Filed under: Animal Liberation, Civilization, Incarceration, Interviews, Political Prisoners, US
If you’ve been around the animal liberation and eco-anarchist circles for some time, Josh Harper needs no introduction. You might have even sent him a letter or kicked some cash his way at some point, but if you haven’t gotten to know him any more than seeing his name on numerous eco-prisoner lists, then you’re missing out.
Josh is as legit as they come. He’s been through trials and incarcerations for what he stands for and without the state backing off of him, he’s kept strong and held his convictions. And he still has his sense of humor.
This interview is a bit of a look into who Josh is, but also really a necessary part of the discussion that anyone who wants to see the end of the oppression of animals, of the destruction of earth, and of civilization itself should take part in: what is prison really like.
This is real talk.
Thank you, Josh, in more ways than one.
Oh, man, I’m pretty sure that everyone is unaware. Kids now days don’t know about us old dudes! Well, I grew up in Eugene, OR and got active during the first gulf war, and later moved to Portland where I became one of the earliest members of Liberation Collective. Those were passionate days, it felt like a revolution could break out at any moment. In retrospect that was a naive belief, but at the time it propelled me to get involved with whatever I could, from DIY video production to whale hunt sabotage, to organizing against the WTO trade ministerial in Seattle. Eventually I realized that our scattershot methods weren’t getting us where we wanted to go, and for my part I wanted to learn how to shut down a multinational corporation. I’d watched the advancement of animal rights groups in Europe, and saw that they were good at taking down smaller companies. When they decided to take on something a little bigger, Huntingdon Life Sciences, I knew it was my chance to learn the skills that we were lacking in the United States. I became involved with the campaign against HLS, which eventually ended in the show trial now known as the SHAC 7 case.
BG: You’ve done a good bit of time for your activism, can you give a rundown on your past sentences?
Well, the only substantial time I’ve done was three years in federal prison for the SHAC 7 charges, but prior to that I did 36 days on hunger strike in Orange County Jail back in ’99, and a few days here and there in other county and federal facilities. I want to make it clear that there is nothing glamorous about the prison experience. If I could erase those years without having to compromise my resistance I would. Prison is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, and I hope that everyone who considers fighting back against this sick system knows better than to romanticize the consequences.
Back in 1999 I was facing charges for refusing to testify before a grand jury that was investigating earth liberation front arson attacks in the northwest. A support fund had been set up and one day I was opening the mail that came in to our PO Box. An elderly woman who I had never met had enclosed two wrinkled dollar bills and a very kind letter about how she wished she could do more. I knew what those two dollars meant to her, and that she would have to sacrifice a little bit of comfort in the hopes that her money would help me get a lawyer who might keep me out of prison. When the deck is stacked against you, and the media paints you as a villain, and you feel powerless and isolated in the face of the charges you are facing, knowing that there are people who care enough to suffer a bit on your behalf is heartwarming. On a day-to-day basis that is what kept me sane: knowing that I was not alone and that my resistance was appreciated.
So, on the day to day, please write our prisoners, send them books, and contribute to their commissary funds. Dig deep for them!
On the legal front, there is never enough money and legal aid for those people who are already caught for serious acts of sabotage, so it would be helpful if fewer people did stupid shit. Every time someone takes up scant resources because they thought it was a great idea to throw a rock at a cop car during a 20 person sign holding demo, a person facing more serious charges is going to suffer. Therefor one of the most important acts of prisoner support a person can do is to stop doing idiot stunts in broad daylight with cops around. That might sound facetious, but I am being sincere. One of the most maddening things I experienced in prison was not having enough money coming in to feed myself and stay safe, and then reading articles about kids requesting support for shoplifting charges. Fuck that.
Finally, the most necessary and least provided prison support is the stuff that comes after release. Helping people get jobs, driving them from the halfway house to get work clothes, making sure their mental health is okay after the trauma of prison, and helping find them housing almost never gets done. We lose a lot of good fighters because of that lack of support. We need to move beyond just saying, “Welcome back, buddy.”
BG: How difficult was it to stay vegan in prison? Any tips?
First, thank you for being respectful about the veganism thing. I know that a lot of people in anti-civ circles aren’t very enamored with the current state of vegan-consumerist thought, and neither am I. But my ethics in regards to animals mean the world to me, and having the state try to force me to participate in the consumption of beings I consider my equal should alarm caring people of all stripes.
