Thursday, 10 June 2010

British Prisons in Ireland: Some historical notes (Part Two)

Part two of two   (for part one click here)

By Mike Tomlinson and Patricia Heatley
This article orginally appeared in "The Abolitionist" The magazine of Radical Alternatives to Prison No 15 in 1983

In fact this problem with the final stage of the reforming process explains the appearance of the intermediate prisons. In Crofton's words, 'the object of the intermediate establishments was this: the Irish public were more hostile, if possible, to the ticket of leave than the public in England and one had to consider how this could be met. Employers would not take any man from an ordinary prison and we felt that if we showed some confidence in their training in the intermediate prisons, the public would be more likely to aid us'. In the 1860s there was a fierce argument between Jebb and Crofton over the intermediate prisons, sparked off by Crofton's suggestion that England had much to learn from the Irish system. Jebb responded by accusing Crofton of pandering to the Irish and failing to show confidence in the beneficial effects of separation and hard labour. The dispute went further than this and reflected not only different philosophies regarding the purpose of imprisonment but also different approaches to Ireland itself.
Progress through the Irish convict system was constantly monitored and measured by means of a marks system, the 'scientific' tool by which privileges or punishments were applied. If the carrot was graduation to the next stage, the stick was the ever present threat of regression reinforced by all the usual dietary deprivations and cellular punishments in the 'dark cells', and by the occasional flogging. Maconochie, who had developed the marks system on Norfolk Island, felt that Ireland, with its 'superior and centralised police' and general social conditions, more closely resembled the far-flung colonies than England. It therefore required novel institutions such as the intermediate prisons. Maconochie saw Jebb's approach as producing 'obedient and submissive prisoners' rather than 'active, efficient, industrious and well-disposed free men'; Jebb represented control as opposed to the remoralisation of the individual. This was an exaggerated dispute in many respects since the vast majority of convicts never came near the intermediate prisons, but Jebb's view prevailed with the closure of Smithfield in 1869 (supposedly for want of customers) and Lusk in 1886.

Prison Struggles and the Republican Movement

In criminal jurisprudence, as well as in many another thing, the nineteenth century is sadly retrogressive; and your Beccarias, and Howards, and Romillys are genuine apostles of barbarism - ultimately of cannibalism.
This seemingly radical dismissal of the tyrannies of the new prison discipline comes from an entry in John Mitchel's prison diary for 3rd February 1848. Mitchel, the son of an Ulster presbyterian minister, was in Bermuda at the time, awaiting shipment to South Africa and finally Australia. He was reflecting not only on his own fate but on the 'convict industry' as a whole. In rejecting the prison reformers, Mitchel was a hard-headed traditionalist and a fervent supporter of less-eligibility. He made a clear distinction between himself as an unjustly transported political activist and the mass of 'robbers, burglars and forgers' around him for whom he declared 'hang them, hang them'.

Mitchel represents the tail end of a Republican tradition tied to the presbyterian radicalism of 1798. In the intervening years it had become increasingly infused with conservatism and romanticism. The Young Irelanders of 1848, while holding to the belief in the need to oppose British rule through force, had few solid links with the Catholic peasantry. Over the next 30 years, the Republican movement was transformed. The formation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the fore-runners of the Irish Republican Army) and its Irish American support group, the Fenian Brotherhood, laid the basis of a mass secret organisation which eventually became firmly wedded to the social issues and struggles of the peasantry. The Fenians, as the whole movement became known in the 1860s provided a threatening accompaniment to the more constitutionalist campaigns for land reform and Home Rule. At one stage they claimed to have several thousand members serving in the British Army.

These developments were to make the nature of imprisonment a major political political issue. There had always been a degree of muted resistance to the new prison order, such as the symbolic defiance of tearing down notices of the prison rules. Beneath the formal regulation of daily life, the rule of silence was flouted or circumvented, and systems of smuggling developed. But this was all low level stuff. It seems that during the early years of the convict system, very few prisoners were prepared to risk insanity by protesting to any great extent. Insanity, suicide and death through illness were, after all, regular products of the prison regime. Anew challenge, however, emerged in the shape of Republican activists. When the producers of the Fenian journal, the Irish People, were imprisoned in 1865, the British government was aware that it had on its hands a group of highly committed "and politically determined militants enjoying popular support. The army and the Castle administration apparently felt it was too risky to confine such men in Ireland and so they were removed to Pentonville where the authorities could be relied on to administer an especially vindictive regime. It proved to be a wise precaution on the part of the government because two months later the founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, James Stephens, was able to escape from Richmond jail with the assistance of two warders.
It is evident from the accounts of Thomas Clarke and O'Donovan Rossa that the mental and physical destruction of the Fenian prisoners in English jails was a conscious policy. Clarke, confined in Chatham in the 1880s, records that the Irish prisoners were known as 'the Special Men' and treated accordingly. The exceptionally defiant Rossa, whose mind survived to tell the tale and who was elected as MP for Tipperary without his knowledge while in prison, was subjected to treatment which even the conservative Spectator described as 'barbaric', calling for a separate and more relaxed regime for political prisoners. Many of the Fenian prisoners died or were transferred to lunatic asylums. Their presence in the prisons had consequences for other prisoners. Regimes were stiffened and a special cage was introduced for visits. As Marx reported, 'the convicts say it was a bad day for them when the Fenians were sent to the prisons'.
Public outcry over the treatment of the Fenians led the government to set up the Devon Commission.This inquiry allowed the state to explore ways of dealing with Irish political protest which legitimated oppression as 'a lawful custom' in the full glare of English politics. Irrespective of their political motives, it was argued, the Fenians were still criminal lawbreakers and their incarceration was therefore beyond question. This logic prevented the opening up of wider issues concerning the nature of the judiciary and the rule of law in Ireland. Marx dryly noted, 'in England, the judges can be independent, in Ireland they cannot. Their promotion depends on how they serve the government. Sullivan (Rossa's prosecutor) has been made master of the rolls.'

