Why I feel lucky to face jail as a Stansted 15 activist | Ben Smoke

Just because I was born here, I’m treated with some humanity. The deportees on the planes we stop aren’t so lucky

• Ben Smoke is a journalist and a Stansted 15 activist

I hadn’t really thought about prison until I sat down for lunch with my mum recently. In December, I was one of 15 people who were found guilty of a terror-related offence for blockading a deportation charter flight in 2017. The offence, under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act, carries with it a potential life sentence, but until that fateful lunch, incarceration had been more of an abstract concept than a potential reality for me.

We sat in a Wetherspoon’s and I told my mum that I hadn’t really thought about the upcoming sentencing, I’d been too busy. She looked at me for a second, taking a sip of her drink before saying: “Well, I’m preparing for you to go inside, I have been for a while.”

That was the moment that it hit me. I might be about to go to prison.

For most of the Stansted 15, the chance of jail is slim – including for me – but it could still happen. And so, I’m sat here writing among piles of things I may need in prison. Atop stacks of boxers, there are hastily purchased sets of toiletries. Next to them, reams of paper, stamps and pencils, ready to be folded into a duffel bag for the trip to Chelmsford crown court one week from today.

I’ve spent the last few weeks rehearsing goodbyes. Thinking of something to say to my four-year-old niece when I see her later this week, knowing it might be the last time for a while. I’ve thought about the things I’m going to say to my pals, the looks I’m going to share with my fellow defendants, the desperate hug I’ll share with my mum in the doorway to the court as we’re called in, both of us reassuring the other that it’s going to be OK, both of us knowing that the other may be lying. I think about all these things and more, and realise just how lucky I am.

In 2017, the UK held 27,000 people in indefinite immigration detention; 15% of these were taken in during routine Home Office appointments. In other words, 4,050 people attended an appointment one day, expecting to walk in, sign something to confirm their compliance and walk back out to their families and lives, but instead were whipped away without warning to be held indefinitely in a detention centre. On top of this, there are those who are grabbed from the streets, from their places of work or from their homes in the darkness of the night.

People such as Otis Bolamu, a survivor of torture and a charity volunteer living in Swansea, who escaped the Democratic Republic of the Congo after being threatened with death, having been accused by the government of spying for the opposition party. Otis was grabbed in a 4am raid on his home and was due to be deported to certain death on Christmas Day. His deportation was only temporarily stayed through public pressure.

It’s people such as Twane Morgan, the Jamaican man who served two terms in Afghanistan for Britain before being discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder, who is due to be on the first charter flight to Jamaica since the Windrush scandal erupted last April.

People such as the eight-month-old baby held in detention earlier this month, or the Nigerian lesbian woman on the flight we stopped in March 2017, who was contacted by her abusive ex-husband days before her scheduled removal with the promise to kill her if she was returned to Nigeria.

That’s the thing about this entire experience. Each of the goodbyes that I’ll have – every desperate embrace I find myself in outside the court, every word I say to my loved ones, every anxious glance I share with my mum from the dock – I know that deep down they won’t be the last. Simply by virtue of my birthplace, I’ve been afforded the humanity of a goodbye. More than that though, I know that after this is all over, I’ll come back to the safety and security of those who love me. Whether it’s minutes, hours, weeks, months or years after that sentencing hearing starts, eventually I’ll be back home, writing, dancing and living. For most people who bear the brunt of the hostile environment, that’s not true. The future that awaits them is uncertain. It’s laced with pain, with the potential of violence, torture and death.

The fact that we live in a country that allows such a disparity in the execution of rights and freedoms is a stain on our society. It’s why we stopped that plane in March 2017 and why we must all keep fighting today – because freedom and humanity cannot be discriminatory. If only the privileged few enjoy it, then none of us truly do.

• Ben Smoke is a journalist and a Stansted 15 activist


Ben Smoke

The GuardianTramp

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