The Period of Probation

On the morning of the 29th of August I was hastily awakened by a female
warder, who said that orders had come down from the Home Office for my
removal that day to a convict prison.

When I left, the governor was standing at the gate, and, with a
kindliness of voice which I deeply appreciated, told me to be brave and

A crowd was in waiting at the station. I was roughly hustled through it
into a third-class carriage.

The only ray of light that penetrated those dark hours of my journey
came from an American woman. God bless her, whoever she is or wherever
she is! At every station that the train stopped she got out and came to
the carriage door and spoke words of sympathy and comfort. She was the
first of my countrywomen to voice to me the protest that swelled into
greater volume as the years rolled by.

As the train drew up at Woking station a crowd assembled. Outside stood
a cab, to which I was at once conducted, and we drove through lovely
woods; the scent of flowers was wafted by the breeze into what seemed
to be a hearse that was bearing me on toward my living tomb.

As we approached the prison the great iron gate swung wide, and the
cab drove silently into the yard. There I descended. The governor
gave an order, and a woman–who I afterward found was assistant
superintendent–came forward. Accompanied by her and an officer, I was
led across a near-by yard to a building which stood somewhat apart from
the others and is known as the infirmary. There a principal matron
received me, and the assistant superintendent and the chief matron
returned to their quarters.


In the grasp of what seemed to me a horrible nightmare, I found
myself in a cell with barred windows, a bed, and a chair. Without,
the stillness of death reigned. I remained there perhaps half an hour
when the door opened and I was commanded by a female warder to follow
her. In a daze I obeyed mechanically. We crossed the same yard again
and entered a door that led into a room containing only a fireplace, a
table, and a bath. Here I was told to take off my clothes, as those I
had traveled in had to be sent back to the prison at Liverpool, where
they belonged.

When I was dressed in the uniform to which the greatest stigma and
disgrace is attached, I was told to sit down. The warder then stepped
quickly forward, and with a pair of scissors cut off my hair to the
nape of my neck. This act seemed, above all others, to bring me to a
sense of my degradation, my utter helplessness; and the iron of the
awful tragedy, of which I was the innocent victim, entered my soul. I
was then weighed and my height taken. My weight was one hundred and
twelve pounds, and my height five feet three inches.

Once more I was bidden to follow my guide. We recrossed the yard and
entered the infirmary. Here I was locked in the cell already mentioned.
At last I could be alone after the anguish and torture of the day. I
prayed for sleep that I might lose consciousness of my intolerable
anguish. But sleep, that gentle nurse of the sad and suffering, came
not. What a night! I shudder even now at the memory of it. Physically
exhausted, smarting with the thought of the cruel, heartless way in
which I had been beaten down and trodden under foot, I felt that mortal
death would have been more merciful than the living death to which I
was condemned. In the adjoining cell an insane woman was raving and
weeping throughout the night, and I wondered whether in the years to
come I should become like her.

The next day I was visited by the governor on his official rounds. Then
the doctor came and made a medical examination, and ordered me to be
detained in the infirmary until further orders. My mind is a blank as
to what happened for some time afterward. My next remembrance is being
told by a coarse-looking, harsh-spoken female warder to get ready to go
into the prison. Once more I was led across the big yard, and then I
stood within the walls that were to be for years my tomb. Outside the
sun was shining and the birds were singing.


Without, picture a vast outline of frowning masonry. Within, when I
had passed the double outer gates and had been locked out and locked
in in succession, I found myself in a central hall, from which ran
cage-like galleries divided into tiers and landings, with a row of
small cells on either side. The floors are of stone, the landings of
slate, the railings of steel, and the stairs of iron. Wire netting
is stretched over the lowest tier to prevent prisoners from throwing
themselves over in one of those frenzies of rage and despair of which
every prison has its record. Within their walls can be found, above all
places, that most degrading, heart-breaking product of civilization,
a human automaton. All will, all initiative, all individuality, all
friendship, all the things that make human beings attractive to one
another, are absent. Suffering there is dumb, and when it goes beyond

I followed the warder to a door, perhaps not more than two feet in
width. She unlocked it and said, “Pass in.” I stepped forward, but
started back in horror. Through the open door I saw, by the dim light
of a small window that was never cleaned, a cell seven feet by four.

“Oh, don’t put me in there!” I cried. “I can not bear it.”