The prison I did time at, FCI Sheridan, didn’t provide me with vegan meals, so I bought all of my food off of commissary, stole it from the kitchen, or paid off other prisoners whose work duties gave them access to it. For three years I survived on oatmeal, minute rice, dehydrated refried beans, spaghetti noodles, and apples.
As far as tips go: when you are going through intake say you have prep cook experience working with vegetables or baking, and hopefully you will get a job that puts you close to the food. Try to find a skill or commodity that others are willing to trade for and make deals for food. Also, while the meals reserved for Jewish and Muslim inmates do not contain more vegan items that the regular meals, they do contain more readily trade-able items AND on certain holidays they have rare items that can net you a lot of apples and peanut butter! I never went that route but often wish I had.
BG: Did any other prisoners recognize you as a political prisoner? Was there much acknowledgment that activism is what put you behind bars?
There were a lot of prisoners who respected that I was doing time for my politics, and I think after a while everyone knew why I was in. The number of letters I received made me kind of famous, and I’d share movement magazines that I had subscriptions to. If people saw my name in the Earth First! Journal or Green Anarchy they figured I was well known on the outside, and they also liked that I wasn’t a snitch. Everyone called me “Bunny Hugger,” or “Uberator” because my Animal Liberation tattoo kinda looks like it says “Animal Uberation.” Make sure that L and I aren’t too close, kids!
I did have problems with some inmates, mostly the white power guys, but the majority of the problems facing political prisoners have to do with the staff and guards, not other people doing time
BG: We’re all filled with the ideas of prison that get pushed through TV shows and movies, any major standouts about what perceptions of prison life are total bullshit and what gets overlooked?
The people you are going to do time with aren’t going to have super villain personalities, and even most of the real sociopaths want to make it go as smooth as they can. There are prison gangs, there is violence, and sexual assaults do occur, but these things aren’t as open or as common as you might think, and at some facilities they are almost non-existent while at others they are epidemic.
On a day by day basis though prison is a place where people go to work, play cards, watch tv, walk the track, and dream of the outside. That gets punctuated by a stabbing, or a guard getting busted for bringing in heroin, or a week of lockdown after a weapon is discovered. Still, you might go through 6 months of tedious, miserable calm before you witness anything like that.
I think what people overlook is how corrupt the staff can be at prisons. Most of them are ex-military, many suffer from PTSD from combat, and they are put into a situation where they have control over a population of people that no one on the outside cares about. Anything they do will only be witnessed by a group of marginalized criminals with no voice. It’s a situation that TV shows don’t often cover, but the worst abuses behind bars are usually perpetrated or abetted by staff, not inmates.
These first five things I am going to recommend are the most important: Do not drink, do not smoke, do not do drugs, do not borrow or buy on credit, and do not gamble. The reason for this is that tobacco, drugs, gambling, and alcohol tend be controlled by gangs and are also expensive and habit forming. Prison will make you crave escapism, and people get in deep with that shit fast. A single cigarette at Sheridan cost the equivalent of $7, and your prison job won’t pay you that much in a month. I knew guys who were literally forced to turn to prostitution to pay off debts for that stuff. Also, getting caught for any of that stuff will send you up a security level, lose you good time, or get you sent to the hole. It isn’t worth it.
People operate “stores” in prison where they sell items from commissary or contraband from the kitchen at a mark up. I recommend buying from these from time to time. It never hurts to prop up the prison economy and make yourself a valuable contributor to the wealth of the powerful groups. It can save you in some tough situations. But don’t buy anything on credit. You never know when that money your support group sent won’t post, or when some guy will need to make a sudden collection to save his own ass. Pay up front, always.
Finally, keep your mouth shut, be friendly, quiet, clean, and polite. This isn’t the punk house you used to live in, some people you know are stuck here for 40 years and this is their home. Making a mess, asking questions you don’t need the answers too, or fucking up the program for other inmates can get you in trouble quick. I’ve seen guys get beat with padlocks inside tube socks for waking someone up by whistling on the tier, or “borrowing” a pack of ramen without asking. Be a good person and people will usually be good back to you.
BG: Did you find that word got around quickly about why you were in prison?
