In the course of these articles I have referred at length to the brutal severity of the prison treatment of the Irish political prisoners, but in this connection, up to the present, I have only dealt with what might be termed the crude brutality of our jailers – such as the long spells of starvation punishment, the no sleep torture, the perpetual harassing, etc. But besides punishment of this class there was another and more refined kind that seemed inspired by a spirit of devilry and aimed at galling the finer feelings of a man’s nature and was calculated to blur and deaden the moral sense. As an instance of this class I will mention the “Special Search,” which occurred frequently – about twice a month through all the years. On these occasions we would be stripped stark naked and subjected to the most minute examination of our person – so minute that oftentimes the bull’s eye lamp was used.
Had this search stopped short at a minute examination of the hands and between the fingers, of the soles of the feet and between the toes, of the mouth and inside the jaws and under the tongue, it would be disagreeable enough; but it went further, and to such a disgustingly indecent extent that I must not here do more than imply the nature of it. This search would sometimes be carried out to the officers’ accompaniment of a running fire of comments in keeping with the nature of the work they were engaged in.
Besides this search we were subject to the ordinary “rub down” search at least four times a day. In this the prisoner merely unbuttoned all his clothing without removing it, and the officer carefully felt him all over. I have been obliged to complain to the prison authorities of the indecent and hurtful way some of the officers mauled me while subjecting me to this search. That complaint will be found entered up in the official “Complaint Sheet” with my other records. When the English Government, in 1848, decided to degrade the Irish political prisoner to the level of the ordinary criminal and passed the Treason Felony Act, they did not tell the world it would be part and parcel of the game to try and debase his mind and sap his self-respect. Nevertheless, such undoubtedly seemed to be the spirit and design of the authorities in their attitude towards the political prisoners during my time.
I have before me at the present moment the official document handed to me by the Governor of Pentonville Prison the morning I was released. It is a “Licence to be at Large” and is dated from “Whitehall, 21st day of September, 1898,” and goes on to state that “Her Majesty is graciously pleased to grant to Henry Hammond Wilson, alias Thomas James Clarke, who was convicted of Treason Felony… her Royal Licence to be at large…” “This Licence is given subject to the conditions endorsed upon the same…”
This is the endorsement referred to: –
“This Licence will be forfeited if the holder does not observe the following conditions.”
Then follow four conditions, No. 3 of which is as follows: –
“He shall not habitually associate with notoriously bad characters, such as reputed thieves and prostitutes.”
This document is signed, “M. W. Ridley” That is, by the Home Secretary of the day, Sir Matthew White Ridley.
Lying before me is another document a letter written by myself in Portland Prison – when I had been nearly fifteen years in prison. The letter was addressed to my brother and was sent out to him. He gave it back to me after I was released. The following extract from it will serve as a standard to measure up Sir Matthew White Ridley and his No. 3 condition and those concerned: –
“I had a letter from Mrs. —, and was a good deal amused with her idea that the life I was living in here was something like that of a Carthusian saint or a ‘Rapt Culdee.’ Bless the woman’s soul! That would never do at all. When a mortal man feels in all its bitterness what it is to have the delicate curves and tender angles of his human nature rubbed up and currycombed against the grain, then is not the time to ‘rub salt in’ from within by interior nig-nag and self-inflicted worry. Why, man alive, had I set to work on those lines, endeavouring to cultivate a lackadaisical tone of mind, my wits would have been gone years and years ago. No. Clinch your teeth hard and never say die.
“Keep your thoughts off yourself all you can.”
“No mooning or brown studies.”
“Guard your self-respect (if you lost that you’d lose the backbone of your manhood).”
“Keep your eyes wide open and don’t bang your head against the wall.”
“These and a few others, which the deferential regard my prison pen has for The Rules prevent me from mentioning here, are ‘The Golden Rules of Life for a Long Sentence Prisoner, ‘ that might be found hung up in my cell had I any say in the furnishing of it.”
In magazines, etc., one oftentimes comes across articles dealing with England’s prison system. In these it will be noted that the keynote of the system is “humanity” – developing the better nature of the erring brother and all that.
I never found the slightest trace of any such spirit inside the walls; on the contrary, when I let my memory go back to those times, and turn where it will either in Chatham or Portland, I can only find brutal persecution, and this spirit found its way into every little detail of the daily routine. For years we political prisoners were not allowed slates – all other prisoners were supplied.
For a long while I never got any but girls’ and boys’ trashy story books, when I was due for a library book. When I complained to the Governor about the matter, and asked to be given some kind of books that would be adapted to my educational rating, he ordered the escort to take me away, and next time I became due for a library book they gave me a volume of nursery rhymes – “Ba, Ba, Black Sheep, have you any Wool,” “Little Bo Peep Fell Fast Asleep,” etc. – infantile rhymes of that class and nothing else.
Some time later on, they gave me an extraordinary book. I forget the title of it, but it was one of the fiercest anti-Popery books I ever read, although I had read through some hot stuff of that kind up in Ulster, where I was raised.
The next time I became entitled to write enabled me to put my complaint on record. I told of the trashy books I had been getting, of my complaint to the Governor, of the nursery rhymes result, and the virulent anti-Popery book given me – a Catholic – that was specially marked for “Protestants only,” My letter was, of course, suppressed.