For answer the warder took me roughly by the shoulder, gave me a push,
and shut the door. There was nothing to sit upon but the cold slate
floor. I sank to my knees. I felt suffocated. It seemed that the walls
were drawing nearer and nearer together, and presently the life would
be crushed out of me. I sprang to my feet and beat wildly with my hands
against the door. “For God’s sake let me out! Let me out!” But my
voice could not penetrate that massive barrier, and exhausted I sank
once more to the floor. I can not recall those nine months of solitary
confinement without a feeling of horror. My cell contained only a
hammock rolled up in a corner, and three shelves let into the wall–no
table nor stool. For a seat I was compelled to place my bedclothes on
the floor.


No one can realize the horror of solitary confinement who has not
experienced it. Here is one day’s routine: It is six o’clock; I arise
and dress in the dark; I put up my hammock and wait for breakfast. I
hear the ward officer in the gallery outside. I take a tin plate and a
tin mug in my hands and stand before the cell door. Presently the door
opens; a brown, whole-meal, six-ounce loaf is placed upon the plate;
the tin mug is taken, and three-quarters of a pint of gruel is measured
in my presence, when the mug is handed back in silence, and the door is
closed and locked. After I have taken a few mouthfuls of bread I begin
to scrub my cell. A bell rings and my door is again unlocked. No word
is spoken, because I know exactly what to do. I leave my cell and fall
into single file, three paces in the rear of my nearest fellow convict.
All of us are alike in knowing what we have to do, and we march away
silently to Divine service. We are criminals under punishment, and
our keepers march us like dumb cattle to the worship of God. To me the
twenty minutes of its duration were as an oasis in a weary desert. When
it came to an end I felt comforted, and always a little more resigned
to my fate. Chapel over, I returned directly to my cell, for I was in
solitary confinement, and might not enjoy the privilege of working in
company with my prison companions.

Work I must, but I must work alone. Needlework and knitting fall to my
lot. My task for the day is handed to me, and I sit in my cell plying
my needle, with the consciousness that I must not indulge in an idle
moment, for an unaccomplished task means loss of marks, and loss of
marks means loss of letters and visits. As chapel begins at 8:30 I am
back in my cell soon after nine, and the requirement is that I shall
make one shirt a day–certainly not less than five shirts a week. If I
am obstinate or indolent, I shall be reported by the ward officer, and
be brought to book with punishment–perhaps reduced to a diet of bread
and water and total confinement in my cell for twenty-four hours. If I
am faint, weak, or unwell, I may be excused the full performance of my
task; but there must be no doubt of my inability. In such case it is
for me to have my name entered for the prison doctor, and obtain from
him the indulgence that will remit a portion of my prescribed work to
three or four shirts.

However, as I am well, I work automatically, closely, and with
persistence. Then comes ten o’clock, and with it the governor with
his escort. He inspects each cell, and if all is not as it should
be, the prisoner will hear of it. There is no friendly greeting of
“Good-morning” nor parting “Good-night” within those gloomy walls.
The tone is formal and the governor says: “How are you, Maybrick?
Any complaints? Do you want anything?” and then he passes on. Then
I am again alone with my work and my brooding thoughts. I never
made complaints. One but adds to one’s burden by finding causes for
complaint. With the coming and the going of the governor the monotony
returns to stagnation.


Presently, however, the prison bell rings again. I know what the
clangor means, and mechanically lay down my work. It is the hour
for exercise, and I put on my bonnet and cape. One by one the cell
doors of the ward are opened. One by one we come out from our cells
and fall into single file. Then, with a ward officer in charge, we
march into the exercise yard. We have drawn up in line, three paces
apart, and this is the form in which we tramp around the yard and
take our exercise. This yard is perhaps forty feet square, and there
are thirty-five of us to expand in its “freedom.” The inclosure is
oppressively repulsive. Stone-flagged, hemmed within ugly walls, it
gives one a hideous feeling of compression. It seems more like a
bear-pit than an airing ground for human beings. But I forget that
we are not here to have things made easy, comfortable, and pleasant
for us. We are here to be punished, to be scourged for our crimes and
misdeeds. Can you wonder that human nature sometimes revolts and dares
even prison rigor? Human instincts may be suppressed, but not wholly

There were at Woking two yards in which flowers and green trees were
visible, but it was only in after years that I was permitted to take my
exercise in these yards, and then only half an hour on Sunday.

When the one hour for exercise is over, in a file as before, we
tramp back to our work. Confined as we are for twenty-two hours in
our narrow, gloomy cells, the exercise, dull as it is, is our only
opportunity for a glimpse of the sky and for a taste of outdoor life,
and affords our only relief from an otherwise almost unbearable day.


