BOOKS OF THE DAY
Spirits in Prison
HERE is a book sensibly but most interestingly written by a man who did three years in various Irish prisons. He tells us a lot of his experiences and his thoughts in each of them, wise thoughts mostly, and bitter ones. He is obviously an educated man, and apparently a cultured one, too, who, giving free scope to a taste for gambling, took money, not his own. to make assurance double sure, and then, voluntarily, faced the consequences of his foolish act. Anyone who pinches others' money to back a woman or horses doesn't deserve sympathy ; but the conditions that make this foolish- ness easy, and the stupid ritual of correction afterwards, are things
• to be deplored, and things to be altered, so that life, foolish and sensible, may be encouraged to become more rational and produc- tive. We needn't waste time commenting on the way old friends avoided the criminal when they saw him in convict garb ; that was natural, and few of us know how to talk to a convict when we meet one. I myself, writing to a " convict " in Dartmoor when I received a request for a book, found it damned hard to think of what to say, confronted with the galaxy of rules printed on the first page of his letter. But, to me, the most shocking thing about this prison busi- ness is that the system says that once a man makes a sufficient fool of himself to get penal servitude, he can never know the sense or dignity of life again. The comment of the sentencing judge in this case, " when you, a middle-aged man, are eventually released you will be unemployed and unemployable," is an appalling indictment of a Christianity of a thousand years' standing.
In the book there are flashes of penal history, such as an account of how the treadmill—tha: horrid and stupid instrument of torture —came to be honoured as a crime deterrent ; how Elizabeth Fry, the iron-souled saint, made prisons better by making them worse.
The living conditions in the Irish jails seem to be satisfactory ; much better than thousands of hard-working men and women enjoy ; the cleanliness of a jail is unknown to them ; and if a labourer happens to have a taste for literature, it is clear from the list of books given by the author that the honest worker is by no means as happi!y placed as the prisoner. One may be told that there are public libraries for the freeman. There are, but the best books, the ones such a man would be likely to seek, are almost certain to be in the hands of others with far more leisure to choose. That was my own experience, and I can remember but once getting the book I wanted. Of course, the loss of freedom is the hardest thing about the prison system, and the useless way in which the weary time is passed. Although the severe cruelty is gone, there are still, as Mr. O'Faolain points out in his preface, some hardships that should be removed without delay. And one, which Mr. O'Faolain forgot. shouldn't be allowed to remain for a moment : that of fixing in wire cages the prisoners about to receive a visit, and the friends who come to make them. It is simply savage and ridiculous that a mother should talk to a son, or a husband with a wife, behind a weft of wire ; and that so many meet at the one time that a shouting necessary if one is to hear the other.
The weakness of the book, it seems to me, is that the writer makes it mostly a personal tragedy. He tells, near the end of the
book, how hard it is to find a job. " I have good friends : a
Reverend Professor of Dogmatic and Moral Theology in Maynooth : a Methodist chartered accountant • kings and commoners of th:.
Irish literary world ; a doctor in die country , a merchant here, a commercial traveller there ; many, many friends all vainly trying to place me." Too many friends, maybe ; better be a turf-cutter in a bad bog than to depend on a friend for a job. But what about the ex-convicts who have none? The real important point, to me, is a reformation in that which leads a man, or a woman, to the jail a' prisoner or convict. Take the vice of gambling, for instance— how can a law condemn a man for excessive indulgence in this vice when it encourages him to practise it in every second street? There are gambling saloons, approved by law, dotted over the city 'of Dublin. And the war-trumpet of the Fenians has become the Irish Sweep Drum of the Nation. It is the young delinquents who become the incorrigibles, the old lags. And how are they treated? We have the fact of Dartmoor here, unfit for convicts, about to be used for boys. During my time in Ireland, Glencree and Artane Reforma- tories had a bad name. Yesterday I read of a young blind boy in an institution, boxed in the face the night he died alone in bed from pneumonia, Witnesses said the attendant and brother Peter were rough with him ; and the attendant, in evidence, said he had authority from the Prior to chastise the boys when he thought they needed it. Not long ago, a Catholic Chancellor in a northern shire said that what young delinquents needed was severe corporal punish- ment, and if he was given the power he'd end delinquency in three months. And the delinquents, too, I dare say.
Though the author of this book seems to narrow life into a circle round himself, in jail or out of it, the book is well worth reading. We have known our homes, have roamed through many pleasures and some palaces, so it may do us good to saunter around a few jails. This book gives us a safe and interesting way of doing it.