On Wednesday, 30 November 2016, the Centre of Criminology had the pleasure of welcoming Nuno Pontes for a talk under the scope of the Prisons course of the MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice. As the last seminar of that course was devoted to first-hand accounts of imprisonment, Nuno came to talk to us about his own experiences of imprisonment in general and solitary confinement in particular.

Nuno, currently 50 years old, spent 21 years in prison, of which 14 were consecutively spent in solitary confinement. Now four years after his release, he remains actively involved in prison issues as a researcher for the European Prison Observatory.  He considers his decision to work on issues surrounding solitary confinement, torture, and prison in general as an easy one to be made; He had a moral obligation to speak out and act within his means for what was done to him and continues to be done to others. Furthermore, he is not willing to let 21 years of his life be forgotten. He has recently co-published the ‘Improving Prison Conditions by Strengthening the Monitoring of HIV, HCV, TB and Harm Reduction’ report as part of the EU co-funded project “Improving Prison Conditions by Strengthening Infectious Disease Monitoring

Nuno started his talk with an introduction of himself as “who the state says I am”. He is an individual who spent 14 years in solitary confinement, two and half years in death row and was accompanied by a helicopter and armed officers when he needed to leave the prison. Yet, he has never physically harmed another person. He described these (re)actions and the identity that they generated as an identity imposed on him, that of a dangerous man who needed to be controlled.  

Nuno was born in Portugal in the 1960’s to an elite family. He grew up during a period of political unrest in Portugal’s history to become passionate about revolution and politics. At the age of 17, he went to the US, where he was later sentenced to 30 years of imprisonment for burglary and escape.

Throughout his talk, he kept on referring to his co-prisoners as comrades. In prison, he had the chance of meeting members of the Black Panthers, supporters of Black Feminists and the Black Power revolution. It was these social ties while in prison that “kept him active” - he called them his “support network”.  Responding to a question from a student regarding his political ideology and imprisonment, he identified this experience as confirming and strengthening his preexisting political ideology. Although he did not find “anything to change his values” he accepts that communicating with other political prisoners may have made him more sophisticated even if it did not change his core ideologies. Additionally, getting involved with politics gave him the opportunity to work on something to keep him going on. It worked as a coping mechanism, allowing him to fight the potential emotional distress and mental disorders caused by solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement could be characterised as the main point of his talk - it is what he came to talk to us about, and what he wants to fight against. His accounts of solitary confinement go beyond what we have read about in our textbooks. Nuno addressed the lack of self-government as an experience leading prisoners to “become self-destructive in order to finally get control over something”. He told us about his own nervous breakdown and how he managed to overcome it. Extensive attention was also given to prison officers and their involvement in inflicting further pains and distress on those under confinement. Prison officers were addressed as agents of hazing, part of a subculture “enjoying” torturing prisoners in a consistent and organised way. But “they were not all that twisted”:  although going through a period of seeing “guards as the enemy”, Nuno was able to acknowledge those who would risk their jobs to help.  Talking about the people he met in prison, both guards and prisoners, he mentioned: “I met a lot of nasty and a lot of decent people”.

Nuno told us about this one prisoner who had been sentenced to death penalty. Once his death warrant was signed he went around the cells asking prisoners who had radio privileges (i.e. allowed to own a radio) but didn’t have money to buy one. He then used his own money to buy radios for them. This story made me think about the mental stage of this prisoner: knowing that he will soon be killed and yet still thinking about how to make difference to others; how people are more than simply good or bad and even in such an intense environment as the prison, they may still act in the best interest of others.

One last point that attracted the attention of the audience was his transition to freedom. Having spent over 20 years in prison, four years after release Nuno is still in the process of adjusting. Although he kept politically active while imprisoned, the world has changed: even the smallest things such as mobile phones, social media and laptops as being part of everyday lives.  One of his biggest challenges was going to the supermarket - the variety of options and the constant need to make choices became rather stressful. He also addressed the general idea of prisons as being counterproductive as a crime reduction strategy: ‘incarceration’ he told us ‘is always traumatic; that is its point. Society has to decide if it wants to punish - revenge - or to hold people accountable by bringing them into a process of mutual reconstructive self-awareness based on an understanding that the individual does not exist independently of society nor society independently of the individuals who constitute it’.

It has been one of the best moments of my Oxford experience so far. Hearing a first-hand personal account of imprisonment is definitely a unique experience especially when it comes from someone like Nuno; someone who can balance the actual experience of imprisonment with a more theoretical and “academic” overview of the subject. After his enlightening talk, there were lively discussions among students, mainly around the pains of solitary confinement as well as who gets incarcerated.