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“I felt a kind of pleasure in seeing them treat us brutally.” The Emergence of the Political Prisoner, 1865–1910

  • Padraic Kenney (a1)

The political prisoner is a figure taken for granted in historical discourse, with the term being used broadly to describe any individual held in captivity for oppositional activities. This article argues for understanding the political prisoner, for whom prison becomes a vehicle of politics, as the product of modern states and political movements. The earlier practices of the “imprisoned political,” for whom prison was primarily an obstacle to politics, gave way to prisoners who used the category creatively against the regimes that imprisoned them. Using the cases of Polish socialists in the Russian Empire, Fenians in Ireland, suffragettes in Britain, and satyagrahi in British South Africa, this article explains how both regimes and their prisoners developed common practices and discourses around political incarceration in the years 1865–1910.

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1 On Patronat and Sempołowska, see Zbyszewska, Zofia, Ministerstwo polskiej biedy. Z dziejów Towarzystwa Opieki nad Więźniami ‘Patronat’ w Warszawie 1909–1944 (Warsaw: PiW, 1983); Mortkowicz-Olczakowa, Hanna, Panna Stefania. Dzieje życia i pracy Stefanii Sempołowskiej (Warsaw: Nasza Księgarnia, 1961).

2 Sempołowska, Stefania, Z dna nędzy (Warsaw: K. Kowalewski, 1909), 3536. Sempołowska offered one dubious justification: that she and her comrades, socialists though they were, believed that the other women could live with prison conditions that politicals could not tolerate.

3 See for example Neier, Aryeh, “Confining Dissent: The Political Prison,” in Morris, Norval and Rothman, David J., eds., The Oxford History of the Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 350–80; Laffin, John, The Anatomy of Captivity (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1968).

4 I use here Erving Goffman's terminology, which underlies Michel Foucault's later concept of “the complete and austere institution.” See Goffman, Erving, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and other Inmates (Chicago: Aldine, 1961), ch. 1.

5 For expansive definitions, see Neier, “Confining Dissent”; and Laffin, Anatomy of Captivity.

6 Key works not cited elsewhere in this article include Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Buntman, Fran Lisa, Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Singh, Ujjwal Kumar, Political Prisoners in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998); Vigier, Philippe, ed., Repression et prison politiques en France et en Europe au XIXe siècle (Paris: Créaphis, 1990); Voglis, Polymeris, Becoming a Subject: Political Prisoners during the Greek Civil War (New York: Berghahn Books, 2003); Wachsmann, Nikolaus, Hitler's Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). A valuable overview is Gibson, Mary, “Global Perspectives on the Birth of the Prison,” American Historical Review 116, 4 (Oct. 2011): 1040–63.

7 Harlow, Barbara, Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1992); Davies, Ioan, Writers in Prison (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990); and Gready, Paul, Writing as Resistance: Life Stories of Imprisonment, Exile, and Homecoming from Apartheid South Africa (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2003).

8 See Sir Radzinowicz, Leon and Hood, Roger, “The Status of Political Prisoner in England: The Struggle for Recognition,” Virginia Law Review 65, 8 (Dec. 1979): 1421–81; Sigerson, George, Political Prisoners at Home and Abroad (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1890).

9 Ingraham, Barton L., Political Crime in Europe: A Comparative Study of France, Germany, and England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), esp. 160–65. As Edmund Dwyer Gray notes, this was in Britain a matter of custom rather than law. Prisoners were granted privileges and allowed regimens deemed commensurate with their moral stature, which derived both from their class and from the considered nature of their infractions. See The Treatment of Political Prisoners in Ireland (Dublin: The Freeman's Journal, 1889), esp. p. 7.

10 Hunt, Henry, A Peep into a Prison, or, The Inside of Ilchester Bastile (London: printed and published by T. Dolby, 1821).

11 Ignatieff, Michael, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850 (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 159. Use of the terms “political” and “criminal” inevitably introduces confusion that cannot be avoided. Cobbett's polemic reminds us that the category of “criminal” is itself an uncertain one, encompassing offenders who are merely indigent, those who have committed violent crimes, and some whose crimes might perhaps be labeled “political.” On Cobbett, see also Gray, Treatment of Political Prisoners, 5.

