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Prison life for a Swedish Plowshares activist

Martin Smedjeback is a peace activist and nonviolence trainer. He worked for seven years as a nonviolence trainer for the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation. In the current Disarm campaign he has been charged for peace actions at four different weapon industries in Sweden. He will be incarcerated until the 2nd of July.

When you think of prison what images pops into your mind? Concrete walls, bars and guards with shotguns? Unpleasant things happening in the showers? Extortion and violence for the smallest thing? Think again if you want to imagine a Swedish minimal security prison. Martin Smedjeback, who is now serving five months in prison for a peace action, share some things about the prison experience in Sweden.

Never having served time in prison I was naturally anxious about what I was going to face. I was surprised by the friendliness I met, both from guards and fellow inmates. During the time I have been in prison so far (almost three months when writing this) I have not been met by even a harsh word, threat or any physical abuse what so ever. Neither have I seen any violence, physical or psychological between any one in prison. The heaviest weapon the guards carry is a pepper spray. ''I have never had to use it", says a woman in her 40s who has worked many years as a guard. "I use this instead" she says and points to her mouth. "It solves almost all conflicts". There are for sure negative stereotypes expressed from the inmates about the guards, but also loving gestures like when a female guard in her 60s touched an inmate's cheeks with her hands and said ''Feel how cold my hands are . Its really freezing today." At one lunch I had a philosophical discussion with a pretty 29-year old female guard about the difference between determinism and utilitarianism. I had expected the guards to be civil but was worried that some of my fellow inmates would be violent, but my expectations were put to shame. Being surrounded by murderers, drug dealers, extortionists, robbers, extreme right activists and yet feel safe and taken care of, that has strengthened my belief in the goodness of humanity. Because if even these people, some of them whom have committed horrendous crimes, can be kind to one another and to guards, then I feel there is hope.

For about two months right after the disarmament action I was held in custody. There we were held in individual cells for about 18 out the 24 hours. Each day we got to be outdoors for one hour and four days a week we had the possibility to go to the gym for an hour. Once every two weeks there was a church service offered. Now I have been sent to a minimal security prison. Here everyone has their own private cell equipped with a bed, desk, chair, bookshelf, wardrobe and TV. Here they never lock your cell door. They only lock the door to the floor at nine in the evening and unlock it at eight in the morning. During all the other hours you are free to walk outside, go to the gym, etc. Where I am, at the prison Skenäs, outside of Norrköping in the south of Sweden, there are beautiful surroundings with lots of trees and a body of water in the vicinity. Birds singing in the trees. Cows wander carelessly right outside of our windows. There are no walls or fences or anything surrounding the prison. Instead every inmate has an electronic device attached around the leg that gives a signal at the moment one passes outside of the perimeter of the prison.

At my prison you are required to work or study. Either gives you an hourly wage of one and a half dollars. The work they provide here are washing, cleaning, gardening and carpentry. You can study courses from elementary to college level. My newfound passion is happiness research within the field of psychology. For some time now I have had the idea to write a book in Swedish about happiness. I asked the teachers here if I could do that and they liked the idea. So that is what I do during the weekdays - writing about the science of happiness. Prison is a perfect place for writing a book - very few distractions and plenty of time. I get to use a computer but the internet is (almost) totally banned here.

The guards invite us many times a week to jogging, indoor hockey, beach volleyball and soccer. We also play badminton, table tennis and tennis. There has never been a time in my life when I have been more physically fit than now! The food here is also good. I am the only vegan at this prison but there is one vegetarian who (like me) stopped eating meat when he read Peter Singer's Animal Liberation . From the start of my stay here they have provided me with delicious and well-balanced vegan meals for which I am very thankful. My choice of food has generated a lot of interesting talks on ethics with my fellow inmates.

Although I think life here is pretty sweet, people who have been in the Swedish prison system longer says it has grown worse the last couple of years. Before there was an attempt of rehabilitation but now most inmates (and some guards) say that all the decision makers talk about is security, security and security. Most are here for drug related crimes and they complain to me about the difficulty of getting into a decent program to be able to kick their bad habit. The guards here wanted to put me into a program of rehabilitation as well. The program is called "Behavior, talk and change'' and aims for asking the right questions to yourself to be able to find a meaningful direction in your life. I look forward to the program! I think everyone can gain something from tossing around ideas about how to build more meaning in ones life, although I feel it is unlikely that it will change my "criminal" behavior, which probably is the aim of the program.

