Franny Armstrong - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview

Do you vote?
Of course I vote!

How optimistic are you feeling about solving the challenge of climate change?
Earlier generations managed to solve the big issues of their time, like slavery or apartheid. And there is nothing stopping us - no technology or knowledge - other than ourselves. The past 30 years we've known about this problem, and now we're right at the end of the time when we can still do something. I'm very optimistic because of the number of people across all sections of society who are realising this and are focusing all of their energies on it.

Do you think it all hangs on Copenhagen?
The only chance is an international deal. Nothing else can do it and Copenhagen is when they are supposed to make the deal. If they fail to make an international deal that's as strong as the science demands, then we're up shit creek.

What's next?
On 1 January, the 10:10 campaign kicks in. Whatever happens at Copenhagen, whether the politicians succeed or fail, the people and businesses of Britain are going to start cutting their emissions. Understanding climate change and how close to the cliff-edge we are, I couldn't work on anything else. It would be like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

If you weren't doing this, what would you do?
I could never be a politician because I can't stand the process, but politicians are the ones who get to decide. I would also like to do little things, like getting water fountains installed in Tube stations to encourage people not to buy plastic bottles. I would have liked to be a music producer, in a studio recording music and tweaking drums. Basically, I want to have ten lives so I can do ten different things at the same time.

How do you find time to do everything?
I get bored very easily. I don't want to sit in the pub or watch TV. I was always making up schemes when I was younger - let's put on a pop concert, or get all the teachers to stop driving. Also, I feel very lucky that I have been born in this era, in a great family, with good health. I remember telling a school careers adviser: I want to direct a play, I want to make a feature film, I want to write a book. They said "Jesus, you can't do all that". But we don't have any limits. We are the most privileged who will ever live because everybody who comes after will have to deal with climate change. And for everyone before us, it was a lot harder.

Why don't we all do more about climate change?
I think that nobody wants to cause climate change. It's a mixture of our whole society being set up wrong and laziness. Put those two factors together and it all goes pear shaped. But if I had to pick one fundamental problem with climate change, I would say it's the time-lag. It's the 30 years between what we do and what happens as a result of what we do. And that's an intellectual challenge.

What made you an environmentalist?
My grandmother never used to throw things away. She would say there are only a certain amount of things in the world and so we have to share them. That's the core of environmentalism. We have to use only what we need and consider other people. I argued against her, because she used to shout at me for ripping all the wrapping paper off the presents. But she was clearly right, and I guessed I should change.

Do you argue a lot?
Yes. With my best friends I argue all the time.

Is there a plan?
There isn't a plan. You don't get long in terms of your working life. You only have a short period when you don't have that many responsibilities and you have all your faculties, meaning you have to be fairly young and energetic to push all these kind of projects. So you have about 20 years and I've always felt like I don't want to waste those 20 years doing something pointless. I want to do really good, high-quality stuff, whether that's a film or a campaign or whatever.

Does activism work?
You only have to look at history to see that it does. Nobody can argue that the US civil rights movement didn't work, or that Gandhi didn't work. A lot of people are looking for excuses not to change their lives, and that's one of them. We'll just ignore them.

Do you feel the responsibility of being seen as a leader?
The McLibel defendant, Helen Steel, told me, it's not that she feels brilliant that she did McLibel, but she knows how bad she would have felt if she hadn't, and if she had apologised to McDonald's. And that's kind of the same for me. I have to do this. I have to fight as hard as I can to prevent our species getting wiped out. And if other people think that's good, then I'm glad.

Do you think about climate change all the time?
Yes, but I don't get frustrated, because I am a glass-half-full person. I'm inspired by the people who are working on it. I almost forget that 99 per cent of the population don't give a shit, or that 99 per cent of the population is ignoring the problem.

Will you ever feel like you have done enough?
I feel like I have done enough now, I feel like I have made a good contribution. And if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I would feel like I did well, which is a profoundly good feeling that I've never had before. My whole life I've been feeling like I want to help, and now I feel I've done something. One of my motivations for working so hard is that I'll hate myself if, when I'm old, I think I stood by. If you stand by and let something happen, you are responsible, too.

Do you have time in your life for anything else?
We are thinking of restarting our singing bar. Karaoke, but around the piano. We used to have that but we had to put it on hold to make The Age of Stupid. But we're going to get it back, at Copenhagen actually! To keep the delegates amused. And we have a football team.

Is there anything you regret?
Only tiny things. We've made mistakes along the way, but I couldn't have done it with a more inspiring group of people.

Are we all doomed?
No. The scientists tell us - the peer-reviewed climate scientists, not the oil industry scientists - that there is still time from a science point of view. But nine out of ten of them don't think that the politics is going to pull it together. And that's where everybody needs to pitch in. At the moment, we, as in humanity, are not going to save ourselves.

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.