12 On the modern prison, see Morris, Norval and Rothman, David J., eds., The Oxford History of the Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Ignatieff, A Just Measure; O'Brien, Patricia, The Promise of Punishment: Prisons in Nineteenth-Century France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

13 See Rudé, George, Protest and Punishment: The Story of the Social and Political Protesters Transported to Australia, 1788–1868 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978).

14 Gerber, Rafał, “Wstęp,” in Łukasiński, Walerian, ed., Pamiętniki (Warsaw: PIW, 1986). Though composed in prison toward the end of his life, the “memoirs” are really essays on politics that reveal mainly just how greatly four decades in prison had isolated Łukasiński.

15 Key works on transportation and exile include Anderson, Clare, Convicts in the Indian Ocean: Transportation from South Asia to Mauritius, 1815–53 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000); Bullard, Alice, Exile to Paradise: Savagery and Civilization in Paris and the South Pacific, 1790–1900 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000); Kennan, George, Siberia and the Exile System (New York: The Century Co., 1891); Toth, Stephen A., Beyond Papillon: The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1854–1952 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006). Deportation was even considered in Wilhelmine Germany: Rosenblum, Warren, Beyond the Prison Gates: Punishment and Welfare in Germany, 1850–1933 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

16 McGowen, Randall, “The Well-Ordered Prison: England, 1780–1865,” in Morris, Norval and Rothman, David J., eds., The Oxford History of the Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 7199.

17 Adams, Bruce F., The Politics of Punishment: Prison Reform in Russia, 1863–1917 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996), 9.

18 The institution of prison itself only becomes standardized across the world from the early twentieth century, as studies of non-Western prisons show. See for example Zinoman, Peter, The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Bernault, Florence, ed., A History of Prison and Confinement in Africa, Roitman, Janet, trans. (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003); Dikötter, Frank and Brown, Ian, eds., Cultures of Confinement: A History of the Prison in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2007).

19 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Sheridan, Alan, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1995), 135. On debates concerning the purpose of prison see, for example, Gibson, “Global Perspectives on the Birth of the Prison,” 1046; Adams, Politics of Punishment, 3–11; and O'Brien, Promise of Punishment, esp. ch. 1.

20 See, for example, Ingraham, Political Crime; and Blasius, Dirk, Geschichte der politischen Kriminalität in Deutschland 1800–1980 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983).

21 Rejali, Darius, Torture and Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

22 Vimont, Jean-Claude, La Prison Politique en France: Genése d'un mode d'incarcération spécifique XVIIIe–XXe siècles (Paris: Anthropos, 1993), 444, 452–54; Gray, Treatment of Political Prisoners, 24.

23 Andrzej Budzyński, “‘Pawiak’ jako więzienie polityczne w latach 1880–1915,” PhD diss., Warsaw University, 1987, 112–18. On the justice system in the Kingdom of Poland (the formal name for the Polish part of the Russian Empire), see Kaczyńska, Elżbieta, Ludzie ukarani. Więzienia i system kar w Królestwie Polskim 1815–1914 (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawn. Naukowe, 1989), 42105.

24 Ingraham, Political Crime, 318.

25 On the Russian reforms, see Daly, Jonathan W., Autocracy under Siege: Security Police and Opposition in Russia, 1866–1905 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998), ch. 1.

26 See Tilly, Charles and Wood, Lesley J., Social Movements, 1768–2008 (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2009), ch. 3; Nord, Philip, “Introduction,” in Bermeo, Nancy and Nord, Philip, eds., Civil Society before Democracy: Lessons from Nineteenth-Century Europe (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), xiiixxxiii; Hroch, Miroslav, Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe: A Comparative Analysis of the Social Composition of Patriotic Groups among the Smaller European Nations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

27 Such movements built upon the traditions of their eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century forebears. However, the addition of structured parties with clearly articulated ideologies amounted to a qualitative change.

28 McConville, Seán, Irish Political Prisoners, 1848–1922: Theatres of War (London: Routledge, 2003), 4. See also Ingraham, Political Crime.

29 Kirchheimer, Otto, Political Justice: The Use of Legal Procedure for Political Ends (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 241.

30 Ibid., 34, n. 24; Sternhell, Zeev, “Paul Déroulède and the Origins of Modern French Nationalism,” Journal of Contemporary History 6, 4 (1971): 4670, here 67.

31 Jenkins, Brian, Insurgency and Terrorism in a Liberal State, 1858–1874 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008), 4042.

