Oliver Rock knew he was going to be sent to prison. The 41-year-old sat and watched his friends being whisked away to spend their first night behind bars. When it was his turn to stand in the dock, he felt no fear. There was only relief when the judge sentenced him to four months in prison.
The Insulate Britain activist was one of nine who he said had been set an example by receiving a ‘heavy punishment’ after breaking a government injunction and blocking the M25 to protest leaking UK homes and the catastrophe of climate change. A sense of calm overcame the freelance carpenter as he was taken by guards to the basement cell ready to be processed before being transported in a prison van.
“In a way, there was almost a strange feeling of relief,” he told me with a sigh, “because we’re doing this protest because we desperately want the government to act and it’s horrible to out on the streets and get arrested, abused and attacked in the media.
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“And then go out and start all over again and be threatened by government ministers and have injunctions taped on your doorstep, and be threatened with unlimited fines and seizure of your assets. It’s really stressful and full of uncertainties. So to have that, you think ‘ok, I know what I’m dealing with now’.
It wasn’t until the van pulled up outside the prison gates that the realization of what might happen hit Oliver. He admits it was “pretty scary”. Oliver was taken to Thameside Prison in Greenwich. Serco’s private prison was opened in 2012, but was heavily criticized a year later from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons.
A report highlighted critical levels of violence and its restricted regime. She found that there was a high level of assault and use of force, while 60% of inmates were locked in during the working day and some inmates spent 23 hours a day in their cells. A 79 pages report published in March 2022 still criticizes the prison for being “too slow to increase the time prisoners were unlocked, with those in the induction and drug wing spending just over half an hour a day out of their cells.”
And moreover, “the defendants were locked up for up to 23.5 hours a day with very few activities offered”. Although he praised the staff for doing a ‘great job’ of providing support to inmates. The Category B prison mainly houses people on remand or about to be released, with a capacity of over 1,000 inmates.
The 2022 report also raised concerns about the unfriendliness of staff, which Oliver attests to when he first arrived at the prison and accused some of being “extremely rude to us”. Oliver was put in a cell with window bars with another Insulate Britain activist “who helped”. That first night, he says, was “pretty dark.”
“You go from a normal world to a prison cell,” says Oliver, “for two people, it’s pretty cramped. Everything in it is designed so that it cannot be broken by a very strong angry person. It’s all kinda shitty. The mattress is really thin, the sheets you get are pretty clean. It was a shock.
One of the first things he remembers is that there was a dirty-looking “gray, indestructible” built-in toilet and that “a lot of things in the prison were just broken”. As for his fellow stragglers, they were left baffled that Oliver was inside for leading a “peaceful protest.” “They said, ‘You shouldn’t be here,'” Oliver said, “and some of them said, ‘I’ll watch over you.’
“Many of them had seen the protests on TV, so it was almost like a novelty. Most of the prisoners agreed with me. I had no problem with them.
Oliver would serve half of his four-month sentence before being released. So how would he sum up his short time behind bars? “Horrible,” he says bluntly, “by design, the environment is very unpleasant. It’s very underfunded and the staff are shamelessly overwhelmed. And a lot of shitty things happen and are part of that.
These “crappy things” include not having a toothbrush for three days; the computer system breaks down and you cannot access your weekly store; be transferred without warning; being served the “meat option” at dinner when you are a vegetarian; not having a towel for 10 days when it doesn’t come back with your laundry.
Oliver admits he “didn’t want to go to jail in the first place and I don’t want to do that anymore”, although realistically there’s a good chance he will. “I feel like it’s inevitable,” he tells me, predicting a bleak future for the next generation. “Because I’m not going to stop. We have not solved this climate crisis. The situation is really screwed up. I feel like I’m engaged in civil disobedience now. If we don’t fix that, next-gen is completely f****d.
Boris Johnson had previously called protesters in Insulate Britain ‘irresponsible crusties’. “There are people calling these people legitimate protesters – they are not,” the Prime Minister said in October 2021 on the eve of Home Secretary Priti Patel announcing new powers for protesters. courts to arrest disruptive activists. “I think they are irresponsible crusties who are basically trying to stop people from going about their daily lives and doing massive damage to the economy.
Not that those words bother Oliver too much. I ask him if the threat of another prison sentence would prevent him from protesting again after his experience. “I guess it made me realize… it gave me a certain respect for prisoners of punishment, it’s not something to be taken lightly. But people need to understand that we literally face the end of the world in a generation. It’s something worth going to jail for.
The love and support of his family also helps Oliver, who grew up in the Berkshire village of Twyford. His father, Hugh, fully supports the cause and understands why his son is participating in the protests. And his sister, Isabel, raised £9,450 for her sibling through a crowdfunder to help cover her ‘kind-hearted, generous and morally honest’ brother’s rent while he was in jail.
“They’re proud of me for making a sacrifice in my life to try to create a livable future for the planet,” Oliver says, “My dad said he was proud of me.” Oliver hasn’t ruled out the Extinction Rebellion spin-off group blocking Britain’s busiest motorways again, although he says he’ll “calm down a bit”.
As for those who see him and the band as a nuisance to disrupt their day, he says, “I encourage people to look at the science and where we are heading as a society with climate change. I know it’s “boring”, but watch the most recent [United Nations] IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. That says we have a small window of opportunity to secure a livable planet.
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