William Morris. Commonweal. 1888

Pentonville Prison

Source: “Pentonville Prison” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 128, 23 June 1888, p.195;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The following letter is worth reprinting entire as a really cheering sign of the times; and one can scarcely be wrong in thinking that such a letter could hardly have been written to the ordinary press or printed by it but for Bloody Sunday and all that followed it, which has dragged to light the horrors of the English prison system.

Sir, — As foreman of a jury at Clerkenwell Sessions, on being discharged yesterday, after sitting six days, I with my fellow-jurymen (by order obtained of the judge) went over the above prison. We were much horrified and pained to see the brutal system under which torture is hourly inflicted upon many of the poor prisoners. We were told that for a month after entry the prisoners, as we saw them, are kept upon that abominable invention, the treadmill, their time of actual working on it being 5 1/4 hours daily. We were then shown the prisoners’ cells and the dreadful instrument of torture called the plank-bed. From the mill, aching in every limb, the poor prisoner, for a whole month, has to lie all night upon this slightly-raised platform, without a mattress or pillow. This is not punishment — its steps beyond it — it is deliberate torture. As an Englishman, and a ratepayer, I protest most earnestly against its longer continuance. The chapel in which the gospel of love and forgiveness is daily set forth to the prisoners we also visited, but I fail to see how any prisoner aching in all his bones from the plank-bed can obtain belief in such far-off possibilities. The system of silence which also prevails is against human nature, and productive of prison crime. Surely it is high time, if we mean really to be a civilized and Christian nation, to sweep away the treadmill, the silent system, and the plank-bed altogether, and to treat prisoners as human beings entitled to our kindness whilst in durance, instead of driving them into a wearisome melancholy madness. Kindly dip your pen, Sir, into the ink, and say a strong word to our countrymen on this matter, cruel to their fellows, because ignorant of their sufferings. Your insertion of this letter will much oblige my fellow-jurymen and myself. — Yours truly,

John Parnell.

Chichester House, Rockley Road, West Kensington Park, London, W., June 13.

It is surely not too much to hope that the jury and its foreman, who take such a very unconventional view of our prisons, would be likely to take a similar view of what Mr Gladstone calls ‘our admirable police’, as they appear when giving evidence, and those noble specimens of the champions of impartiality and fair dealing, the British judges as they appear in directing a jury what verdict to give.