Although the Devon Commission had aired the question of what sort of regime was appropriate for the 'political prisoner class', little had been resolved. The issue was next advanced by a series of protests mounted in Irish prisons by supporters of the Land League, imprisoned under the Prevention of Crimes Act in the 1880s. The prisoners began to refuse to have haircuts, to have their beards shaved off and to wear prison uniform. The impetus for this form of protest appears to have stemmed from inconsistencies within the prison system itself.

Again, the protest was a low-key affair and most of the prisoners would reluctantly accept uniform when threatened with punishments, restraints such as handcuffs, or force. But the issue was a sensitive one given the serious agitation on the land question and the British parliament's moves towards Home Rule, so yet again a government inquiry was established.

Prison protest became much more collective and intense after the turn of the century, With the more decisive rising of 1916, there was so much more at stake for political prisoners with the immediate prospect of liberating Ireland from British rule and the ruthless suppression of Republicans under martial law. The form of protest, whether against imprisonment, internment or military detention, changed dramatically. The war outside the prisons was matched by a life and death struggle inside the prisons. The hunger strike became the dominant form of protest.

The contrast between the treatment of the Fenians and the 1916 rebels shipped over to English jails and the Welsh internment camp could not have been starker. At Stafford jail (which was being run by the army as a military prison) the prisoners managed to negotiate. amongst other things, free access to newspapers, food parcels. free association by day and night (the cell doors were permanently unlocked) and were able to create and administer their own rules to govern their daily activities. The War Office had insisted that letters be addressed to 'prisoners of war' and the rebels had used this to demand the same rights as agreed between Germany and England for prisoners taken in the First World War. The rights were conceded on the condition that the prisoners elected a commandant who was to be responsible to the governor for discipline. Similar rights were' granted to the' prisoners held at Reading jail.

Conditions were not so easy in the internment camps or in the Irish prisons, either before or after the partition of Ireland. Hunger striking may have been the most prevalent form of protest but to achieve specific minor short-term changes other tactics were used such as riots, refusal to work and flooding the formal complaints procedure.

The hunger strike was first used in Ireland by Connolly on his arrest in 1913. Both he and the pacifist Sheffington were released, Although the British government had some experience of prison hunger strikes from the struggles of the suffragettes, no coherent policy seems to have emerged on how to deal with them, The political crisis was such that one moment a person could be sentenced to death and the next released. This, for instance, was the case with Thomas Ashe who took part in the 1916 rising. Likewise, there were uncertainties over the practice of force-feeding hunger strikers. Ashe himself, on hunger strike in 1917, died as a result of force-feeding, yet two years later the practice was not carried out on MacSwiney, the Mayor of Cork. MacSwiney who was serving a two year sentence, died after a hunger strike lasting 73 days.

During the civil war, hunger striking was used as a mass tactic either to demand unconditional release or political status, Both types of demand were usually granted after the ritual death of one hunger striker. Perhaps the most remarkable campaign was the hunger strike launched by 425 men and women in Mountjoy in August 1923 in which around 8,000 prisoners participated at one stage. The aim was 'unconditional release in the defence of the Irish citizens' right to set up their own government and their own courts without voluntary allegiance to any power or authority hostile or inimical to the Republic of Ireland.'


In one of the lectures first delivered to his only cell mate Joe (a pet blackbird), Michael Davitt. one of the leaders of the Land League, listed no less than 49 'coercion Acts' passed between 1830 and 1882 which were used by the British to maintain control of Ireland, Davitt summed up the Castle system by saying,
its judges are mistrusted, its juries generally believed to be packed, its police hated, its authority defied and the name and power of the British government......held in undisguised detestation by four-fifths of our population........While the imprisoned popular leaders are loved and their names cheered by the people, their Castle jailers are hated, and the mention of their names groaned at every public gathering
The' Irish prisons of the nineteenth century were the bastilles of the Castle system. The disciplines and the surveillance they brought to bear on a hostile people were seen first and foremost as products of an alien power. Ultimately such prisons were not simply the tools of a colonial power, but expressions of the search for a new type of authority and control which was in progress throughout Europe and America. In Ignatieff's words, the penitentiary was 'a response, not merely to crime, but to the whole social crisis of a period ... part of a larger strategy of political, social and legal reform designed to re-establish order on a new foundation.' Initially, this new order seemed inimical to the dominant mode of production and the form of class relations in Ireland. In many areas, the Protestant ascendancy preferred the suspension of civil rights and the open authority of the militia to the closed discipline of the penitentiary. But it was no accident that the industrial north-east was the first to sponsor a large purpose-built monument to the separate system.

Clearly, history provides many parallels as well as contrasts with the prison situation today, but the debate between those trying to rehabilitate the prisoner to the status of free wage labour and those more concerned with punishment, deterrence and control - the tender and tough faces of British rule in Ireland - has been largely resolved. Nowadays, every issue of prison policy and administration seems to revolve around the question of 'security'. We hope to explore this theme in a subsequent article.

(An extended version of this article appeared in Hillyard, P. and Squires, P. (ed) Securing the State: the politics of internal security in Europe, Working Papers in European criminology No.3, Bristol 1982.)

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