Activism

Read prison letters of Just Stop Oil activists jailed for QE2 bridge protest: 'UK cannot imprison its way out of climate crisis'

Just Stop Oil activists Marcus Decker and Morgan Trowland were given the longest prison sentence for a protest in UK history. Here, through prison letters, they tell their story

Conservative prime ministers from Truss to Sunak have made cracking down on protesters a key part of their agenda, passing laws to increase penalties and specifically target Just Stop Oil’s tactics.

Climate activists find themselves vilified in the press, and poll after poll has found that the majority of people are against the group’s actions. But concern is growing over heavy-handed repression, with the United Nations describing the sentencing of climate activists Marcus Decker and Morgan Trowland as “significantly more severe” than the punishments dealt out for similar offences in the past. For The Big Issue, they reflect on their punishment, life in prison and how their infamous occupying of the Dartford Crossing came about.

“There was an extraordinary moment when the wind picked up and the banner unfolded into its full glory. I hope the photos taken will make the history books”.

For 41 hours, in October 2022, Marcus Decker and Morgan Trowland shut down the QE2 Bridge by occupying it, suspended in hammocks, 230 feet above the River Thames on the Dartford Crossing. It remains the most disruptive action Just Stop Oil has ever done.  

Hundreds of thousands were impacted by the closure of the bridge, which links the M25 in Essex and Kent. 

The action led to Morgan Trowland receiving a three-year prison sentence and Marcus Decker receiving two years and seven months; both were sent to HMP Highpoint. 

The United Nations recently spoke out against the sentencing, describing it as “significantly more severe” than the punishments dealt out for similar offences in the past. 

In December 2023, Morgan was released, on electronic tag, after serving 14 months. Marcus, although he was handed a shorter sentence than Morgan, remains in prison. Marcus has pre-settled status in the UK, but is a German citizen. He received a deportation order on account of not holding a British passport and getting a prison sentence of over one year. The deportation order also means he is not yet eligible for early release. 

He will appeal the order on the grounds of his human rights to stay with his family; his partner Holly and his two step-children. A petition to ensure that he can remain in the UK is nearing 150,000 signatures. 

I’ve been writing letters to Marcus and Morgan in prison, to find out what they make of holding the longest sentences for a protest, of any kind, in British history.

Morgan’s prison letters. Image: Jake Walker-Charles

Marcus was better equipped than most for the Dartford Crossing action. He had spent more than 150 nights, that same year, sleeping in a hammock in a century-old London plane tree – as a part of the campaign by the Haringey Tree Protectors, to save it from being chopped down. 

Marcus camping in a plane tree. Image: Giovanna Iozzi

Morgan had previously been arrested 16 times volunteering with Extinction Rebellion. He says he was “quite perplexed when people simply gave up on Extinction Rebellion” after it had gained significant media attention. 

He was initially unsure about joining Just Stop Oil: “I wasn’t keen on going on the motorway because it is indiscriminate. I had preferred earlier action of disrupting the oil distribution terminals.” 

Eventually he decided “if everyone quibbled endlessly about exactly what we should do, nothing much would happen; meanwhile the world gets hotter”. This was their time to act.

Reflecting on climbing the bridge, Marcus told me the main goal was to do a visually extraordinary banner drop that would issue an urgent warning, and be seen by millions.

At one point things looked like they weren’t going to plan: “Something had got stuck in the middle of the banner where we couldn’t reach and it didn’t unfurl completely.”

Finally, with some assistance from the wind, the banner opened up fully and it was mission accomplished. Marcus described the moment as euphoric, “like when the air suddenly clears on a foggy mountain hike revealing the most stunning landscape.”

The banner on the QE2 bridge.Image: Just Stop Oil

Morgan faced his own difficulties while up on the bridge. When affixing himself to the railings, he couldn’t pull his sleeping bag over the attached ropes, meaning he couldn’t get it past his shoulders, so the strong winds and cold were a major issue. He had barely enough layers on to keep warm going into the night and worried about catching hypothermia. 

When the wind eventually dropped in the early hours of the morning, he was able to get some sleep, waking at dawn to “the most exquisite” sunrise over the River Thames. 

Morgan said part of the reason he agreed to participate in the Just Stop Oil campaign was the hope that thousands of people would follow suit, but this time they didn’t. 

In the Netherlands, a reported 70,000 people took to the streets to protest climate catastrophe. In the UK, Just Stop Oil’s recent efforts had a much lower take-up.   

However, Morgan told me in the year he’s spent in jail, he’s replied to close to 1,000 personal emails and letters from members of the public. Marcus told me many have written to him telling him they’ve been inspired to do their own climate activism. 

The pair recently co-signed a letter along with Rowan Williams, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry describing a “collective state of madness” which is ignoring global warming and criminalising “those standing up in defence of life on Earth”.   

Beginning the QE2 Bridge climb at dawn. Image: Just Stop Oil 

Morgan is an avid reader and poet. He gets through around 70 books a year. He cites Noam Chomsky, Robert Macfarlane, science fiction novelist Ursula La Guin and Native American tribal chief Kondiaronk as some of his key influences. 

He spent as much time as he could in the prison garden at HMP Highpoint, which boasts a wide lawn, flower beds, apple trees and even a small meadow. He says it’s “not an unpleasant scene if you can filter out the razor wire”.  

Morgan Trowland is a structural engineer by trade. Marcus Decker is a trained musician. Both activists have been putting the skills of their profession to use while in prison. Marcus runs a weekly singing workshop in the chapel of the prison. 

He told me how music has been vital to his activism. He recounts his first arrest: “Although I was physically removed, because everybody kept singing it felt like an ongoing bond with the group that the police were unable to break. 

“My friend and I were in cells opposite each other in the back of the police van, but we kept singing all the way to the station where we were praised by an officer for our voices. An absolutely unforgettable experience.”

He said access to music has the power to transform prison life: “Many of the lads keep coming every week and they say how good singing in a group makes them feel. It’s an opportunity to escape this sometimes so toxic and oppressive place if only for one morning per week. 

“Having a guitar in my cell for the last four months has massively improved my life as I can spend my time more meaningfully and play for others on the wing or in the yard. I hope those who have encountered me in prison will remember me and feel I made their lives a little bit better, even for a short time.”

Marcus singing at a rally. Image: Holly Cullen-Davies

This summer, Morgan designed a bamboo art piece sculpture for Glastonbury. During the festival, it served as a site for a People’s Assembly, which featured prominent climate change activists. Morgan even performed at the festival himself, live from a prison phone call.  

Morgan’s Sculpture at Glastonbury. Image: Morgan Trowland 

He told me it made him feel very hopeful: “It shows that imprisoning people to stop a social movement is like trying to push water uphill. The imprisoned people find they have more of a voice. 

“The reach grows wider with every person jailed. It increases the social pressure to seriously confront this. The UK government will not imprison its way out of the climate and ecological crisis.”

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