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“The whole thing was a circus, so I played the clown”: Laurie Penny talks to Jonnie Marbles

Jonnie Marbles, who was imprisoned after attacking Rupert Murdoch with a foam pie, talks about his time inside.

Activist and comedian Jonnie Marbles was jailed for two weeks for attacking Rupert Murdoch with a foam pie. Millions around the world watched as the 26-year-old lobbed a plate of shaving foam at the ageing billionaire during the select committee hearing on July 17. I came to meet him on the day of his release from Wandsworth Prison, where he talked to me about activism, fatherhood, and what life's like on the inside.

Hi Jonnie. How was Prison?

Prison was less scary than you might imagine. The first day I was in there, still feeling quite nervous and not knowing where I was, I went back into my cell during the social hour to make a cigarette, and four people stood around the door looking out for the guards. I thought, oh no, here we go, and this small, beefy guy came right up to me, looked me in the eye, and said 'Are you Jonnie? Murdoch sent me.' And a tiny bit of my brain was convinced I was about to have my first prison fight. Then we both broke into these huge grins and shook hands, and he got me to sign my autograph on a copy of the Sun! I ended up in the same wing that Charlie Gilmour was on, and I understand that he made friends there as well.

So - why the pie?

Some people I met in in prison said I should have thrown a grenade instead, but I'm not a violent person. There's a tradition in comedy of throwing pies at people - it shows they're human, it shows they can be brought down to size. Rupert Murdoch is one of the reasons that democracy hasn't flourished in the way that it should in the Western world. I try not to hate people, but it's hard not to hate a man who does so many bad things. I talked to a few friends about it first, most of whom thought I was joking, but I was quite determined that, if the opportunity arose, I was going to put a pie in Rupert Murdoch's face.

You were attacked by Wendi Deng. Did she draw blood?

At the time I thought she'd missed, but the next day I looked in the mirror and realised there was a scratch right across my face. It was probably the adrenaline, and the sheer weirdness of the situation. Time slowed down, as it does at those moments. I felt scared, i knew it was something that was going to be a big deal one way or the other, and i just focused on getting it done. She stood up, and I just managed to get it onto his face, then she scratched me across the face, and - fair play to her - picked up the pie and threw it back at me. I have this really clear and vivid memory of looking into her eyes, and seeing something really deep and scary there. Love's always a good thing, no matter who it's between. But to portray her as a ninja or some sort of Asian tiger, like the press have been doing, strikes me as racist, and actually takes away from what she did, which was very brave, at the end of the day.

Some people say you interrupted the course of justice...

During Tom Watson's speech, I actually thought, "maybe I won't have to do this, he's bringing this man to such amazing account that i can just go home.' But during the rest of the hearing I started despairing, because no-one was asking the Murdochs anything incisive. If we'd had ten Tom Watsons sitting around that table i wouldn't have done what I did.

I think the reason that a lot of people were so negative is that they really thought they were watching a trial, a trial I had interrupted. But a select committee has so few powers. The judge at my appeal compared what I did to contempt of court, but if they had been in a court I wouldn't have done it, there'd have been no need. If we had any real justice in our society, the dock is exactly where the Murdochs would have been. Instead, it was a circus, so I played the clown.

You received a lot of criticism for your stunt. Were you surprised?

A lot of people think I did this for publicity, and maybe that's understandable -if I wasn't me, I'd probably think the same thing, but actually I hadn't thought about the aftermath. Over the two weeks while I waited for my court hearing, I basically stayed in hiding. The day afterwards I had to go out, so I put on a hoodie and shaved my beard off as an attempt not to get recognised - but funnily enough, I found I hadn't got any shaving foam left - I'd used it all on the pie!

I was shocked at some of the reaction in the media and on Twitter, and some of it really upset me, because clearly some people thought it was so wrong, and I've always respected other people's opinions. I did question what I'd done afterwards. But the fact that I've also had a huge number of positive reactions from people makes a difference. I can't name names, but some celebrities and MPs sent me notes to say well done.

You weren't expecting to be sent to prison, though.

