The sorrows of hell compassed me about.
Psalms XVIII, 5.
This chapter concerns Hall E of Wandsworth Prison. The haunt of fearful foreboding, the home of dread disease, the abode of concentrated human misery and woe, the domicile of dark despair, the grave of departed hope, the hall of haunting horrors.
In this hall were situated the observation cells. These were used to accommodate prisoners who were suspected of being mentally deranged, due to the rigors of the unnatural conditions of prison life. There were no doors to these cells, but an iron lattice gate, so that an attendant wearing slippers could stealthily approach and suddenly get a full view of the occupant, so as to arrive at a definite decision as to their mental state.
From time to time one of our numbers found himself led away to one of these cells and as the dreaded news flashed round among us, our shrinking gaze attempted in vain to avoid meeting the apprehensive glances of our fellows, for the question foremost in our minds was, “Who will be next?” As the agonising soul cries out, “How long O Lord dost thou not avenge our blood?” Renewed strength is received and the spirit grew calm and confident again, leaving the issue in the hands of Him who has said, “Vengeance is mine, I WILL repay.”
But of far more dreadful significance were the padded cells. The walls and doors of these cells were thickly padded with shock and sound absorbing material. Need it be said why? Does not the mere mention of such places conjure up pictures of frightful happenings that make the soul sick? In these cells were placed the men whose state of mind was not in doubt, their mental balance so utterly disturbed and destroyed that they were a danger both to themselves and to others. Occasionally a CO had to be removed to one of these cells, but I very much doubt if I have a pen of sufficient graphic power to describe the impact of such an event upon the mind of another.
Imagine yourself sitting in your cell sewing mailbags or perhaps reading, the building wrapped in its death like stillness, when suddenly a wild yell stabs the silence with blood curdling effect. You start violently, your heart misses a beat, and then your pulse starting racing trying to retrieve that lost beat. Another yell! Prudence tells you to put your fingers in your ears, bury your head in your bedclothes, and do anything to shut out those sounds. But you find yourself unable to move, you listen compelled against your better judgement, to catch every sound from that cell of tragedy. With your eyes bulging with terror, cold perspiration oozing out of every pore, you hear yell after yell, uttered with indescribable frenzy, the smash of crashing glass and the dull thuds as articles make violent contact. You feel an overwhelming impulse to answer yell with yell and realise what it is that makes all the wild animals in a menagerie give voice when one of their fellows springs to his feet with a roar of distress.
After what seems an eternity of agony, you hear the sounds of running footsteps, the jingle of keys, the sound of a receding door bolt and then the thud of a door being thrown open. Then the sounds of a scuffle, mingled with yet more frenzied shouts and cries of fear and pain, finally the retreating echoes of struggling footsteps. All is quiet again. Quiet! Did I say? Outwardly perhaps, but in your own heart rages a howling storm. You picture the poor wretch performing his demented antics now in a padded cell, perhaps in a straight jacket. Still your eyes seem ready to start out of your head and your pulses exceed the speed of the flying pistons of an express train. Gradually the storm of your agitated emotions subsides and you return to a more or less normal state, thankful that your mind has survived the stress and strain and that reason still sits on the throne. But ah! With what intensity, almost fierceness, you petition that you may be spared another such experience.
Hall E also housed the condemned cell. Twice at least while I was sojourned in the institution this cell was occupied. The psychological effect of such occupancy upon all other prisoners baffles description, but this must be attempted. Everybody is nervous, irritable and jumpy. A measure of the disturbing effect can perhaps be gained from mentioning that on one such occasion, the idea was surreptitiously circulated among us that on the day of execution we all refuse to go to the workshops. Fortunately the more sane view prevailed.
On one of these occasions, I was out with a party on exercise, when two officers passed from the scene of death pushing a handcart that contained the dismantled instrument of judicial murder. Never shall I forget the feeling of aversion and furious resentment that the sight awakened in me. I felt like a hound straining at the lease and longing to get at the thing of resentment and shake the life out of it.
Another feature of Hall E was the provision of cells for prisoners who had contracted tuberculosis, that dread disease of sunlessness and stagnant air. The distinguishing characteristic of these cells was the large sash window reaching from floor to ceiling, in place of the meagre light with its two small sliding panes of glass (six by four inches) of the ordinary cell. A number of our comrades who were perhaps somewhat delicate to start with, became victims of the fell disease, but I never heard that any one of them was transferred to these special cells. I believe they were all released, thus enabling the authorities to shirk the consequences of their actions and leave them as a source of anxiety and expense to their relations and friends.
There was one other class of prisoner located in Hall E that excited my pity and made my heart ache with sadness and sorrow, these being the deformed and the maimed, men who were incapable of performing strenuous labour. These obviously were not fitted to compete for a livelihood in the intense competition of modern social and industrial conditions and as they were not otherwise provided for, were in all probability in prison because they were driven to crime, in order to provide the necessities of life, which they could not win by honest means. On many occasions I saw these men out at exercise and as they dragged their twisted and tortured limbs slowly and painfully round the ring, I thought of Jesus’ answer to the self righteous and self satisfied, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” The works of God! And this is how a ‘Christian’ community makes manifest the works of God! Instead of protecting and caring for the afflicted and weak, it adds insult to injury and makes criminals of them. Worse still, being shoulder to shoulder with dementia, madness, infectious disease and violent death, deepens the horror of their situation. Without a robust physique, they have little ability to resist the dire effect of these things.
Christian Magistrates did someone say? There are no such things, the animal is unknown to zoology. The idea is akin to the wild flights of imagination, which conceived the unicorn and the mermaid. Rather they are ‘whitewashed sepulchres’, which appear beautiful on the outside, but within are full of dead men’s bones.
Were I active in government, I should hold it as an axiom that the selection process should include the candidate undergoing a three-month term of imprisonment ‘incognito’ in close proximity to Wandsworth Hall E. Candidates would then be infinitely better qualified to judge whether the punishment really fitted the crime and I imagine there would be a lot less competition for magisterial honours. I fancy also that such a proviso would go a long way towards the abolition and extinction of the Hall of Horrors.
I must ask the reader to forgive the apparent bitterness of the last two paragraphs, on the realisation that they are the words of one whose soul has beheld the needless suffering inflicted by man’s inhumanity to man. One who has always keenly sympathised with the afflicted and whose vocation was chosen largely from a desire to assist in the alleviation of the distress of the sick and injured.
Thou to whom the sick and dying
Ever came, nor came in vain,
Still with healing words replying
To the wearied cry of pain,
Hear us, Jesu, as we meet,
Suppliants at the mercy seat.
Still the weary, sick and dying,
Need a brother’s, sister’s care,
On Thy higher help relying,
May we now their burden share,
Bringing all our offerings meet,
Suppliants at the mercy seat.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector