by Ava Klinger

The prison industrial complex is not designed for those who come out to become powerful, determined, and passionate community organisers, but Gaia U Bachelor’s degree graduate and Master’s degree candidate, Nicole Vosper, has spent her life, even her time behind bars, actively seeking to build food sovereignty and liberation for the benefit of her local community in the UK.

From a young age, Nicole persistently spoke out against animal cruelty, until in her early adulthood she was convicted and sentenced to three and a half years in prison for her involvement in Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a global grassroots campaign against Europe’s largest animal testing company. Knowing that this time could actually serve to provide her with an opportunity to grow, Nicole researched courses she could take during her time in prison. As a vegan, food ethics had always been an important part of Nicole’s life, so she decided to enrol in a Certificate in Horticulture which included a full permaculture design certificate. This course introduced her to Permaculture.

After her release from prison in December 2010, Nicole contacted an old employer and was hired to write news about different permaculture projects in Europe. It was while interviewing Richard Perkins about a film project that Nicole first heard about Gaia University. Her prior experiences in school had left her feeling disempowered, and yet she began to recognise that because she had not attended university, much of the work she was doing was unrecognised by society. The action learning and permaculture-centric approach to education offered by Gaia University was exactly what she knew she needed. So, in the summer of 2011, Nicole applied and was accepted into the Bachelor’s degree program in Integrative Ecosocial Design.

During her Bachelor’s degree Nicole focused on several projects, the first was a comprehensive design project for the land project where she lived, Brook End. She also focused much of her energy on food sovereignty and the politics of the food system. She organised as part of Reclaim the Fields, a European anti-capitalist network of food growers and the local Transition group, as well as local anti-fracking campaigns.Liberation permaculture was another edge that Nicole addressed in her studies, “I was getting politically frustrated and thought about the radical implications that happen when we place permaculture in a broader spectrum of social change. Ultimately, my BSc was really about looking at the self and where I wanted to invest energy and in developing my design skills.”

After graduating with her Bachelor’s degree, Nicole immediately enrolled in the Master’s degree program, where she is currently finishing her second year. The main focus of her Master’s degree has been political agroecology. Nonetheless,  in her first year, she focused on prison abolition – processing her own prison experience, organising an anti-prison network, looking at alternatives to the prison system and starting a group called the Empty Cages Collective. Nicole explains, “I want people to recognise how prisons perpetuate oppression in society. There are levels of harm in society that come from the patriarchal oppression that has created poverty, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and so much more. These broader systemic problems lead to drug abuse, sexual abuse and interpersonal violence. What I want everyone to ask themselves is: how can we respond to those harms without policing, controlling, and locking people up? Are there ways to respond to those issues without causing more harm?”

Nicole’s motivation to see the prison system abolished is a very personal one that stems from not only her own experience but from that of her best friend who is serving a life sentence for a crime she did not commit. She and her friend Sam, have witnessed and documented the many horrors of life for inmates in the prison system in the UK. From high suicide rates amongst inmates to neglected medical needs and the exploitation of prisoner labour there are deeply inhumane atrocities happening every day that never make the news. Nicole is bringing awareness to these issues and working to develop alternatives to the modern prison system, “Most of my energy goes into helping people going into prison– raising awareness with them about their cases, raising money for food and visits. I do this because I’ve been there myself. But prison abolition is a long term goal. Unless we’re looking at it from an abolitionist perspective, we’re just perpetuating the prison system. Prisons are not inevitable or permanent. We’re socialised to think this, but it’s not true. In the context of history, they play a small role. Prisons are warehouses of people and have only looked like this since the 80’s. I want to see reforms that won’t naturalise or extend the life of the prison system. In the not so distant past and even now all over the world, most communities have responded to these issues without resorting to the State. Indigenous cultures have created multiple models that they use to respond to people who are harmful in their communities in a certain way. I know it will take more than that, though. It will require huge social change”

Nicole’s vision of a future without prisons is a very colourful one, “Every community is different. There is no one size fits all solution. In my mind, there will not be one solution to this problem, but a constellation of alternatives and strategies.” This very much sums up Nicole’s attitude and proves her resilience. After living so much of her life as someone society expected very little from, Nicole continues to rattle the cages, and she knows her dream of a world without prisons cannot just come from her, but that each one of us needs to begin to open our eyes to injustice and make our voices heard, each in our own way.