Break down the Bastilles

by Constance Markievicz (1919)

(This is the first of a series of writings by Constance Markievicz which I’ll be getting up on the blog over the next few months.  The first ones I’ll be concentrating on are about women and the struggle for national and social liberation.)

“I’m a lady, woman yourself.”
Thus retorted a cross and overheated woman borne along in a queue towards the pit door of a London theatre.  I was puzzled: I could not see where she  found provocation.  My companion had apologised for crushing me, and had said “I can’t help pushing you; the woman behind is pushing me; and the woman behind her is pushing her and so on; and we can’t help ourselves.”

I never forgot this incident, slight as it was, because it puzzled me, and year by year I wondered more where the sting had lain.  When I got to jail I found out.

“Woman” is the jail slang for prisoner or convict; the governess and wardresses allude to you as “woman” and when a wardress escorts you from one part of the jail to another, she leaves you in the charge of another wardress with the formula, “One Woman, Miss.”

This phrase is repeated by her who takes over the responsibility of making your life a misery for the time being.  To distinguish their high social position from that of the mere women, the wardresses are styled officers and young ladies; they call each other Miss, and actually expect you to do the same.

Another thing that used to puzzle me was, why so many girls hated wearing caps and aprons; for caps are pretty and becoming and aprons neat.  The reason for this, too, lies in jail.  The “women” in local and convict prisons all wear them.

In Aylesbury Jail all the wardresses wear them, and some of those in local prisons do so too.  All sorts and fashions of caps and aprons are bound to be found in jails; so I soon came to the conclusion that the dislike of being called a “woman” and the contempt for one wearing a cap were emotions that come straight from the subconscious soul of the workers in their rebellion against one of the worst tyrannies of feudalism and capitalism – jail.

I have been in three of England’s prisons, and the more I understood the system the more I wondered at the cruelty and the stupidity of it; and I would like to ask the workers, not only of Ireland but of other countries, how long are we going to tolerate prisons?  It is their business to break up the Bastilles of the world, for is it not the workers who suffer behind those twenty-foot walls?

It is a rare thing for a rich and educated woman to get to jail.  She must be very stupid if she does so.  A butcher’s shop disgusts her; she draws her skirt aside from a bag of coal; her dainty fingers shrink from an uncooked fish; she would consider it beneath her dignity to carry a parcelled dress through the streets.

Fire, food, drink, clothes are hers by right – I had almost said by night.  The sight of the ordinary necessities of life are no temptation to her, her little children are not hungry and cold, so she is never driven to desperate acts.  She never risks jail and she remains an honest woman.

I worked with a gang of murdresses in Aylesbury.  Some were bad, but the most were foolish, working girls who had got into trouble and had killed their little babies because life with them was impossible; because they had no way of earning a living, nowhere to go and nothing to eat.

The education and resources of a rich girl with an illegitimate child were not theirs; they could not pay someone to mind it; they could not hide their shame.

Each moment life became harder, and the child a greater burden till poverty – that great devil’s accomplice – finished the work of degradation, and they found themselves in the dock charged with child murder.

Some are sentenced to death; some to a varying term of years according to the temper of the judge, and to whether the culprit repels or attracts him.

Divorce costs money; therefore it is only the poor and foolish who risk bigamy.  Soliciting is never the occupation of the rich.  There are other women, too, in for horrible crimes in their futile efforts to make money.

In jail they divide you into classes.  I do not know what is the principle of selection.  Convicts are “stars”, “stripes” and ordinary offenders.  First offenders are usually stars, and they look down on the stripes, who, in their turn, consider themselves far above the old jailbirds.

Of course, this classing is a farce.  No matter how you class or label the prisoners, it must be so.  In each class you find some of the degenerates who are like a plague spot spreading infection.  Under the foolish “silence” rule, by which open conversation is not allowed, prisoners go very cute.  The weary wardress never ceases to reiterate “Stop that talking.”

It does not stop; it becomes secret and underhand, and then the cutest and the worst take the lead.  Loose jokes, filthy stories, and the eternal discussions of crimes is the rule.   Each criminal learns from her companions.  Thus, the thieves learn how to kill a child without being caught, and how to procure abortion, while the others learn how to steal.

There is great physical cruelty, too, in jail.  In Aylesbury the governor, a woman called Dr Fox, started “speeding up” the women sewing mail bags.  Speeding up is always cruel.  It is inhuman under jail conditions.  The prisoners’ nerves were strained to breaking point trying to finish their daily task; if they did not do so, their marks were stopped and their remission curtailed.  The women’s eyes were injured trying to sew in a badly-lit cell.

A jail is a veritable sweater’s den, where the poor prisoners unwillingly help to keep down the rate of wages.  They are packed together in unsanitary, ill-ventilated cells.  The food is insufficient and of bad quality, and the limit to work is ten hours per day.

Day by day you get weaker and thinner till on the monthly weighing day you register so light a weight that you alarm the doctor, who then sends you to hospital, and gives you a more nourishing diet till you have put on a few pounds.  Then back you go to starvation and overwork.

If you die, there is an inquest, and jail governors don’t like inquests; so when you get beyond a certain point you are thrown out to die.  If you hang on to life through a long sentence, you have little chance of ever being more than a moral and physical wreck.  And what is the point of it all?  Who gains or is better for all this misery?  How is civilisation helped?  One is tempted to accuse the governing classes of having usurped the authority of Almighty God.  “Vengeance is Mine; I will re-pay,” saith the Lord, and surely vengeance is all that is gained by the prison system.

Voice of Labour, May 1, 1919


Posted on July 11, 2011, in Constance Markievicz, Women prisoners. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Break down the Bastilles.

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