around the world over the last 200 years, you also chose to look at contemporary Guantanamo. What can a historian tell us about those prisoners?

I decided to study Guantanamo as a way of testing the conclusions I reached about political imprisonment. But researching the present is quite daunting if one is used to ferreting out archival documents. There is a lot we may never find out about Guantanamo, hidden in files that will probably never be released. But the available record suggests that both regime and prisoners behaved in ways that fit the profile of other cases I looked at. It’s true that many of the prisoners at Guantanamo had nothing to do with the Taliban or al Qaeda, and even had little to no political consciousness. But as a group, they behaved as they were treated: as political prisoners.

Do you have a favorite anecdote that conveys how you see political prisoners?

In 1908, in a prison in what was then the Russian Empire, a group of Polish socialists were awaiting transport to Siberia. They had a grievance: prisoners were ordinarily kept chained only for a short time, yet the prison head refused to unshackle one of them, claiming he was an escape risk. But the prisoners had figured out how to loosen their manacles and slip them off when the guards were not looking—so they all removed them and, on cue, threw them out the cell windows into the prison yard below. Why do I love this story? These men are not just celebrating their chains, but making cacophonous music with them! They aren’t trying to escape, but simply to demonstrate to the prison head and the guards how little they know, and how much control prisoners still have over their own lives. I would say they ridiculed the very idea of imprisonment. I’m sure they were punished—the source does not say—and of course they were soon on their way to Siberia. I have always been fascinated by the ways people can carve out tiny moments or spaces of freedom under even the strictest control.

Featured image: “razor wire on fence – silent sentry” by woodleywonderworks. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr.

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