Today has been a huge disappointment in terms of solidarity and as a result I have had my first ever experience of prison, though only for a few hours.
Sixty eight of us appeared at Bishop Auckland Magistrates court to answer charges relating to picketing at Tow Law over the past few months. The first cases to be heard were those men arrested at Deerness with the MP Bob Clay in April. Deerness is an entrance to the open cast site at Tow Law. I was arrested at Inkerman which is another entrance to the same site, which is huge.
Twelve men faced the bench, and when the first of them was again remanded on bail it was discovered that the bail conditions had been changed. They had been; ‘Not to go within two miles of Deerness’ but now they were;’ Not to go within a two mile radius of Tow Law’. This small change meant that the lads would no longer be able to picket at Inkerman as they had been because it was just over two miles away from Deerness, but NOT from Tow Law. The change caused uproar in the court and the magistrate adjourned the proceedings for 15 minutes so the lads could consult with their solicitor.
We held a mass meeting outside to decide what to do because six of the lads said they were going to refuse the new bail conditions. After a lot of debate and a warning from the solicitor that refusal meant prison, it was agreed we would all stand together. If one man went to prison then we would all go to prison. We piled into the courtroom to make our stand.
Frank Duffy from Murton Colliery was first up and he refused the conditions saying; ‘I can’t accept this. I’d rather be locked up!’ The female magistrate sentenced him to seven days on remand in Durham prison and he was taken down to huge applause from the pickets. He was closely followed by five others, including Keith Smoult and John Humble from Westoe. Unfortunately the six other lads lacked the courage of their convictions and accepted the new conditions. One of these was a Lodge committee man from Westoe who said he was ‘more valuable on the outside’.That’s a bloody laugh! Another Westoe lad, Steve Oliver, tried to refuse but the magistrate told him that his bail was unconditional so he had nothing to refuse.This gave us all a laugh and a bit of light relief. After that the rot set in and man after man accepted the bail conditions. I was determined to stick to my principles and go to jail in the hope it would get the planned protest back on track.
My name was called and I stood in front of the magistrate and was charged with Obstruction of the Highway with exactly the same bail conditions I’d previously accepted. My response was to say;’ I refuse to accept these conditions on the grounds that they are an infringement on my civil liberties and are a block on my ability to travel at will in a free country’. This was met with loud cheers of encouragement from the lads but pissed off the magistrate who threatened to have the court cleared. She advised me to reconsider my decision and consult with my solicitor. I refused her advice and she said she had no alternative but to remand me in custody for seven days. I was led down with my arm raised and my fist clenched to huge cheers from the pickets.
There were dozens of police beneath the court, obviously expecting trouble. I was searched and relieved of my few possessions then put into a cell with the six lads already sent down. They asked where everyone else was and I had to tell them it looked as if our protest was going to flop. We sat in the cell and expressed our anger and frustration at the empty words of our mates. Only one more lad had the guts to join us and he said there would be no more because the court had been cleared. He also told us that one of the most voiciferous supporter of mass action, a Wearmouth picket called Bob Robson, had phoned Tyne Tees Television and told them to come down and get a scoop. He also excused himself from the protest because he has a wife and two kids. That really pissed us all off because we have families as well but we’d all agreed to make a stand. If everyone had done what they said they’d do I doubt Durham could’ve coped with us all. We’ll never know.
Our solicitor came down and begged us to reverse our decision but we all refused and told him he was useless. He left in a huff and the next to try was one of the Durham Area Executive. He said he could understand the first six lads because their bail conditions had changed but me and the other lad were just being stupid. Frank Duffy said it was a pity the other 60 lads hadn’t been as stupid and we could have won a victory. Unity is strength. He also left and we settled down to wait.
We were all handcuffed and put into one of those long vans with individual cells inside. I looked out of the window and began to slightly regret my decision as I looked at people outside going about their business. I felt like I was starting a life sentence not a mere 7 days on remand, but there again I’ve never even visited a prison let alone been sent to one!
Inside Durham Prison we were strip searched and had to stand astride two benches whilst they shone a torch up my arse. It was totally humiliating. Then we were led inside to a reception area where we were questioned individually. I had perked up a bit and when asked my name I shouted ‘Strike’ defiantly, causing the prison officer to smirk. I gave my religion as Buddhist in an attempt at humour. It made Keith Smoult laugh. The warder wasn’t amused and said;’We’ll soon put an end to your piss taking son’. That shut me up, even more when he asked my occupation and I answered ‘coal miner’. He replied,’ Ex coal miner lad.Your Her Majesties prisoner now’!
We were put into a windowless room with a bench running along a wall which was covered with rules and regulations. I was reading them when my name was called again and I was led into another room. Another warder came in and told me I was being released and made me sign for my possessions. I asked him what was going on but he told me to stop moaning because there were hundreds of men inside who would love to be in my shoes.
I was taken into an office where a woman handed me a bail form to sign. I refused and asked to see my solicitor. I asked why I was being released and she said she didn’t know and told me to sign the form. I refused again and asked to see my solicitor. She got angry then and said I could see one when I got out. I felt very guilty that I was letting the other lads down but signed anyway. I was let outside into the bright sunshine with £1.64p, presumably my bus fare. I walked up the hill to Red Hills, the Durham Area offices and was shown into Jimmy Inskips office. Jimmy is an ex Westoe man and he got a shock when he saw me and asked if I’d escaped. I told him I’d no idea why I’d been released. he rang the lawyers but they didn’t know either but said they’d investigate. Jimmy gave me £3 for my bus fare home.
Kath was very upset when I got home and said she’s going to have a nervous breakdown with all the stress of worrying about me and doing her job. I tried to reassure her by saying the strike will soon be over. Trouble is I don’t believe it because there are no signs saying that. What a bastard of a day!!!