At noon the midday meal. The first sign of its approach is the sound of
the fatigue party of prisoners bringing the food from the kitchen into
the ward. I hear the ward officer passing with the weary group from
cell to cell, and presently she will reach my door. My food is handed
to me, then the door is closed and double locked. In the following two
hours, having finished my meal, I can work or read. At two o’clock the
fatigue party again goes on its mechanical round; the cell door is
again unlocked, this time for the collection of dinner-cans. The meal
of each prisoner is served out by weight, and the law allows her to
claim her full quantity to the uttermost fraction of an ounce. She is
even entitled to see it weighed if she fancies it falls short. Work is
then resumed until five o’clock, when gruel and bread is again served,
as at breakfast, with half an hour for its disposal. From that time
on until seven o’clock more work, when again is heard the clang of
the prison bell, and with it comes the end of our monotonous day. I
take down my hammock, and once more await the opening of the door. We
have learned exactly what to do. With the opening of our cells we go
forward, and each places her broom outside the door. So shall it be
known that we each have been visited in our cells before the locking of
our doors and gates for the night. If any of us are taking medicine by
the doctor’s orders we now receive it. On through the ten long, weary
hours of the night the night officers patrol the wards, keeping watch,
and through a glass peep-hole silently inspect us in our beds to see
that nothing is amiss.


Solitary confinement is by far the most cruel feature of English penal
servitude. It inflicts upon the prisoner at the commencement of her
sentence, when most sensitive to the horrors which prison punishment
entails, the voiceless solitude, the hopeless monotony, the long vista
of to-morrow, to-morrow, to-morrow stretching before her, all filled
with desolation and despair. Once a prisoner has crossed the threshold
of a convict prison, not only is she dead to the world, but she is
expected in word and deed to lose or forget every vestige of her
personality. Verily,

The mills of the gods grind slowly,
But they grind exceeding small,
And woe to the wight unholy
On whom those millstones fall.

So it is with the Penal Code which directs this vast machinery, doing
its utmost with tireless, ceaseless revolutions to mold body and soul
slowly, remorselessly, into the shape demanded by Act of Parliament.


The day I had completed the nine months of solitary confinement I
entered upon a new stage, that of probation for nine months. I was
taken from Hall G to Hall A. There were in Woking seven halls, A, B, C,
D, E, F, G, separated by two barred doors and a narrow passage. Every
hall has three wards. The female warder who accompanied me locked me
in my cell. I looked around with a sense of intense relief. The cell
was as large again as the one I had left. The floor was of wood instead
of slate. It contained a camp bedstead on which was placed a so-called
mattress, consisting of a sack the length of the bed, stuffed with
coir, the fiber of the coconut. There were also provided two coarse
sheets, two blankets, and a red counterpane. In a corner were three
iron shelves let in the wall one above the other. On the top shelf
was folded a cape, and on top of this there was a small, coarse straw
bonnet. The second shelf contained a tin cup, a tin plate, a wooden
spoon, and a salt-cellar. The third shelf was given up to a slate, on
which might be written complaints or requests to the governor; it is a
punishable offense in prison to write with a pencil or on any paper not

There was also a Bible, a prayer-book and hymn-book, and a book from
the library. Near the door stood a log of wood upright, fastened to the
floor, and this was the only seat in the cell. It was immovable, and so
placed that the prisoner might always be in view of the warder. Near
it, let into the wall, was a piece of deal board, which answered for a
table. Through an almost opaque piece of square glass light glimmered
from the hall, the only means of lighting the cell at night; facing
this, high up, was a barred window admitting light from the outside.


The routine of my daily life was the same as during “solitary
confinement.” The cell door may be open, but its outer covering or gate
is locked, and, although I knew there was a human creature separated
from me only by a cell wall and another gate, not a whisper might I
breathe. There is no rule of prison discipline so productive of trouble
and disaster as the “silent system,” and the tyrannous and rigorous
method with which it is enforced is the cause of two-thirds of all
the misconduct and disturbance that occurs in prison. The silence
rule gives supreme gratification to the tyrannous officer, for on the
slightest pretext she can report a woman for talking–a turn of the
head, a movement of the lips is enough of an excuse for a report.
And there is heavy punishment that can be inflicted for this offense,
both in the male and female prisons. An offender may be consigned to
solitary confinement, put for three days on bread and water, or suffer
the loss of a week’s remission, which means a week added to her term of
imprisonment–and all this for incautiously uttering a word.

