From time to time in the course of these articles I have had occasion to refer to that terrible “silent system” which prevailed in the English convict prisons; these references were more or less casual.
A further word of detailed explanation concerning this system and its effects upon the prisoner, where the imprisonment is for a long term of years, may prove interesting.
The system, as it was applied in Chatham and Portland Prisons, might be said to depend upon the rigid enforcement of one of the prison rules, which read – “Under no circumstances must prisoners be allowed to speak to each other,” to which should have been added, “or converse with anyone else,” and we would then have the essence of the silent system. For be it remembered that not only must the prisoner hold no inter- course with his fellow-convicts, but it would be a punishable offence to attempt to talk to any of the prison warders, the discipline being such that the prisoner attempting to engage a warder in conversation would be almost certain to be hailed up under report and punished.
As a matter of fact, should the warder fail to report the prisoner for such a violation of prison discipline, and one of the numerous supervising officials come to know of it, that warder himself would be reported and punished. So strictly enforced is this rule in its application to the attitude of the prisoner to the warder that before a prisoner can speak to an officer, even about the ordinary work at which he would be employed, he must hold up his hand to first get permission to open his mouth. Should he feel ill and wish to make application to see a doctor he must hold up his hand and get permission to make the report. Should he want to go to the closet, again his hand has to go up to get permission to ask, and, of course, permission to go; and so on all through the day – the mouth, as it were, locked all the time and only opened by official permission.
Then, as far as the warder’s attitude towards the prisoner is concerned, he must speak to him in terms of command, never in conversational style. For instance, if I were in my cell and required to be brought before the Governor for any purpose, the officer, after unlocking my gate and cell door, wouldn’t notify me in any such fashion as “Come along, Wilson, the Governor wants to see you.” No. Instead he would bawl out, “Wilson, attention!” “Quick march.” Then as soon as I’d get outside the door he would order, “Right turn” or “Left turn,” as the occasion required, and off I would march until such time as the Governor’s room door was reached. He would then give the order to “Mark time,” and I would have to keep at that until the door was opened and the word given to “Forward.” Into the room I’d go marching, and when far enough would be stopped by the command, “Halt.” When the Governor would have finished with me they would bring me back after the same manner, marching and counter-marching, marking time and all the rest of it, with as much fuss and noise of military command as if I were a whole regiment of soldiers.
My purpose in dealing with the silent system now is to show that no matter who the man may be – educated or illiterate – no matter how hopeful his disposition or physically fit he be – no matter what strength of will power he may possess or what determination of character may be his to “see things through” in man’s fashion, it will avail him nothing – he will inevitably be driven insane if only kept long enough under that silent system. It will gradually wear him down and shatter his nervous system and destroy the normal tranquillity of his mind to such an extent that a point will be reached when the mind becomes thoroughly exhausted and left in a state of frenzied unsettlement, having nothing to feed upon except such gloomy thoughts as will be dictated to him, by, his wretched environment. The end – insanity – for that poor mortal is then near at hand.
That end comes sooner for some than for others, temperament being an important factor; but speaking generally – all things else being equal – an educated man will be better able to hold out against the system than an illiterate man. In other words, the person who goes into prison with a mind well stocked with healthy ideas will take longer to break down than the person ill-educated, or who carries in with him comparatively few ideas. While the man with a well-stored mind stands a better chance when “up against” the silent system, yet no matter how well he may be equipped in this respect the system will win against him in the end.
In the early years of the imprisonment he may be safe enough whilst his memory furnishes him with subject after subject to give the mind pleasurable occupation as he turns them over. In this way thoughts and ideas one after the other are turned over and examined until finally the whole stock has been under review. Commencing again, idea after idea is examined afresh, but with far less interest than the first time, if no new view-point can be found when dealing with a particular idea. On and on this goes until the end of the stock is reached again. Starting again, it is found that some of the ideas and memories have no further interest; the mind is sick of them; they have been turned over so much that they are too stale to arouse any further interest. Such as remain and still retain interest are once more reviewed and turned over.
Finally there comes a time when by this process of elimination there remains not a single idea of the original stock that has not been quite “played out” and has now become hateful. The silent system then wins, for the mind, though more or less enfeebled by this time, must occupy itself with something, and the dreary wretchedness and misery of the convict prison that have been kept at arm’s length during the struggle now get their innings, while the spectre of insanity hovers close by waiting to take charge and complete the work of the silent system.
What I have described may be considered the negative factors that go towards producing insanity. The positive factors are the incessant harassing, the starvation punishment, and other punishments.
When tracing the effects of the silent system I took no notice of the library books supplied to prisoners. They certainly counted for something in giving occupation to the mind, and a good book counted for much in this direction. But the good book was a rarity, while many of the books supplied to me were a downright irritation – trashy books of fiction, stories of servant girls in love, stories of adventure for boys, stories for babies of the “Ba, Ba, Black Sheep, have you any wool?” kind, and so on, were the class of books they generally threw into our cells. Very few of them contained anything to supply healthy ideas that would be calculated to give occupation to a jaded mind.
It has been told in the course of these articles how some of the Irish political prisoners, recognising that the specially devised brutal treatment of us, together with this silent system, must either kill us off or lead to insanity, decided, after comparing notes with each other, to set ourselves at work to devise ways and means of counteracting the effects of such treatment and thus try and save our reason. Still, in spite of all these efforts on our part, as far as I am personally concerned, the increasing tension on my nerves for some time previous to my release was such that I felt certain, and still feel certain, that another couple of years of such treatment and I, too, like so many of my fellow-prisoners, would have been driven mad. But it was not to be. Instead, here I am, with prison life a mere memory many years old, jotting down some fragments of the history of that experience. As I write the season reminds me of many Christmas times spent in prison and out of prison with loyal old comrades. James Egan and John Daly they are in my thoughts. Egan has gone from us, and lies in Glasnevin. Sturdy Jim – loyal to Ireland and ever true to his principles. And Daly – our own Daly – maybe we’ll spend this Christmas as we spent last, and as we clasp hands pledge “Our land alone and friends who owe allegiance to her alone.”