32 McConville, Irish Political Prisoners, 123–24, 146–47.

33 The Fenians' predecessor, the Young Ireland movement, followed the older tradition of imprisoned politicals, as can be seen in the Jail Journal written by a Young Irelander, John Mitchel, who was sent to Bermuda. See Causer, Tim, “‘On British Felony the Sun Never Sets’: Narratives of Political Prisoners in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, 1838–53,” Cultural and Social History 5, 4 (2008): 423–35.

34 McConville, Irish Political Prisoners, 153.

35 Jenkins, Insurgency and Terrorism, ch. 6.

36 McConville, Irish Political Prisoners, 140.

38 Quoted in ibid., 173, n. 146.

39 Rossa, Jeremiah O'Donovan, My Years in English Jails, Cearnaigh, Seán Ua, ed. (Tralee: Anvil Books, 1967), 101.

40 Ibid., 105.

41 Ibid., 106.

42 Ibid., 111.

43 McConville, Irish Political Prisoners, 173.

44 Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the Treatment of Treason-Felony Convicts in English Prisons, Parliamentary Papers C.319, 1871.

45 For an account of the relatively limited effects of the Devon Commission's Report, see Radzinowicz and Hood, “The Status of Political Prisoner in England,” 1450–57.

46 While I have no room to address clothing disputes or debates about labor in this article, I deal with them more fully in the book manuscript from which this article is drawn. As one of the reviewers of this article aptly noted, labor disputes like O'Donovan Rossa's downing of tools can and did occur among criminal convicts as easily as among politicals.

47 McConville, Irish Political Prisoners, 193–94.

48 Naimark, Norman M., The History of the “Proletariat”: The Emergence of Marxism in the Kingdom of Poland, 1870–1887 (Boulder: East European Quarterly, 1979), 107.

49 On the imprisonment of the narodniki and their international impact as prisoners, see Grant, Kevin, “British Suffragettes and the Russian Method of Hunger Strike,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 53, 1 (2011): 113–43.

50 Full text in Wojnar, Kasper, Wspomnień z Cytadeli i z innych więzień moskiewskich (Kraków: Księgarnia Ludowa K. Wojnara, 1904), 4243. Waryński's speech from the dock in December 1885 is one of the sacred texts of Polish socialism. He died of tuberculosis in Schlisselburg fortress in 1889. The Kara Mines, near Lake Baikal in Siberia, were one of the destinations for deported Poles.

51 Naimark, History of the “Proletariat,” 176. On the Russian penal system generally, see Mironov, Boris N., The Social History of Imperial Russia, 1700–1917, vol. 2 (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), 247–64, esp. 261–64.

52 Kon, Feliks, “Ze wspomnień,” in Kozłowski, Aleksander and Mościcki, Henryk J., eds., Pamiętnik X Pawilonu (Warsaw: Wyd. Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej, 1958), 167–69.

53 Feliks Kon, “Ze wspomnień,” 152.

54 Kirkor-Kiedroniowa, Zofia [Grabska], Wspomnienia (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1986), 108.

55 An interesting exception is prisoners during the Irish Land War, especially William O'Brien, whose tactics echoed those of O'Donovan Rossa. Warwick-Haller, Sally, William O'Brien and the Irish Land War (Blackrock: Irish Academic Press, 1990), 5760, 98–100.

56 This contestation can be seen most powerfully during the era of the so-called “Cat and Mouse Act” (Prisoners [Temporary Discharge for Ill Health] Act 1913), which allowed the government to release suffragette hunger strikers from prison, then to re-intern them once they recovered their health.

57 van Wingerden, Sophia A., The Women's Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1866–1928 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), 87.

58 For an analysis of the suffragettes in prison, see Purvis, June, “The Prison Experiences of the Suffragettes in Edwardian Britain,” Women's History Review 4, 1 (1995): 103–33; and Grant, “British Suffragettes.”

59 Crawford, Elizabeth, “Police, Prisons and Prisoners: The View from the Home Office,” Women's History Review 14, 3–4 (2005): 487505, here 500–1.

60 On Gandhi and the suffragettes, see Grant, “British Suffragettes,” 142.

61 Speech at Hamidiya Islamic Society,” doc. 308 in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi [hereafter CWMG], vol. 5 (Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1958–84), 332.