Unless it be specifically intended as a means of torture, the system of
solitary confinement, even for four months, the term to which it has
since been reduced, can meet only with condemnation. I am convinced
that, within limits, the right of speech and the interchange of
thought, at least for two hours daily, even during probation, would
insure better discipline than perpetual silence, which can be enforced
only by a complete suppression of nature, and must result in consequent
weakness of mind and ruin of temper. During the first months of her
sentence a prisoner is more frequently in trouble for breach of this
one rule than from all other causes. The reduction of the term of
probation from nine to four months has been followed by a reduction in
mental afflictions, which is proof that nothing wholesome or good can
have its growth in unnatural solitude.

The silent system has a weakening effect upon the memory. A prisoner
often finds difficulty in deciding upon the pronunciation of words
which she has not heard for a considerable period. I often found
myself, when desirous of using unusual words, especially in French or
German, pronouncing them to myself in order to fix the pronunciation
in my memory. It is well to bear in mind what a small number of words
the prisoner has an opportunity of using in the monotony of prison
life. The same inquiries are made day after day, and the same responses
given. A vocabulary of one hundred words will include all that a
prisoner habitually uses.


No defender of the silent system pretends that it wholly succeeds in
preventing speech among prisoners. But be that as it may, a period
of four months’ solitary confinement in the case of a female, and
six months’ in the case of a male, and especially of a girl or
youth, is surely a crime against civilization and humanity. Such a
punishment is inexpressible torture to both mind and body. I speak
from experience. The torture of continually enforced silence is known
to produce insanity or nervous breakdown more than any other feature
connected with prison discipline. Since the passing of the Act of 1898,
mitigating this form of punishment, much good has been accomplished, as
is proved by the diminution of insanity in prison life, the decreasing
scale of prison punishment, and the lessening of the death-rate.
By still further reducing this barbarous practise, or, better, by
abolishing it entirely, corresponding happy results may confidently
be expected. The more the prisoners are placed under conditions and
amid surroundings calculated to develop a better life, the greater is
the hope that the system will prove curative; but so long as prisoners
are subjected to conditions which have a hardening effect at the very
beginning of their prison life, there is little chance of ultimate


There are many women who hover about the borderland of insanity for
months, possibly for years. They are recognized as weak-minded, and
consequently they make capital out of their condition, and by the
working of their distorted minds, and petty tempers, and unreasonable
jealousy, add immeasurably not only to the ghastliness of the “house
of sorrow,” but are a sad clog on the efforts to self-betterment of
their level-minded sisters in misery. Of these many try hard to make
the best of what has to be gone through. Therefore, is it necessary,
is it wise, is it right that such a state of things should be allowed?
The weak-minded should be kept in a separate place, with their own
officers to attend them. Neither the weak-minded, the epileptic, nor
the consumptives were isolated. There is great need of reform wherever
this is the case. Prisoners whose behavior is different from the normal
should be separated from the other prisoners, and made to serve out
their sentences under specially adapted conditions.

I read in the newspapers that insanity is on the increase; this fact is
clearly reflected within the prison walls. It is stated that the insane
form about three per thousand of the general population. In local
English prisons insanity, it is said, even after deducting those who
come in insane, is seven times more prevalent than among the general


The nervous crises do not now supervene so frequently as formerly
in the case of prisoners of a brooding disposition, but the fact
remains that, in spite of the slight amelioration, mental light is
still excluded–that communion on which rests all human well-being.
The vacuity of the solitary system, to some at least, is partially
lighted by books. But what of those who can not read, or who have
not sufficient concentration of mind to profit by reading as a
relaxation? There are many such, in spite of the high standard of
free education that prevails at the present day. The shock of the
trial, and the uprooting of a woman’s domestic ties, coupled with
the additional mental strain of having to start her prison career in
solitary confinement, is surely neither humane, nor merciful, nor
wise. These months of solitary confinement leave an ineffaceable mark.
It is during the first lonely months that the seeds of bitterness
and hardness of heart are sown, and it requires more than a passive
resistance–nay, nothing short of an unfaltering faith and trust in an
overruling Providence–to bring a prisoner safely through the ordeal.
Let the sympathetic reader try to realize what it means never to feel
the touch of anything soft or warm, never to see anything that is
attractive–nothing but stone above, around, and beneath. The deadly
chill creeps into one’s bones; the bitter days of winter and the still
bitterer nights were torture, for Woking Prison was not heated. My
hands and feet were covered with chilblains.


