‘It’s Not Going to Deter Us’: The Young Climate Activists in Jail

Dozens of Just Stop Oil protesters have already been handed prison sentences, but they’re refusing to be cowed.
Just Stop Oil activist Louis McKechnie, who is currently in jail. Photo: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

For most of us, doing our bit for the climate means giving up meat, remembering to take the recycling out, and avoiding shrink-wrapped cucumbers at the supermarket. But for some young people, it’s meant temporarily giving up their freedom – jeopardising their careers, studies, finances and relationships in the process.

Dozens of UK climate protesters have been handed prison sentences over acts including blocking roads and oil terminals, damaging property and breaking injunctions. Edred Whittingham was one of 51 Just Stop Oil supporters sent to prison in a single day in September, after they gathered at Kingsbury Oil Terminal in defiance of a high court injunction that banned them from the site.


The 25-year-old, who is currently studying PPE at Exeter University, said of his week locked up in HMP Birmingham: “On the whole, it was not fun, but it was perfectly tolerable.” Stuck in a cell without his own books to read (“unfortunately you can’t take them in yourself; they're worried people will smuggle in drugs on the paper”), he ended up watching the whole of the Queen’s funeral on the TV. 

“It’s something to do, isn’t it!” he says, adding that the boredom didn’t bother him too much. “I’m a very self-sufficient and – for lack of a better term – spiritually-minded person, so just being in a room for a long period of time with no external stimulus can actually be an interesting time for reflection.”

Whittingham first ventured into climate action when he joined Extinction Rebellion in 2019, but he didn’t find his niche in the movement until Just Stop Oil emerged earlier this year. “I saw within them the perfect articulation of climate activism, namely: we’re going to do what’s necessary and they can stick us in jail but we’ve got our aim, we’ve got our strategy, we’re just going to do it,” he says. “I thought, yeah, this is the movement I’ve been waiting for.”

The group – whose single demand is that the government commits to ending all new licences and permissions for fossil fuel projects – has engaged in sustained high-profile action during October, from blocking the Dartford Crossing to chucking tomato soup over a Van Gogh painting, pouring mashed potato over a Monet (both artworks are protected by glass and were undamaged) and throwing cake at a waxwork of King Charles. As of October 24th, Just Stop Oil protesters have been arrested 1,880 times since April, while seven supporters are currently in prison.


While Just Stop Oil’s methods have been criticised, they’ve succeeded in generating almost daily headlines and drawing attention to their cause. But at what cost to the protesters themselves?

“We could see serious stress on our civilization within years or decades…If what I’m doing in any way helps to prevent or slow that down, I’m not worried about the impact to me personally,” says Whittingham, who is currently a student. “A lot of people can’t do what I did because they want to work with children or in the NHS or something that requires a clean record, but I’m not in that position so the employment thing doesn’t concern me too much.”

Just Stop Oil activist Edred Whittingham getting hauled off by police

Edred Whittingham getting hauled off by police. Photo: courtesy of Edred Whittingham

Jade Calland, 29, was jailed the same day as Edred as part of the Just Stop Oil action and sent to HMP Bronzefield for nine days. “Honestly, it was completely bizarre,” she says. “The whole experience was very surreal.

“I can imagine if you were in there for a bit longer it could be quite traumatising or life changing, because you kind of get into that prison routine. Just for those nine days, it was like a strange fever dream.”

Calland was locked in her cell for 23 hours a day and says getting into Sudoku helped pass the time. “I’d never done one before, but I was bored to tears if I’m being honest, it was very tedious.” The freelance blockchain consultant only got involved in climate activism in mid-July as a result of the cost of living crisis, after several years living in Thailand with her partner.

“When we got back to the UK everything was just double the price. With the energy bills hike and all the stuff around that, we were just ready to do something,” she tells VICE. “It’s kind of zero to 100 in two seconds, to end up in prison.”


Is she concerned about the impact on her future and career? “A little bit, yeah,”  says Calland. “I’m in my 20s so I do have a long future career ahead of me. A lot of the activists that went to prison are retired… There’s a reason that the older generation gets involved with this high-risk kind of stuff.”

But, like Whittingham, she says the climate crisis is a more pressing concern. “Am I really going to be concerned about having a criminal record or what my career path is going to look like in severe drought, severe famines and mass migrations?”

By her own admission, a lot of climate activism is “sitting around” – on the road, in court, in a police cell, in prison. Does she ever wish she was spending her youth getting wasted and having fun instead? “I’m not going to lie, I’ve had a lot of fun in my 20s,” she says. “But it’s not fulfilling. You can’t get any long term happiness from that when you feel a bit hopeless about the future.

“I think taking action when you feel afraid or worried or anxious, that actually does make you feel a lot better... I feel like I couldn’t be doing anything else.”

Louis McKechnie has been imprisoned at HMP Altcourse since early July after breaching a court bail and is likely to be there until he faces trial in February for a public nuisance charge. 

Due to what he describes as “prison admin”, VICE wasn’t able to speak to him directly – instead, his father read out our questions on one of their regular calls and passed on his answers. 


The 21-year-old, who has been involved with Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, says life in prison so far “isn’t how the media portrays it”.

“I wake up every morning and exercise in the yard and I spend an hour or two socialising with my neighbours who show me kindness and care,” he says. “I spend most of my days reading and watching TV, and play pool and snooker with my friends on the wing. The vegan food is pretty good and the culture is jovial and positive.”

He misses seeing family and friends – and he really misses hummus – but overall he finds it “very manageable”. “The only major problem is boredom,” he says.

McKechnie says his activism has already seen him kicked out of university, though he feels its a “worthwhile trade-off” considering the “countless lives” at risk from climate breakdown. And he says being in jail has given him valuable time for reflection and growth. 

All three young people VICE spoke to said they were lucky to have family and friends that supported their efforts. “Many of them have said they have been inspired to take further action themselves… after seeing me locked up,” says McKechnie. 

Yet future protesters could find themself at even greater risk of imprisonment, if the government succeeds in passing its controversial Public Order Bill. Explicitly targeted at protesters, former Home Secretary Priti Patel said the bill would allow police to take “proactive action” against “anti-social protests” and “prevent such disruption happening in the first place”. 


It would make “locking-on” – using devices like bike locks or chains to attach yourself to buildings, objects or other people – and interfering with key national infrastructure criminal offences, and introduce Serious Disruption Prevention Orders – which could stop individuals from being in certain places, associating with certain people and even using the internet in particular ways. 

Jun Pang, the policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, told VICE these “draconian measures” could “criminalise anyone attempting to make themselves heard”.

“In a functioning democracy, everyone must be able to stand up to power, but the Government’s new measures will have a chilling effect on everyone’s right to protest,” she says.

Whittingham says that the provisions in the bill were “absolutely outrageous”, but notes: “The fact that [the government] is taking the time to do that means that movements like ours are effective, because if they weren’t effective they wouldn’t waste their time with it.”

And, he adds: “It’s not going to deter any of us.”