62 “Johannesburg Letter,” Indian Opinion, 22 Sept. 1906, doc. 324 in CWMG, vol. 5, 359–60.

63 “Deeds Better than Words,” Indian Opinion, 24 Nov. 1906, doc. 383 in CWMG, vol. 5, 431–32; “The Duty of Transvaal Indians,” Indian Opinion, 6 Oct. 1906, doc. 344 in CWMG, vol. 5, 384.

64 Gandhi did think a little about the practicalities, addressing common concerns in essays in Indian Opinion. See, for example, “Johannesburg Letter,” Indian Opinion, 20 July 1907, doc. 48 in CWMG, vol. 7, 68, in which he discusses whether newspapers will be available in prison. In other articles he discussed the mechanics of protest but stopped at the prison gate. See, for example, “Some Questions,” Indian Opinion, 20 Oct. 1906, doc. 353 in CWMG, vol. 5, 396–98; and “Johannesburg Letter,” Indian Opinion, 27 Apr. 1907, doc. 355 in CWMG, vol. 6, 406–11. On the campaign in general, see Swan, Maureen, Gandhi: The South African Experience (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1985), 126–52.

65 “Johannesburg Letter,” Indian Opinion, 5 Oct. 1907, doc. 197 in CWMG, vol. 7, 240.

66 Swan, Gandhi, 142.

67 “My Experience in Gaol, III,” Indian Opinion, 21 Mar. 1908, doc. 108 in CWMG, vol. 8, 217–19 (quote on 219). Gandhi saw the fear of hardship as a national shortcoming, concluding, “Nations which have progressed are those which have given in on inessential matters” (p. 220). On the development of satyagraha, see Power, Paul F., “Gandhi in South Africa,” Journal of Modern African Studies, 7, 3 (1969): 441–55, here 452; and Gandhi, Mohandas K., Satyagraha in South Africa (Stanford: Academic Reprints, 1954).

68 “My Second Experience in Gaol, III,” Indian Opinion, 16 Jan. 1909, doc. 155 in CWMG, vol. 9, 253.

69 See Earl of Crewe, memo to Lord Selborne, 24 Apr. 1909, NASA GOV 1193 15/1/58/09.

70 H.S.L. Polak, letter to D. Pollock, 27 Mar. 1909, NASA GOV 1193, 15/1/42/09; Transvaal Prime Minister Louis Botha, minute 223, 21 May 1909, NASA GOV 1193, 15/1/61/09; Gandhi, “My Third Experience in Gaol, II,” Indian Opinion, 5 June 1909, doc. 215 in CWMG, vol. 9, 356.

71 See, for example, “Memorandum on Indians in Prison,” n.d., NASA GEV 4/141; and Sir M. M. Bhownaggree, letter to Undersecretary of State Lord Crewe, 31 Dec. 1909, NASA GOV 1234, 15/1/7/10.

72 A. M. Cachalia, chair of Transvaal British Indian Association, letter to Governor's Office, n.d. (ca. late Dec. 1908), NASA GOV 1192, 15/1/6/09. Gandhi himself suggested as much, according to H.S.L. Polak; see his letter to D. Pollock, 27 Mar. 1909, NASA GOV 1193, 15/1/42/09.

73 D. O. Malcolm (for Lord Selborne) to D. Pollock (responding to the letter by H.S.L. Polak [see note 70]), 27 Mar. 1909, NASA GOV 1193 15/1/42/09.

74 Office of the Prime Minister, minute 123 to Office of the Governor-General, 29 June 1910, NASA GG 886 15/13.

75 Gladstone, letter to General Botha, 3 Oct. 1910, NASA GG 887, 15/51, 2, 7.

76 Forsythe, W. J., Penal Discipline, Reformatory Projects and the English Prison Commission 1895–1939 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1990), 108; Radzinowicz and Hood, 1471–72.

77 In October 1913, the Rand Daily Mail reported “eleven ladies—six with babies in arms” who courted arrest by selling wares without a license had been sentenced to three months' hard labor and “received their sentences smilingly.” Clipping in files of the Governor-General, NASA GG 897 15/496. On Gandhi's changing tactics as the struggle continued and the Indian community became generally less eager to go to prison, see documents in NASA GG 897 15/480; and Swan, Gandhi, 226–54.

78 See Wells, Julia C., We Now Demand! The History of Women's Resistance to Pass Laws in South Africa (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1993).

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