Josh Harper is an animal rights activist who spent 3 years in federal prison after being charged with conspiracy to harass using a telecommunications device (sending black faxes) as part of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign. Josh wasn’t actually charged for sending black faxes, but for simply speaking about the tactic. He was also charged with conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which has since developed into the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Five other activists, and the SHAC campaign, where charged alongside Josh. They collectively became internationally known as the SHAC 7.
Since being released from prison in 2009 Josh has been keeping busy helping run the Talon Conspiracy online archives; an incredible historical treasure trove of animal and earth liberation related publications (thetalonconspiracy.com). He also enjoys all things skating.
There is quite a bit of information out there about preparing for prison, but I’m interested in what preparing to get out of prison was like for you. How did that look for you, and did you have support?
My release date was up in the air for a long time, so my process wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. In short, the Bureau of Prisons doesn’t send inmates back to where they were arrested, they send them to wherever it was that they were indicted. In my case that was New Jersey, a state whose only redeeming quality is that it isn’t prison.
I filed to go to Oregon, but their probation department declared me “too high profile” and “a danger to the community,” so I had to forego months of half way house to put in a request for Washington. Luckily they accepted me, but only after I agreed to restrictions more stringent than those issued by my sentencing judge. By the time they agreed I had only one week to find both a job and a place to stay.
The staff at Food Fight! vegan grocery put out an alert on my behalf, and one of the owners of Wayward vegan cafe saw it. She had never met me before, but she took the risk of allowing a stranger to both work at her restaurant and live at her house. I’m forever grateful to everyone who helped me during that tumultuous time, it could have gone bad for me so easily.
I recommend that people incarcerated in the federal system start looking for work and a place to stay 18 months before release. Try to find possibilities in more than one state, that way if one probation department rejects you you will have a back up plan. Setting things up as far in advance as possible also increases your chances of maxing out your halfway house time.
Do you feel that the people supporting you during your time in prison were aware of the importance of post-prison support?
Prison was pretty rough on me, and while I think that my support team wanted to do their best for me upon my release, they couldn’t be expected to know how to cope with the mental health problems I had when I hit the streets. What I experienced wasn’t a failure of my support team, it was a failure of the way prisoner support is framed in general.
People involved in prison support work have experience with helping those who are still behind bars. Most efforts are concentrated on letters, books, legal aid, and so forth. But we need more than that, and that is going to mean setting up support funds for counseling and medications. It also means that supporters might need some training in dealing with common post-incarceration disorders, such as depression and PTSD.
What were the most useful forms of support that you received as you were getting out of prison, and since then?
Again, I was very lucky. People took me shopping for work clothes and assisted me in paying for them, helped me find an apartment during a time that no one wanted to rent to me because of my criminal record, and tried to help me reintegrate socially.
The most useful thing, however, was my friend Nadia helping me navigate the maze involved in finding counseling for mental health. I wasn’t in a state to do it myself, and I hope that every former prisoner who needs that kind of assistance is as fortunate as I was.
Was there anything you found particularly unuseful?
Yes, advice on coping with post-prison trauma from people who have never done time. If you haven’t been there, you don’t know. Listening is helpful, reassurance is helpful, talking shit about things you have no frame of reference for is harmful.
Have you found that there are any particular activities, endeavors, health services, hobbies, etc that you’ve found particularly positive since you got out of prison?
Beyond the mental health care that I hope all prisoners will one day have access to, I have found that finding a safe way to keep contributing to the movement is very therapeutic. We all know how hard any level of participation in resistance movements can be though, so I also tell everyone to find something that you love to do that doesn’t involve politics at all, and allow yourself to become as immersed in it as you need. For me, that thing is skateboarding. I read all the magazines, watch all the videos, and I never judge myself for shirking responsibility to do things skate related.
In the first few months of your release, what did you find the most challenging about life on the outside?
The first few months were relatively easy, actually. I was just so happy to be out. I did have some residual aggressiveness towards other men, and some issues with the way people on the outside enter each others space. For example, a guy bumped into me on the bus and I lost my mind, screaming in his face that he needed to respect me and apologize. I also found it hard to deal with people’s perception of prisoners. I was staying with a family when I had gotten out, and they were raising a child. His biological father had found out that I was moving in and told the kid to be afraid of me because “prison changes people,” and that ex-cons couldn’t be trusted. I was devastated when I found out, but that was just the first of several such encounters.
What was your experience with probation like?
Ha ha. Not fun, but workable.
Here is my advice for anyone getting out of prison and onto probation: wear your probation officer out with kindness, concern, frequent phone calls, and abundant honesty when you first get out. My probation officer was a hard ass, but in my first few weeks I called him about everything. I asked questions about the littlest things, like if signing up for iTunes was a violation of my probation clause not to sign contracts. I showed up at his office randomly “just to check in and make sure I completed my reports on time.” When he asked me if I had drugs in the house, I told him about the ibuprofen I had, I told him about the pepto-bismal my house mate bought. I did everything in my power to act like I was eager to see him and assist him- and within 2 months that guy was so sick of me that I barely saw him at all for the next 3 years. Remember, these guys have a huge case load. They want to know if you are going to be trouble, and if you show them right from jump that you won’t be, they’ll mostly leave you alone. That doesn’t mean that the conditions of your probation won’t chafe you. They will. It’s going to suck, but you can get through it with minimal discomfort and without violating.