When the British government introduced conscription (compulsory military service) in 1916, no-one anticipated that this would lead to large numbers of conscientious objectors (COs) being held in civilian prisons, much less that it would have significant consequences for prison reform.
In 1915 the government decided to introduce conscription for men between 18 and 41 years old. The draft Military Service Act included exemptions for men engaged in vital industries, but a group of MPs argued successfully for an extension to men demonstrating a principled objection to military service. Partial exemption enrolled men in the army to perform non-combatant tasks such as stretcher-bearing and hospital portering. Alternative service exempted men to undertake work of national importance, such as working for one of the voluntary ambulance services. Absolute exemption completely absolved men from wartime service. The Military Service Act became law on 2 March 1916.
The government had greatly underestimated how many COs would seek absolute exemption, and if unsuccessful would then refuse to cooperate with any military command, and thus be court martialled and imprisoned. Most official records relating to COs were destroyed in 1921 so no data relating to them is definitive, but about one-third of the approximately 16,000 men registered as COs were imprisoned during (and in some cases after) the war. Many did more than one prison term as on release they were returned to army custody, again refused to obey orders, were court-martialled, and returned to prison.
Imprisonment was primarily intended for the “criminal classes”, meaning the working classes. The arrival of the COs meant that thousands of articulate, well-educated men endured conditions of which they had previously been ignorant. Most arrived elated, having demonstrated their willingness to suffer for their cause. However, it was not easy to maintain this positive attitude. On arrival prisoners had to strip to the skin and were medically examined. The focus of this was succinctly described by one CO as “shirt up and trousers down”.
All their clothes and possessions were confiscated, except spectacles and prosthetics. Most prisoners wore white with big black arrows, but court-martial prisoners wore black with white arrows. Clothing and shoes were recycled and issued at random, and were often too big or too small. Prisoners were sometimes given underwear visibly stained by urine, faeces or blood. They wore a large metal badge with their cell number, by which they were always addressed, so Prisoner D254 occupied cell 54, second floor, D Wing.
All prisoners were in solitary confinement for their first month, and some for much longer. One CO describes a fellow-prisoner calling out in despair “Oh God, oh God, talk to me. Say anything, only for God’s sake talk to me”. Throughout their imprisonment men were forbidden to communicate or look directly at each other, and could only say ‘Yes, sir,’ to warders. “You dare not laugh, hum, whistle, sing or speak in case you are punished”, one CO wrote.
After eight weeks they could write and receive one (censored) short letter, and have one visit per month of twenty minutes. After twelve weeks two letters and two visits were permitted. All ‘privileges’ could be withdrawn at a warder’s whim, and extra periods of solitary confinement imposed. CO Stephen Hobhouse endured four months of it as punishment for protesting against the rules forbidding communication between prisoners, and nearly went mad.
Breakfast for the first month was bread and gruel (oatmeal boiled in water); lunch was bread and porridge without salt or sugar; and dinner was more bread and gruel. “So hungry were we,” Hobhouse wrote, “that I have seen many a root grabbed from the soil surreptitiously while at exercise”. After the first month prisoners got a little meat (but no vegetables) three days a week.
All COs were sentenced to “hard labour”, sewing mailbags from large pieces of sacking for ten hours a day, whilst sitting on a three-legged stool, which caused agonising backache.
Nine COs died in prison and approximately sixty others died subsequently from the after-effects of their imprisonment. Many non-CO prisoners must, of course, have been similarly affected.
COs managed to introduce some small improvements during the war. A significant minority were Quakers, and Quaker Meetings and Chaplains were established within prisons, continuing to this day. Meetings are open to anyone. Attendees sit in a circle, thus seeing each other’s faces, speak as they feel moved to, and shake hands at the end. This offered prisoners a very welcome experience, and by 1918 Wormwood Scrubs Prison had the “largest Meeting in London”. Also at Wormwood Scrubs, the CO Fenner Brockway went on hunger strike, demanding a vegetarian diet. He succeeded, and many non-CO prisoners then requested it because it was “tasty and varied”. This innovation also survived into the postwar period.
In 1922 a 700-page book entitled English Prisons To-Day appeared, written by Brockway and Hobhouse. Besides official documents, they used hundreds of submissions from former prisoners and prison staff, chaplains and doctors. The book sold thousands of copies, and the Prison Commission was forced into action. A month after publication all prison governors were instructed to allow conversation between prisoners at work, and between prisoners and warders. A few months later solitary confinement was abolished. These were the two reforms which Hobhouse and Brockway (like other COs and all other prisoners) had most passionately desired.
English Prisons To-Day ensured that no-one could now plead ignorance of prison conditions. However, many changes the book advocated have still not been made: for instance, a focus within prison on high-quality training and rehabilitation, and much more provision outside prison walls to prevent boys and young men drifting into crime. Both Hobhouse and Brockway, like many other former COs, supported prison reform for the rest of their lives, and their book remains the most detailed study of English prisons ever written. As one contributor commented, “We have been there, and we know”.