A climate activist reflects on their punishment, finding happiness even in prison.
Morgan Trowland, along with another protester from Just Stop Oil, received a prison sentence of over two and a half years for climbing the Dartford crossing last year.
Trowland and Marcus Decker received the longest sentences ever given to non-violent protesters in the UK. Trowland, who was released on licence last month, claims that the 13 months he spent in prison did not feel like a punishment.
In October 2022, Trowland and Decker were dropped off at night on the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. They climbed over a barrier and scaled the thick steel cables that hold the bridge above the Thames estuary. For nearly two days, they hung in hammocks from the top of the bridge, unveiling a massive banner with the message “Just Stop Oil.” This caused the police to shut down the bridge for 40 hours, resulting in significant delays for the hundreds of thousands of drivers who rely on it to travel between Essex and Kent each day.
The judge, Shane Collery KC, stated that the perpetrators must face consequences for the disruption they caused and to discourage others from imitating their actions.
Decker is still in prison and could be sent back to Germany once he is released. However, Trowland, who is from New Zealand, has positive sentiments about his time in jail.
“I’m not particularly concerned,” Trowland shared with the Guardian during a phone conversation from his residence in London. “It provided ample opportunity for me to engage in extensive philosophical and poetic reading.”
I don’t find it to be particularly frightening, but in my opinion, it’s not a good situation. It just seems completely illogical to me. The idea of using fear to push us into acknowledging the reality of climate change and environmental destruction and accepting a harmful societal structure is ridiculous.
Trowland completed his punishment in three different prisons. Immediately after he and Decker were taken off the bridge, they were brought to Chelmsford prison in Essex, which is commonly used for holding people awaiting trial. After that, Trowland spent a month in Pentonville, located in London. He described it as the most difficult because of the lack of resources and staff to maintain a reasonable routine, resulting in most inmates being locked up for extended periods of time.
“He mentioned how the restaurant had excellent vegan options, possibly due to its location in Islington.”
After serving a period of time in Chelmsford, Trowland completed the rest of his imprisonment at Highpoint, a category C correctional facility in Suffolk. It was a much more pleasant environment, with ample greenery and a dedicated gardens area where Trowland was able to work while in prison.
Trowland explained that the location includes ponds, a wilderness area, and a summer dell filled with stunning wildflowers and plants growing in ponds. This made the situation feel absurd, as it seemed the decision-makers were unaware of the enjoyment environmentalists find in nature.
It would be wrong to say prison had not changed Trowland. It was just that it was perhaps not in the way the authorities would have liked. A philosophy course he took at Highpoint gave him a renewed theoretical framework to justify his offending.
He stated that a society is created by choice for the benefit of all, and the government formed by the society should only take actions that benefit everyone. Any actions that harm the environment, such as contributing to climate change and destroying ecosystems, go against the purpose of creating a society.
“The situation aligns with John Locke’s proposal as outlined in his book [Two] Treatises of Government, where he presents scenarios in which it is justified to overthrow those who have abused their power in government.”
Being in prison taught Trowland a lesson about practical philosophy through experiencing relative deprivation. The lack of possessions and the realization of their superfluous nature after a year of having very little, only some books and writing materials, made an impact on Trowland. This experience made them appreciate the value of a few treasured books as sufficient possessions.
Returning to my apartment and retrieving my belongings from storage is a daunting experience, both emotionally and mentally. It brings up questions about the purpose of accumulating so many possessions. Why do I spend my life managing these things? It all feels meaningless and overwhelming.
One unexpected takeaway from Trowland’s time in prison was the discovery of happiness. Despite being in a place meant for punishment, Trowland found it surprisingly easy to be happy by engaging in mental activities, such as reading poetry and spending time in the garden. This lesson challenged the notion that prison is meant to be a miserable experience.
He does regret his actions, especially for the impact it had on those affected. During his trial, it was revealed that small businesses suffered financial losses, sick patients missed important medical appointments, and a witness who missed a funeral did not accept an apology note from Trowland. Trowland stated that the realization of these consequences was his true punishment.
The speaker stated that the situation highlighted the fact that as British citizens, we tend to avoid acknowledging the impact of our actions on others.
“I climbed up the bridge because I have met individuals, particularly in India, who lack the necessary means to address the effects of climate change. These are the same people who are now suffering from famine and diseases caused by climate-related issues.”
The terrible consequences are constantly occurring. British individuals have never been held accountable for their actions towards those living in equatorial regions.
I view these direct actions as a form of rough justice, meant to prompt everyone to pause and reflect on the harm we are causing ourselves and particularly vulnerable individuals. Otherwise, we tend to overlook it.
After adapting to life outside of prison, Trowland is content to be a free individual once more. He expresses that it brings him joy to be reunited with his partner and cat and to simply relax at home. He hopes to rekindle the peaceful state of mind he had while incarcerated and even possibly write a poem in his newfound freedom.