When I heard the verdict, I was in shock - nobody had expected me to go to jail, but the judge in my case, Daphne Wickham, is known for being very hard on protesters of any kind. I kept a brave face while they took me down, but I did get very upset during the processing period, I actually did cry, because I started thinking about my son, and how upset he'd be, and how he was going to have to come back from the holiday we had been planning to take together. Luckily, one of the guards was very nice to me - he didn't seem to care what I'd done, just saw another human being in distress. People are awesome - people are the best thing there is in this world, and we should all care about each other more

So what was your routine like in prison?

I was taken straight to Wandsworth, where you're locked in for about 23 hours a day in a small shared cell, with a television, two bunkbeds, a little desk, and a toilet with a curtain that you pull across so the other person doesn't see you. Wandsworth is one of the worst prisons in the country. All I could do was sit and write to my friends. For the first few days inside I found myself trading tobacco for paper, and I very quickly had a bit of a racket going on!

Prison isn't like American TV dramas. You get given a rubbish red or blue t-shirt, a rubbish pair of jogging bottoms, a rubbish grey jumper, and a welcome pack with a plastic knife, spoon, cup, fork and bowl, one piece of writing paper, an envelope and a pen. Most of the food is so horrible that you end up throwing it away - they're given about two pounds per day to feed each prisoner.

The thing that really struck me about prison was how nobody cares about you. Your fellow prisoners care about you, but the institution doesn't care about you. I didn't get to make a phone call for six days, because the administration is incompetent, even though I needed to sort out childcare with my ex-wife. Apathy and incompetence is no way to punish people - it doesn't breed respect for the system, it just breeds contempt.

On my last day of prison, I went along to the church service, partly becuase it got me out of my cell for an hour - you quickly learn how important that is. So I sang along with the hymns, and then one of the ministers started talking about Rupert Murdoch, and how powerful God is, and how if you wrong him he'll humble you. The minister said, Murdoch is a man who kings and heads of state would bow down to, and then he was put in front of the committee, and a man came up and threw a pie in his face: praise be! I went up to the minister afterwards and said, "I hadn't realised i was doing the Lord's work.'

Your real name is Jonathan May-Bowles. Are you secretly posh?

My mum was a librarian and my dad was an accountant. I had a relatively normal middle-class upbringing in Windsor, and went to a grammar school. I became a father when I was seventeen, so I went straight to work for Ladbrokes for three years, which was a fascinating experience. I got involved in activism almost by accident in 2009, when I went on the Great Climate Swoop as a favour to a friend of my sister's - my sister is an amazing activist and a great inspiration to me. I just turned up, and suddenly I'm running through the woods being chased by horses, trying to improvise consensus decision-making with people I'd never met before. It was one of those moments where you know, instantly, that nothing's ever going to be the same again.

My family have been completely on side. My mum said the most wonderfully mum-ish thing in the world - she said, 'I don't think that was a wise thing to do, but it was very brave.' My girlfriend has been amazing. The next day, when I was dealing with all of the press in the world trying to get in touch, and Twitter, and all the criticism, she was the person who made me shut down the computer and go to be

Was it strange, being inside during the riots in London?

I was actually moved wings because of the riots, they needed space in E Wing. The response from prisoners was interesting - some of them were annoyed they couldn't be out there looting as well, and some of them were absolutely appalled. At least it meant that people suddenly wanted to watch the news. Before that, Come Dine With Me is what we were mainly watching. Endless, endless episodes of Come Dine With Me.

More and more young activists are being imprisoned, some of them for much longer stretches than you. Do you have any advice for them?

Firstly, you get used to prison very, very quickly. Try to find positive ways of using your time while you're in there. Don't just vegetate in front of the TV, no matter what everyone else is doing. Even if they're not giving you work programmes, you can write, you can read, you can talk to other people, you can meet some of the most fascinating and amazing people in there, whether or not they're good people. I don't think prison helps anyone - but activists need to not be scared of prison if we want to change the world.

Are you sorry?

No, not at all. If anything, I'm less sorry now than I was before prison.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.