When I first got to Sheridan I was receiving hundreds of letters a week, and at first everyone thought I was a serial killer or a pimp since those are the guys who get letters. Everyone wanted to know why I was getting so much attention, so word got around fast. People already knew who I was by the time I hit the main yard.
BG: One of the saddest elements of the Green Scare has been the number of people who’ve turned into snitches and directly contributed to lengthier sentences for those who’ve held strong to their convictions. For the most part, they still do relatively lengthy stints without support groups (rightfully, of course) and with far less friends (hopefully), even for being assholes, it’s hard to see the benefit. Would you say that a snitch is quickly identified in prison? Are they treated on par?
In the federal system inmates no longer to have any legal paperwork that might identify them as a snitch, and the Bureau of Prisons provides valuable informants with fake paperwork that makes them look like a sole defendant. Discovery isn’t as fast as it once was, but it still happens, and when it does the reprisals aren’t always pretty. A few ELF snitches ended up at Sheridan, most of them didn’t make it on the yard. Darren Thurston got sent off the units after 48 hours, and spent his time in protective custody being yelled at and harassed by the guys in the “hole” next door. Kevin Tubbs was at the detention center I was sent to and had a real tough time too.
Jay Adams, the old Dogtown skater, was on the same work crew as me and we would talk about skating and old pros. My friend Ellis was doing time for 2nd degree murder, but we would play chess for hours and cook food together. One time we smuggled a whole watermelon back to the unit! I knew some guys who were playing DnD, and I tell you, we were some tough nerds. I worked out with some guys and walked the track with others, I had a crew that I always watched American Idol with, and despite some lonely stretches after folks got transferred or released, I almost always had some friends.
BG: Given the current state of terrorist enhancements for earth and animal liberation related activism or sabotage, do you have a sense of how that will or has affected the day-to-day prison life that most activists face?
The Bureau of Prisons has a big budget and almost none of it gets spent on medical care or quality of life for inmates. Now, with terrorism nonsense, they have something to waste the surplus on. I was harassed constantly in prison by the staff because the BOPs counter-terrorism squad issued updates about what I was writing, who I was communicating with on the outside, and what the state of support was for the SHAC 7. They also found some of my old writings where I showed approval of the burning of some cops cars in Portland, and that didn’t make me too popular either.
Beyond harassment though the terror label meant that I did my time in a high-medium prison instead of a low or minimum-security prison. That certainly affected my day-to-day existence, and was a designation based on my politics, not my actual threat to prison security.
BG: What do you think the number of snitches and informants says about security culture?
I think it says that the government is very good at stopping revolutionary movements. They have plenty of practice. It also says that the dedication on our side isn’t what it should be.
I hate that there are people who watch and monitor us. Spending a lifetime knowing that a cop could shoot me in the back and walk off consequence free disgusts and frightens me. I am sickened to see wilderness areas I loved as a child paved over and polluted. Watching good people suffer behind bars while corporate criminals jet off to Paris for dinner makes me shake with anger. Every living being on this planet has to live in fear of a tiny elite who see the rest of us as a commodity to be bought and sold. This is why I will never, ever snitch. I know which side I am on, and it isn’t the side of the oppressor. The people who hugged big brother and helped bring down their own comrades are traitors to the underclass, the earth, and the entire biological community. It’s time that we become more serious about giving them some incentive to keep their mouths shut. It’s also time that we all become more honest about our own limitations, privilege, and what we are willing to endure to change the course the powerful have put us on.
BG: Any further observations or points that you’d like to drive home?
Many of us spend out lives waiting for the perfect moment, the ideal tactic, or a heroic leader to make way for a utopian revolution. It isn’t going to happen, in fact, history shows us that it never has. We are all damaged, fallible, imperfect humans bumping around in the dark, trying hard to do something risky. Even so, each of us is special, and so capable, and while we wait for someone else to lead the way we end up blind to our own potential to strike a blow for freedom. Stop waiting, stop doubting. By trial and error, cooperation and coalition building we can do amazing things. Some of us will suffer along the way, but we will also live full lives, complete with all of the beautiful love and despair and longing and victory that those who refuse to fight will never know. Right now, at the very moment that you are reading this, invisible hands are holding you down and attempting to keep you from even glimpsing the way things could be without the bosses and smokestacks and slaughterhouses. Will you push them off and fight, or will you never know what could have been achieved if you had?