Conditions of women in English jails
by Constance Markievicz (two articles, 1922)
It is hard for me to conceive of any way in which the English prison system could be effectively reformed. Such an atrocious system should be done away with, and when the jails were dismantled, the officials pensioned off and the whole machinery scrapped, some new scheme might be devised under which people who are a danger to the community might be detained as a safeguard under conditions where they would have a chance of improving their characters and of being taught how to make the best of the bad position they have got themselves into.
Prison, as a punishment, is a remnant of barbarity. To the prisoner it is the revenge dealt out by the strong to the weak, and each day spent there makes them more bitter. Human nature is such that no punishment could act as a deterrent to a person wishing to repeat an offence; it might make them change their tactics, and become more cautious, but it always seems to put it up to them to get their own back on the authorities for all that they have been made to suffer, and to incite them to be cuter and bolder on their release. The only way I can conceive of it acting as a deterrent is in those cases when unfortunate prisoners are broken in health and mind on release, and drift into the workhouse asylum to end their days in helpless misery.
Prison might aptly be described as a school in which many unfortunates were initiated into every form of vice, and from whence they were launched into the underworld of criminals.
Let us try to picture the mental condition of first offenders cut off suddenly and ruthlessly from all innocent thought and association, from all affection and outside interests, and thrown back on themselves. Their thoughts centre more and more on the crime that they are suffering for, and the terrible revenge that is being taken on them. Their only human intercourse is with others as bad or worse than themselves; the only variety in their lives is the advent of a new criminal or the return of an old offender with a new sentence. Thus, crime, how to commit it, and how to escape the consequences, becomes of absorbing interest to them, until it grows to be as natural and commonplace to them as any other activity. They are no longer ashamed at having murdered or stolen, they are ashamed at being found out. Their long, lonely hours are spent in going over the carelessness of indiscretion that led to their arrest and conviction, and planning all sorts of schemes to revenge themselves on false friends, to get the better of law and order, and to live the rest of their lives wildly, luxuriously and idly.
Convicts are divided into classes of (i) “stars”, ie first offenders, who are distinguished by wearing a red star on their sleeve immediately under the number by which they are distinguished in the jail; (ii) “bars”, those who wear a bar; and (iii) those who wear no distinguishing mark, mostly old offenders. This classifying was no doubt instituted to try and separate hardened and constant offenders from those who were the victims of unfortunate circumstances and under the influence of strong passions had committed one mad act. It is utterly useless for this purpose, as no human being could ever so discriminate as to be able to know at sight, those who are a danger to others; and put them in a class by themselves.
You can class by size, by shape, or by colour, or by any external evidence that your senses or mind can grasp, but to pretend to know and judge a human soul is an attempt to usurp the powers of Almighty God. So you will always find some among the stars who are a very corrupting influence. The limited number in this class makes it impossible to avoid any particular one. Also it is part of the system that if you are seen trying to avoid one you are probably put to work with her, for in jail every human affection, every attempt at discrimination or aspiration is remorselessly stamped on.
If you show that you prefer to work in the same gang as one of your companions you are at once separated from her, if you show any preference for a wardress, have been heard to say that she is kind or been seen to smile at her, she is at once an object of suspicion to the other wardresses and to the higher authorities. An appalling system of spying, called “supervision”, pursues you even when you kneel at God’s Altar, and even the miserable little grain of comfort that you can get from a few minutes’ talk with another prisoner can only be procured by endless trickery and deceit.
Another objection to the dividing into classes is the endless jealousies and recriminations it gives rise to. Stars consider themselves far better than anyone else, while those who are older in jail experiences stand on a lofty pinnacle in their own estimation. The stars alternate in admiring and sneering at them. The greatest trouble is taken to get into communication with them, and many an unfortunate girl learns through them to get into touch with “the gay life” in London and other English cities, when she is released at the end of her sentence. The “gay life” is the life of the gambling halls, the brothels, the thieves’ kitchens, and the dance clubs, and applies to all social intercourse of those who live by thieving, false pretences, prostitution and worse.
The jail is the best recruiting ground for professional criminals, and among the stars they find many a young fool to join their group, miserable surroundings making the thought of a gay life doubly attractive.