Oh, the horrors of insomnia! If one could only forget one’s sufferings
in sleep! During all the fifteen years of my imprisonment, insomnia was
(and, alas! is still) my constant companion. Little wonder! I might
fall asleep, when suddenly the whole prison is awakened by shriek
upon shriek, rending the stillness of the night. I am now, perforce,
fully awake. Into my ears go tearing all the shrill execrations and
blasphemies, all the hideous uproars of an inferno, compounded of
bangs, shrieks, and general demoniac ragings. The wild smashing of
glass startles the halls. I lie in my darkened cell with palpitating
heart. Like a savage beast, the woman of turmoil has torn her clothing
and bedding into shreds, and now she is destroying all she can lay
hands on. The ward officers are rushing about in slippered feet, the
bell rings summoning the warders, who are always needed when such
outbursts occur, and the woman, probably in a strait-jacket, is borne
to the penal cells. Then stillness returns to the ghastly place, and
with quivering nerves I may sleep–if I can.


But what if one is ill in the night? The lonely prisoner in her cell
may summon aid by ringing the bell. The moment it is set in motion it
causes a black iron slab to project from the outer wall of her cell
in the gallery. On the slab is the prisoner’s number, and the ward
officer, hearing the bell, at once looks for the cell from which the
call has been sent. Presently she finds it, then fetches the principal
matron, and together they enter the hard, unhomelike place. If the
prisoner is ill they call the doctor of the prison, and medicines and
aid will be given. But sympathy is no part of their official duty, and
be the warder never so tender in her own domestic circle, tenderness
must not be shown toward a prisoner. The patient may be removed from
her cell to the infirmary, where they will care for her medically,
perhaps as well as they would in a hospital; she may even receive a
few flowers from an infirmary warder whose heart comes out from its
official shell; but through it all, sick though she be, she is still a
prisoner under lock and key, a woman under surveillance, a woman denied
communion with her kind.


What words can adequately describe the long years, blank and weary
enough for all prisoners, but which are indescribably so to one who
has been delicately nurtured! I had enjoyed the refinements of social
life; I had pitied, and tried, as far as lay in my power, to help the
poor and afflicted, but I had never known anything of the barbarism,
the sordid vices of low life. And I was condemned to drag out existence
amid such surroundings, because twelve ignorant men had taken upon
themselves to decide a question which neither the incompetent judge nor
the medical witnesses could themselves determine.

So far as I can learn, there is no other instance of a woman
undoubtedly innocent and of gentle birth, confined for a term of nearly
fifteen years in an English convict prison. In the nature of things a
delicate woman feels more acutely than a robust prisoner the rigors of
prolonged captivity.

Neither confidence nor respect can be secured when punishment is
excessive, for it then becomes an act of persecution, suitable only
for ages of darkness. The supineness of Parliament in not establishing
a court of criminal appeal fastens a dark blot upon the judicature of
England, and is inconsistent with the innate love of justice and fair
play of its people.


The law in prison is the same for the rich as the poor, the “Star
Class” as for the ignorant, brutalized criminal. My register was “L.
P. 29.” These letters and numbers were worked in white cotton upon a
piece of black cloth. Your sentence is indicated thus: “L” stands for
penal servitude for life; “P” for the year of conviction, which in my
case was the sixteenth year since the previous lettering. This is done
every twenty-five years. The “29” meant that I was the twenty-ninth
convict of my year, 1889. In addition to this register I wore a red
cloth star placed above it. The “Star Class,” of which I was a member,
consisted of women who have been convicted of one crime only, committed
in a moment of weakness or despair, or under pressure which they were
not strong enough to resist at the time, such as infanticide, forgery,
incendiarism; and who, having been educated and respectably brought
up, betray otherwise no criminal instincts or inclinations; and who,
when in the world, would be distinct in character from the habitual
criminal, not only from a social point of view, but in their virtues,
faults, and crimes.

There should be separate rules and privileges to meet the case
of a prisoner guilty of moral lapses only, as distinguished from
the habitual breaker of the laws. At present the former gets the
same treatment and discipline as the habitual criminal of several
convictions, and can not claim a single privilege that the old offender
has not a right to ask–for example, members of both classes are
limited to the same number of letters and visits. The “Star Class” is
supposed to be kept separate from ordinary prisoners. It was so at
Woking Prison. But at Aylesbury Prison, to which I was transferred
later, they were sandwiched between two wards of habitual criminals,
with whom they came continually in contact, not only in passing to
and from the workshops, fetching meals, and going to exercise, but
continuously. That contamination should ensue is hardly surprising.
It requires a will of iron, and nearly the spirit of a saint, not
to be corrupted by the sights and sounds of a prison, even when no
word is spoken. It is a serious accusation against any system to say
“that it produces the thing it is designed to prevent,” but such, I
am convinced, is the fact as regards the manufacture of criminals and
imbeciles by the present system of penalism almost the world over.