Jules Vallès

Mazas Prison

Written: 15 June 1867;
Source: Les Enfants du people. Paris, la Lanterne, 1879;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2010.

We'll speak of the prison and not of the prisoner; not of the guilty, but of the torture.

I know Mazas prison

Many years ago we were arrested, a few friends and I It was no one’s fault. A poor boy had denounced us as accomplices in I don’t know what conspiracy and we were taken to prison. Once the information was taken the investigating judge recognized that our accuser was nothing but a madman. Since college, where we had been his friends and where sometimes ten of us had to hold him down during his attacks, he was subject to fits of epilepsy and delirium. We were released. But we had spent several weeks in Mazas, and recently having heard talk of prisons and prisoners I recalled a few of the sensations I felt in the cell and between the walls of the promenade.

The days seemed long.

At 6:00 a.m. the bell rang waking us from our dreams. We always dreamed we were free but we woke up and found ourselves between four white plaster walls.

We had no time to waste on lamentations; we had to take down our hammocks and make the bed.

The damn bed! I had no idea what to do. I never folded the sheets the way Salomon (the guard on the third floor) wanted them to be folded and I never rolled up the hammock tightly enough. My housekeeping earned me the most humiliating reproaches and sometimes the harshest thumpings.

I did pretty well at sweeping.

This was the most pleasant moment of the day. We heard the footsteps of the auxiliaries, the shouts of the guards, and the click-clack of the keys opening and closing the gates. In this silence anything was an event. When someone approached my cell I was moved in the way we are when we're expecting a visit, and I threw myself on the spittoon the way you throw yourself into the arms of a friend.

In this spittoon, a small bowl of brown clay, was wine, and on top of that a small slice of white bread: political prisoners have the right to bread and wine.

I drank the wine with delight. I dipped my bread in it and made sticks of it. The time passed. I wiped my lips, shook off the crumbs and swept up.

Then I put on my pomade. I have never been as well combed and groomed as I was at the time. I sought out difficulties, ever unhappy with my part, never satisfied with my collar. I had to kill time until 9:00.

I remember well that at that hour we had a goal: put our mess kits on the counter and wait for it to return full of soup.

We had lunch as soon as it reappeared. After lunch we had to wait until 3:00 for a new though already known emotion, that of the mess kit replaced on the counter and passed through the window.

What to do?

Read? That’s fine for a fortnight, three weeks, a month; then you get tired of it. We can’t even write.

Cite me one detainee who gave birth to a literary work in his cell. You can no longer speak of nature or man when you are far from the one or the other.

The brain continues to work but is no longer fertile. One becomes a mule in captivity.

In the void the brain sags and becomes confused. Boredom arrives, a boredom more horrible than pain; a boredom into which you sink like a drowning man into the sludge, swallowing and the vomiting up the thick and tasteless mud.

You read, but only to keep your eyes occupied. You write, but just to keep your hand busy.

Happy are those who are hopeless. Despair sustains you, but despair itself can’t resist and ends in madness if it doesn’t change into animal resignation from which thought retires in the same way that a dog goes to lay down and snore in the corner.

The dungeons of the Middle Ages, dark, filled with cold water, and full of rats was less horrible. At least it was possible to escape. It was possible to see clearly in the shadows, and it was possible to dig under the stones, to attempt to flee.

Who could even imagine this in Mazas? Through a whole as thick as a pinky every fifteen minutes they could see what the prisoner was doing in his cell, if he’s sleeping, if he’s drinking, if he’s laughing, if he’s crying, and this invisible and silent surveillance is not one of the least tortures, one that never leaves you, never leaves you alone, and attaches your caprices and tantrums to regulations by a thread.

One becomes a child and acts like one in order to kill time, to murder boredom in that loge.

Who has not counted and recounted, losing track of the number, the bricks in a square? Ask the most serious if they haven’t hopped on one leg to distract themselves.

I invented a game with pits. I cheated myself, beat myself and when I was sick of cheating and beating myself I passed the pits through the eye of the rod used to open and close my window. Nice work, isn’t it, and profitable to humanity?

It’s true we went to the promenade. Horrible promenade that caused me great fright.