I believe that if prisoners were allowed to group themselves for work that there would be much less demoralisation. Like would go to like, and those who disliked bad talk would not be forced to listen to it till it became second nature to them.
The silence rule merely gives people an incentive to underhand intercourse. The old hands are experts at this, and their conversation is often filthy. A few words exchanged are worth any risks that may be run, especially to a newcomer, and it is the worst of their comrades that they find it easiest to talk with.
This rule is very demoralising to wardresses; for no wardress could carry it out, and, consequently, has to wink at those that offend against it; once a wardress has winked she has put herself into the position of allowing something to take place that she had not the power to allow, and which if discovered would get her into trouble. This puts her into the power of the convicts, as she is always afraid of tales being told by the first one she offends; so, little by little, she finds herself playing a double game, and constantly helping the convicts evade the rules. It ends in her not daring to report a convict for fear of being told tales of.
Everything is done by rule, and there are endless rules, and endless red tape, and endless inspections. All these seem originally to have been instituted for the protection of the prisoner, but all in the long run are either useless, or used against her for the protection of the officials, and are each like the jab of a severe bit to a nervous horse.
The dinner is always inspected, after it is cooked, by the governor or deputy-governor. A table of “samples” is neatly laid out. The bits are carefully selected by warders in charge, and it’s always the best bits the governor looks at and tastes and invariably says “excellent”, while we grin ironically. No inspector ever had the sense to take a ration at random and weigh and taste it, nor was the uncooked food ever examined as far as I know. If that had been done it would have been found that the suet was mostly rolled skin; it was constantly tainted and always full of what I have since been told are tubercular glands. They were of globular formation, ranging from the size of a pea to a large grape; some a pinky-yellow colour, some purple and covered with little veins. We used to collect them in a pie-dish and burn them.
We had fish on Thursday; bully beef on Sunday; other days we had mutton or beef; a couple of small slices of meat floating in greasy water.
With this we had 12 ounces of vegetables, mostly potatoes, with slices of carrots, or dried beans, or onions, very occasionally leeks or cabbage, etc. The dinners were served in two storey cans, used indiscriminately among 200 women, and, more, some of the cans very old and musty.
A great many of the women were known to be suffering from venereal disease, and at the time an attempt was made to keep their tins separate. This was dropped after a while.
There was no proper accommodation for washing these 400 tins. I used to do 200 with another convict. We did our best to get them clean in a big terracotta bowl on the kitchen table and to dry them on two towels. Sometimes the water would not be hot and then you could neither dry nor clean the tins.
In Aylesbury Jail I worked in the kitchen, and part of my work was the washing of over 200 top-tins daily. They never could be washed properly, as there was no proper accommodation. We did the best we could to rinse them in an earthenware bowl on the kitchen table. Often the water was not hot enough, and sometimes there was no soap or soda. Many of the tins were red with rust inside. There were only two towels to dry them. If I had time I could give you endless examples of English cleanliness. It may be summed up as follows: brasses, floors, door-knobs, all that jumps to the eye immaculate, but dirt and carelessness behind the scenes. I have seen vermin found in the baths.
All the convicts lived with their nerves on edge, the horror of catching syphilis, the struggle to keep your health so that when eventually you were released you could work, occupied everybody. It was their horror of breaking down, much more than gluttony, that made women risk severe punishment in their efforts to steal margarine or dripping, or a raw onion, or a bit of bread.
There are many horrors that I have no time to touch on. Those inquiring into prison conditions might find the following suggestions as to where to direct inquiries useful. You could write reams on each:
1. Dividing the prisoners into classes
2. Silence rule
3. The unhealthy conditions under which prisoners work and live
(cells, food, conditions of work, “speeding up”)
4. The whole relationship of officers with prisoners, and system of
discipline among themselves
5. Methods of supervision, at Divine Service, and all other times
7. Complete severance of all ties
8. Manner in which letters are censored
9. Manner in which the few short visits are conducted
10. The hundred little maddening rules and regulations which have driven so many unfortunates into the madhouse.
New Ireland, October 8 and 15, 1922