Political Prisoners, Their Advocates, and Their Health

Dr William Murphy (Dublin City University)

The Political Prisoner

Since the emergence of modern prison systems in Britain and Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century, and despite the consistent resistance of the states and prison authorities, there have been those prisoners who have claimed the label or status ‘political prisoner’. These men and women have included Irish nationalists (from the Fenians in the 1860s to dissident republicans today), Welsh nationalists (most significantly during the 1960s), anarchists, suffragists, trade unionists, and conscientious objectors. In calling themselves ‘politicals’, they have sought to distinguish themselves from other prisoners on the basis that their political motivation in breaking the law made them different. Quite often, they have pointed to their incarceration under special legislation and insisted that the state was politically motivated when it jailed them. Frequently, they alleged that they were treated worse than other prisoners while, almost always, they demanded to be treated better than others. In making their case, they have been much more likely than other prisoners to attract organised support and public interest.

Fenians in Mountjoy Prison

In seeking attention, political prisoners in Ireland and Britain, in conjunction with those organisations, individuals, and organs of the press who have lobbied on their behalf, have repeatedly concentrated on the dangers that incarceration posed to their health. This has involved a direct critique of the conditions in individual prisons or of the health risks inherent in the regimes applied across a prison system. In May 1867, for example, J.A. Blake MP raised the case of alleged Fenians interned without trial at Mountjoy. He used reports leaked by Robert McDonnell, the medical officer at the prison, to claim that the men were ‘suffering in health from the discipline they were subjected to, and were likely to suffer more if the prison rules continued to be enforced to the same extent’. The leaks and publicity had the desired effect and the regime was eased for these men.[1]

Evoking Public Sympathy

As it was in 1867, so it has remained. In constructing and publicizing their critiques of prison’s effects on health, the primary aim of groups supporting political prisoners has been to evoke public sympathy for political prisoners. These men and women were presented as the undeserving subjects of the full rigours of prison life. Such critiques, when taken seriously, had the potential to lead to general reform for the benefit of all prisoners. This, however, was very much a secondary concern. Very often, not only were those lobbying for political prisoners satisfied with the amelioration of the conditions of those prisoners alone, this was in fact their purpose. Their demand was that the political prisoners should be treated differently and better than other prisoners who they perceived to be less virtuous. The political prisoner, this approach assumed, deserved to have his or her health protected while in prison: the criminal’s health mattered less, if at all.

Hunger-Strike and Force-Feeding

Sometimes, however, political prisoners emerged from prison intent on providing a general critique of the prison system for the benefit of all. Through his prison writings, his evidence to official commissions, and his contributions in parliament, Michael Davitt raised awareness of the effects of imprisonment upon health and of the role of prison medical officers in sustaining attitudes or regimes that were a danger to their prisoner-patients.[2] Similarly, in English Prisons To-day, published in 1922, the former conscientious objectors, Stephen Hobhouse and Fenner Brockway, produced a report based on an inquiry launched by the Labour Research Department. In doing so they championed the importance of political prisoners as witnesses. They noted that as they began their work in 1919, ‘an exceptional fund of evidence was available in the prison experiences of a large number of men and women able to reserve and to record their observations, who had been imprisoned as suffragists, or anti-militarists, or for other political offences.’[3] Lengthy sections of English Prisons To-day were devoted to prison diet, exercise, sanitation, hygiene, the treatment of the sick, and the state of prison medical services. Davitt, and Hobhouse and Brockway, had significant successes in influencing public discourse on prisons and this contributed to change, though this should not be over-stated.

Health as a Weapon

Further, by manipulating their own health and wielding it as a weapon to achieve publicity for their cause and the betterment of their conditions, political prisoners have drawn attention to medical practices and to the medical ethics operating inside prisons. As Ian Miller has illustrated in his recent book, the renewed use of hunger-strike by republican political prisoners during the 1970s focused criticism onto the ongoing use of force-feeding within English prisons and brought that practice to an end (at least for a considerable period) for both political prisoners and other prisoners who refused food.[4]

‘Ordinary’ Prisoners as Sources of Contagion

Conversely advocates for political prisoners often presented the other prisoners as a source of health risks in prison. In this rhetorical register, just as the ordinary prisoners were morally inferior and likely to spread their immorality to those they were imprisoned with, so too they were bearers of contagions and likely to infect the healthy. During the period of the Irish revolution, for example, those campaigning on behalf of Irish nationalist prisoners (especially women) claimed that their incarceration in English prisons, alongside ordinary prisoners, exposed them to the danger of contracting venereal diseases. This allegation was not accompanied by a demand for the better treatment of those who were ill but a demand for separation.[5] It seems possible, in fact, that when advocates for political prisoners have deployed this type of propaganda strategy over the years, they have set back the prospects of improved health-care for the general prison population by representing that population as intrinsically diseased and obstinate sites of ill health.

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Image Credit: Michael Davitt. Public Domain.

[1] HC Deb., 3 May 1867, vol. 186, cc1933-4, available at: <http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1867/may/03/ireland-mountjoy-convict-prison-question> [Last accessed: 11 May 2017]; Seán McConville, Irish Political Prisoners, 1848-1922: Theatres of War (London, 2003), pp. 147-8.

[2] M. Davitt, Leaves from a Prison Diary (London, 1885); W. Murphy, ‘Narratives of Confinement: Fenians, Prisons and Writing, 1867-1916’ in F. McGarry and J. McConnel (eds), The Black Hand of Republicanism: Fenianism in Modern Ireland (Dublin, 2009), p. 166.

[3] S. Hobhouse and A. Fenner Brockway (eds), English Prisons To-day: Being the Report of the Prison System Enquiry Committee (London, 1922), p. v.

[4] I. Miller, A History of Force Feeding: Hunger Strikes, Prisons and Medical Ethics 1909-1974 (Houndmills, 2016), pp. 229-30.

[5] C. Markievicz, ‘Letters to the Editor’, Irish Independent, 19 June 1919.