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Armageddon or Calvary: The Conscientious Objectors of New Zealand and "The Process of Their Conversion"

XXI.—In Prison and Detention

page 114

XXI.—In Prison and Detention.

Mr. P. C. Webb corresponded with me with unbroken regularity from the date of his incarceration; and I almost invariably put his letters into print. He wrote unselfish letters of encouragement and strength during the Grey campaign; letters of happy congratulation when our victory was recorded; letters full of cheery optimism when the petition failed, and we swept onward to the great victories of Wellington Central and Wellington South. Then the iron heel of repression left its mark. On February 2, 1919, Mr. Webb wrote to me. "Since writing to you last I guess the Prisons Department has issued new Regulations, which prevent me writing anything about Socialism, Industrial Unionism, the causes of and responsibility for many of the imported and locally-produced epidemics. I am not permitted to write anything that reflects on the Government, and must refrain from making any reference to the class war—even the need for its ending. Under no circumstances will I be allowed to express my views on the war or things arising therefrom. Anti-Conscription views must remain in abeyance until I regain my liberty. All political questions are placed in the same category." All that he could now write about would be the weather, his own health, and the health of his friends and kindred subjects. In a subsequent letter, Mr. Webb signed himself "Yours for Socialism." The word "Socialism" was erased by the prison censor, but not sufficiently to make it unreadable—a ridiculous and childlike censorship, in any case.

About this time "Stead's Review"—the one publication that presented a concise and truthful summary of the war situation—was denied admission to the prisons. "Stead's" had up to this time been sent to most of the C.O.'s. The Minister of Justice, in endeavoring to explain his action in this respect, put forward the excuse that "Stead's" had a depressing effect on the prisoners!An Irish Objector—mr. Denis Mangan—wrote from Waikeria Prison to a friend outside. His letter is heavily censored, the matter objected to being covered with blue pencilling in the first place and then daubed over with black. He is telling his friend that his time will be up on a certain date in may, and that he and another C.O. will be free in so many weeks from the date of his letter. The figures are blotted out, but the word "May" is left in. The letter concludes: "So good-bye for eight weeks"—words which the Censor apparently overlooked, and the overlooking of which made his other censorship so much wasted effort.

In the first half of 1919 a hunger strike was entered upon at Waikeria. Seven men began to fast as a protest against the whole prison system. Five were Religious Objectors, one Socialist, and one Irish. One man, suffering with cramps, took food on the eleventh day. The page 115others went to the twelfth day, when it is alleged the strike was called off as the result of a visit to the prison of the mother of one of them.

At Papanui (Templeton) a strike occurred, when a West Coaster refused to do "fire drill." He told the prison authorities that he had been jailed for his principles and deprived of his franchise, and they need not wonder if he didn't care if their old jail did get burnt down. He was "dummied," and a number of the other Objectors went on a sympathy strike, and were "locked up." In due time a magistrate came, and they were tried and deprived of their "privileges" for one month.

In Kaingaroa, where in the intensely cold weather the Objectors were in the habit of taking down their blankets to keep themselves warm on the wet days when they did not go out to work, an order that the blankets must not be taken was disregarded by Mr. P. C. Webb and others, and the outcome was a magisterial inquiry, the result of which is not available at the time of writing.

Mr. Robert Gould, a Wellington waterside worker imprisoned at Waikeria, whose wife was ill, asked to be transferred to Wellington to be near her. When his request was refused, he struck work and food, and was "locked up." Mr. John Brailsford, B.A., then struck work and food as a protest against Gould's treatment. Both Gould and Brailsford were removed to Mt. Eden. Mr. Gould's hunger strike lasted seven days. He was eventually transferred to Wellington,

Mr. Harry Urquhart, after his release, wrote me that when one man fell ill at Waikeria, no change of underclothing was given him for over a fortnight, and no provision was made for a bath or sponge-down of any sort. The food supplied to him was greasy and unpalatable until complaint was made. Only once, when he was very ill, it was alleged, was an attempt made to take this man's temperature, and then the thermometer was accidentally broken. The patient was locked up in his solitary cell during the night hours; and if he used the night utensils they could not be emptied until morning. The other C.O.'s deputed Mr. Urquhart to interview the jailer about the case, but the only satisfaction he got was permission to see the doctor re the matter. The doctor, however, peremptorily ordered Mr. Urquhart out of the office, and told him that it would be time enough for him to complain when he himself was in the hospital and dissatisfied with his own treatment. He was further told that the man himself had not complained—which, he says, was probably true, since his particular religion would prevent him from doing so.

