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Pussy Riot And Chelsea Manning Talk Life In Prison: 'You Learn Things About Humanity

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Anti-establishment figureheads Chelsea Manning and Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova came together recently for a Talkhouse Podcast conversation to share their stories of prison culture, censorship, living in a data-driven society, and ultimately, the power of people to change the world.

Chelsea Manning was arrested in 2010 for leaking war logs, videos, and diplomatic cables to Wikileaks that exposed the United States involvement in previously unknown practices and behaviors relating to war and to torture. Nadya Tolokonnikova was arrested, along with other members of Pussy Riot, in Moscow during an anti-Putin demonstration, and convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. Manning served seven years of a 35-year sentence, and Tolokonnikova served 21 months of a two-year sentence.

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In a conversation on Talkhouse Podcast entitled, “We Have More Power Than They Do,” Manning explains the dangers of a data-driven society and what we as a community can do to prevent our private information from becoming public.

“Artificial intelligence drives every aspect of our lives,” Manning says. Having a TS/SCI (Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information) clearance gave Manning a specific knowledge of this subject. “Everything that you do is driven by a collection of data. If I know something about you, I can predict you. I can make changes in your activity.”

According to Manning, this information can be used to track you, or in some “nefarious” circumstances, “kill you.” Of course, one may not think that Big Brother cares what you might be posting about Gigi/Bella Hadid on Twitter, or that you are following an ex on Facebook, the principal of the matter remains: What someone does is no one’s business.

Manning suggests a possible solution to the problem by questioning authority and working together as a community: “The real answers come from the people around us, our communities. Firmly decide what you want to support. Voting is not the only answer. Boycott things.” Sometimes doing nothing speaks volumes.

Community is a central issue in prison life, and it's something that Manning and Tolokonnikova agree wholeheartedly on: “(There are) so many similarities in our experiences,” states Tolokonnikova.

Manning continues, “Prison society transcends cultures, transcends times. In prison, I depended on my community, on other inmates. We would have to pool our resources together and solve the problem. We would lean on each other for toilet paper; the necessities.”

An integral part of the prison community is being in close contact with people who have opposing views and beliefs: "We need to try to talk to people with different views. When you are in prison, you are forced to talk with people who are supporting Putin,” explains Tolokonnikova. Manning adds, “You learn things about humanity and each other in ways that we don’t actually do sometimes.”

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Censorship in prison life is unavoidable and arguably more stringent in Russia, according to Tolokonnikova: “All of my information was heavily censored, so I could not read political magazines. I had to put them in different holes in my body in order to bring them to me and share with my fellow prisoners.”

Manning describes censorship in U.S. prisons as, “Not as outright. Some things I couldn’t get access to because of the title… an example of [something] that could easily get blocked in prison was The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Both Manning and Tolokonnikova have taken what they have learned while in prison to influence, inform and radicalize. Tolokonnikova uses art and media as her conduit for change and reform. Manning has taken the political route, making a bid for the U.S. Senate in her adopted state of Maryland in a continuing effort to shake up the establishment.

Listen to the full podcast below:

top photo via Talkhouse.com, original Photo Credit for Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: re:publica/Jan Zappner

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