In Sweden you always serve only two thirds of the length of the prison sentence. I will be released the 2nd of July. In the fall this year or spring next year I will face trial again on an appeal for the disarmament action I was a part of in Eskilstuna in October last year. It will be interesting to see if we have the chance of being acquitted or possibly to reduce the sentence of four months that I got at the first trial. In either case I will accept it with peace, since now I know that I feel pretty good about serving time in a Swedish prison. A chance to finish my book and to stay in shape!




Martin Smedjeback Anstalten Skenäs
Fack 11
610 31 Vikbolandet Sweden

for more about the campaign

Strategy behind Swedish disarmament

The 22nd of March 2009 Annika Spaide, Pelle Strindlund and Martin Smedjeback entered the Saab factory in Linkoping, Sweden. The aim was to disarm the Gripen fighter, the military aircraft that Sweden is currently exporting to South Africa and Thailand. The three disarmers were stopped by a security guard before they got to the aircrafts after having been inside the factory area for about five hours. At the trial the 14th of April they were sentenced to four months in prison for "attempt to sabotage". Annika and Martin are currently serving their sentences at two different prisons in Sweden and will be released in July (Annika 22 nd and Martin 2nd). Pelle was released the 11 th of June. In this article Martin writes from prison what led up to these events and why they chose to use the method of disarmament.

The network Ofog (meaning mischief in Swedish) started in 2002 as an anti militaristic network for a nuclear free world. Inspired by the Trident campaign in Great Britain we used mainly blockades in our actions but also other forms of direct action, like penetrating weapon factories and swimming out to nuclear submarines. Seeing how the Swedish weapons export continually grew we activists in Ofog felt a need to address also our own national contribution to the militarization of the world. It started like a week long peace camp in 2006 in Karlskoga, the weapon capital of Sweden. The participants of the camp held town meetings about the weapons export, workshops and did "weapon inspections" inside of the weapon factory, sit ins, painting a tank and made banner drops from one the buildings of the factory. Arrests and legal charges were brought to all the participants in these actions. The peace camps were held annually and the weapons export grew every year...

Although the information about Swedish weapons export is readily available for everyone, it is not talked about very much at all. In spite of an increase from 2001 to 2008 of 400 % in the Swedish weapons export the public debate on the topic was almost nonexistent. We felt that it was time to show that there are some wealth that most Swedes take for granted. I have learned from the American civil rights movement that many African-Americans were rather passive politically until there were some students that risked arrest by doing sit-ins in segregated lunch counters. When these young people were put in prison it ignited a new spirit of struggle for the issue among the people. Could this effect manifest itself around Swedish weapons export in 2009?

To this point no one in Ofog had done any disarmament - i.e. destruction of a weapon. There had been very few people that had actually done some resistance towards the weapon factories in Sweden or the politicians that supported them. Sure, the peace movement had done their mandatory complaining of the irresponsible export to dictatorships and wars, but the weapons industry was not even close to being challenged. The problem was not only the fact that the export increased but also that the authorities and politicians even gave permission to weapon trades that went against our own guidelines decided by the Swedish parliament. We felt that when the politicians didn't even follow democratic decisions like these, then we as citizens have a responsibility to intervene and physically stop these weapons.

The hope was that these actions of disarmament also would generate a much needed discussion in Sweden about the illegality of particular weapon deals and the weapons export in general. Now after the third disarmament action in this campaign, the Gripen fighter disarmament action, being the latest, we can conclude that weapons for more than 100 000 Euros have been stopped. The actions have generated some interest, but not nearly the debate that we would have hoped for. But maybe it is too soon to evaluate the outcome and better to see these actions as work in progress. One very tangible outcome is that disregarding the actual influence on the weapons industry, these actions seems to inspire and give hope to many people, judging from the letters we have received here in prison. That in itself is very rewarding because we need to be more people taking concrete steps against war profiteering. So if these actions function as mobilizing events perhaps we in the long run can count on a stronger resistance against the weapon producers in Sweden and elsewhere.