One of the Objectors, William White, died at Mt. Eden in January last. According to the statements of men who were his fellow-prisoners, White was brought from Waimarino Camp to Mt. Eden on January 18. He was transferred for medical treatment, being sick and unable to work. It is alleged that he did not receive medical attention until January 24—six days after his arrival, and that he was given no page 116special consideration in the matter of diet. Mr. Brailsford explains that Mt. Eden diet was at this time dry bread and porridge and tea without milk morning and evening, and at midday very coarse beef, potatoes, and sometimes a tiny portion of carrot or other vegetable, with fish on Fridays. The menu did not include either milk, butter, or treacle. On the Saturday before his death (it is asserted) White was deprived of his tobacco allowance for doing insufficient work. His work, it may he explained, was "napping" road metal. The night before his death, he was heard knocking to attract attention, and some of the prisoners make the charge that no attention was paid to him. In the morning, at 6.45, his breakfast was pushed in. When the warder came back to lock him in at 7.45, White pleaded that the door might be left open, saying that he "hadn't a friend in the world and was feeling very bad." The door was not left open. When the other prisoners returned from physical drill, White was rolling about and sweating in agony in his hammock, and there was vomit on the floor of his cell. It is alleged that a little later White was told by an official that if he got out into the fresh air and did some light work he would feel better. Not long after this the doctor came, and at once ordered the man into the prison hospital, where he died almost immediately. His fellow-prisoners complain that when the inquest was held a number of them who could have given important evidence were not called. The verdict was that death was due to heart trouble. On the public platform I have repeatedly made the demand that this case should be investigated, but my demand has so far been without effect.

A young school-teacher, writing to his mother, says: "The jail is full of nothing but Objectors. The doctor asks the prisoners what they are in for. If they are Objectors, God pity them if they are ill." He adds that a soldier was "brought here and made to do salute drill for two hours on end, until he was exhausted, because he failed to salute an officer down the street."

Another letter from one of the prisoners contains the news that "the Israelite has been 16 days hunger-striking, and is still going strong. He takes nothing but water." This refers to an Objector who belongs to the Christian Israelites.

In a letter from an imprisoned Objector to a friend, by whom it was sent on to me, the writer, who is a well-known watersider, says: "I was dragged out of bed to-night at 9 o'clock for asking for more and better food, and making a complaint about the food supplied being unwholesome. Treated like a dog." This note was scribbled with a pencil (in the "express for Auckland") on a leaf torn from a notebook.

A CO. wrote to his wife from one of the "clinks": "I am well and spiritually happy. But, oh, the hardships I have seen other men endure. I have had to cry—I couldn't help it." The same letter mentions that "one imprisoned returned soldier got word that his page 117mother was dying. They would not let him go to see her. Then a wire came to say she was dead. Even then he did not get away." "And," the writer" added, "he was only in prison for hitting a red"- cap."

A degrading and revolting practice in the prisons is what is known as "searching." Prisoners are searched at intervals for contraband. The prisoner is required to strip himself naked, and his clothes and person are then scrutinised by the warders. While I was in the Terrace Jail at Wellington the system was described to me by prisoners who had often undergone the process. Some of them told me of disgusting and humiliating methods employed by the worst of the officials of course, the better class of official hates the work as much as the prisoner hates the experience. It has been reported to me that Mr. Donald Baxter, for refusing to submit to this degradation, was deprived of his "privileges" for a given time. In other words, if my information is correct, and I have no reason to doubt its authenticity, Mr. Baxter was prevented from writing to his mother, from receiving either letters or visitors, and from enjoying other smaller privileges because he would not debase himself to the extent required by the prison regulations. It is needless to say that a vile custom of this nature is as morally destructive to the official who performs it as it is to the prisoner on whom it is inflicted. It is a regulation that, in the interests of common decency, must go.