It was the first day. I suddenly hear what sounded like lanyards and the guards shouting, “Faster Gaston! The small door!”

Listening, I guessed that they were making a prisoner run between the guards, who struck him in punishment. I swore that they would kill me before they would make me trot like a coward in that way. I had stupidly taken for the sound of whips the sound of steps. My cell was at the end of the gallery and the prisoners stumbled while going down the steps. The guards asked them to hurry up: “Hey, Gaston, faster!”

This familiarity is already humiliating, and I suffered every time at being forced to run at a sign or under the eye of M. Pezé, our brigadier, like a horse who struts and makes his groom look good.

If at least in this promenade, while imposing silence they allowed the prisoners to see each other, nothing but see each other.

But no, we never saw anything but the guard going back and forth in the wooden tower, and the guard below who passed, running his keys against the bars.

Sometimes, when I was in 21, I found myself before a fountain whose water I heard flowing; around it were a few blue and red flowers, and a breeze bent the blades of grass...

At another corner I saw, lost in the clouds, a belvedere where there was a man in a tunic, a woman with her hair down. They held each other’s hands and embraced.

For two days my heart was full, but it felt so good to cry a bit while thinking of those who always smile at you.

When it rained we sat on a stone on the promenade, or we pressed our faces against the bars of the cage with the gloomy look of mares who stick their heads through the windows of a stable. After an hour we had to run back, close the gate, return a number, and return – still running – to the cell, between the eternal white walls on which the only thing that stood out was the poster with the rules listed, where there was nothing to hold your gaze..

From time to time we had a visit.

It was the inspector who came to ask you how you were doing. We answered, “very well” through pride or contempt. The chaplain also came in, consulted you on the state of your soul. I listened to him for ten minutes the first day and then sent him to see my neighbor, a poor devil in worn out pants, pale and poltroonish, who I had sometimes glimpsed when, heading to the promenade, I pretended to lose my slipper or my pipe. I stopped and had the time to see what was coming up behind me. One day, near the promenade, I said to him, “Hey there, neighbor!” He shook like a leaf.

In the evening he sang, and the refrain of his song reached me like a moan.

On Sundays I frightened him during Mass.

At that moment, when the chaplain of Mazas arrives with the chalice, we hear the keys squeak in the locks, the guards crack open the doors and prop them open a bit. It is through this gap of a few inches that, if we wanted to, we looked at the priest as he officiated. The altar, planted at the end of the galleries that met there in the shape of a fan, one could catch a glimpse of the other detainees in the cells. The others see nothing but they perhaps amuse themselves more. They are free and take full advantage of it.

Every Sunday, from the end of a gallery, at the same moment every time, there could be heard a loud cry, “Hey, Leon!”

The guards took off their shoes and snuck in, trying to figure out the source. They abruptly opened our cells. They never caught the guilty party, whose shout was sometimes answered by the song of a blackbird.

I, a child emboldened by his example and impunity, apostrophized my friend through the opening. I shouted at him, “I laid out some powder. We're going to explode!” I heard him say, “Oh my god, oh my god!”

To be sure, it was a good day.

Once, when we were chanting the “O, Salutaris” I saw a man reaching through the opening in the door across from me. At the end of the hand was a certain Marseillaise that I'd seen a friend get drunk. So he had been arrested like us. I uttered “hum, broom” in a bass tone that showed him I'd seen him. In a second, without seeing each other or saying anything, we had recognized each other.

But the solitude was no less heavy. Almost all of us being held in secret, we only went one or two times to the visiting room. We saw a relative or a friend there for a few minutes through the bars, locked up as if in a wagon of the condemned.

Such is Mazas, where are sent those who were carried away by their enthusiasm and convictions. I would never, ever send there an adversary, or even an enemy.

It is in this paradise that we remain while waiting for the tribunal to call for you. Sometimes people pass six months, ten months, a year.

After only six months the face has already taken on the look of alarm that arranges things so we can immediately tell those who are returning from Mazas.

I am putting no one on trial; this is not the work of governments but of philanthropists. In America they lock up living men for ten years. Ten years, ten centuries!