HC Deb 04 June 1869 vol 196 cc1238-43

said, he would beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, If his attention has been directed to the statement published in one of the Irish newspapers, appa- rently on authority, to the effect that the prison authorities so secured the hands of one of the political prisoners by manacles behind his back, that he could neither dress nor undress, or raise food to his mouth, and continued this cruelty for thirty-throe days; and, if the statement be True was the circumstance reported to the Home Office, and is there any objection to place the Report before the House, with a statement as to whether the officer guilty of this cruelty was reprimanded or otherwise dealt with, and how?


Sir, I am obliged to my hon. Friend for making this inquiry, for it is clear that the statement he has just made, if true, ought to be explained:, if not true, it ought to be contradicted.; Now, the facts of the case with regard to his unfortunate man—O'Donovan Rossa are these—He was committed to Pentonville on the 23rd of December, 1865; Under ordinary circumstances prisoners would be detained there nine months before being sent to the convict prison, But it was thought more humane, and more conducive to their health, to send, these prisoners at once to Portland, which, if I may use the expression, is the most cheerful, and certainly most healthful of all our convict prisons. His conduct there was so violent and outrageous, and produced so bad an effect upon the other Fenian prisoners, that it was found absolutely necessary to send him to Millbank, to which place he was removed in February, 1867. What his conduct was while at Portland is described in the Report of Messrs. Knox and Pollock. The House will perhaps, allow me to read an extract from this Report, more especially as it is stated in the Report from which my hon. Friend quotes that O"Donovan Rossa was of a gentle and tractable disposition. The Report says— The convict Rossa is a dangerous man, and must remain the object of unceasing anxiety and vigilance to the authorities. The senior warder at Millbank, a man of no mean experience in convict life, said that in the whole course of his career he had never met with the equal of this most unfortunate man, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa. He had no ill usage to complain of—no severity but of his own seeking. He must amend his ways, or abide his fate. Again, it was said— As long as the treason-felony convict Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa was at Portland, so long were these prisoners in a state of chronic discontent, which found its expression in daily acts of insubordination, and words of insolent defiance, he has most properly been removed to Millbank, and an entirely different state of facts prevails. Since Rossa's removal the prison authorities express themselves as far more satisfied with the conduct of the treason-felony convicts; the convicts declare themselves far more content with the treatment they receive from the authorities. 'At present I find the state of things here almost relatively perfect happiness,' said treason-felony convict O'Leary to us. 'The conduct of the convicts has been far better, they are far more industrious, and far less insolent,' was in effect the language of the warders, many of whom in terms attributed the change to the removal of Rossa. After spending a year at Millbank he was removed to Chatham on the 24th of February, 1808, and during the greater part of the time he continued at Chatham he continued the course of conduct which he had exhibited while at Portland. I will not weary the House by reading a list of the offences for which he has received punishment, but will refer only to those which occurred in June last. The general direction with respect to Fenian prisoners is to overlook minor offences for which ordinary prisoners are punished, and only to punish them for great offences. On the 1st of June, 1868, Rossa was reported for insubordinate conduct, refusing to work, and having his cell utensils in a filthy state, and he was sentenced to three days' close confinement on punishment diet. On the 5th of June he was reported for highly insubordinate conduct, using abusive language, refusing to get out of bed, and disturbing the quiet of the penal class, and he was sentenced to three days' close confinement on punishment diet. On the 9th of June he was reported for insubordination and disrespectful conduct to the governor—wilfully damaging two vests, highly insubordinate and disrespectful conduct towards the governor, and defacing his cell door, and he was sentenced to two days' close confinement. On the 15th of June he was reported for refusing to leave his cell and disrespectful conduct to the governor, for refusing to clean his basin, and damaging his vest and a gutta percha pint, and sentenced to two days' confinement. On the 17th of June he was reported for throwing the contents of his cell pot in the governor's face when under punishment in the separate cells. For that offence I need hardly say an ordinary prisoner would have been flogged; but Rossa was confined until the case could come before the Directors, which was in the course of twenty days, and then he was sentenced to twenty-eight days' close confinement in a punishment cell. Before alluding to the treatment he received in the cell I will read a statement made on the authority to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, that of Mr. Richard Pigott, who obtained admission to Rossa on the statement that it was necessary for his defence in an action that he should see him. I gave permission for him to see Rossa, and the use he made of his visit was to publish a. letter, from which this is an extract— I had the proud privilege of a slight acquaintance with him previous to his imprisonment, and a man of more gentle, more tractable disposition I never met. lie was a model of strength and symmetry, and of a most robust constitution. He is now prematurely aged, and looks worn and delicate, he is suffering from a severe pain in his hack, brought on by the severity of the labour he has to perform. As a sample of the kind treatment' he has experienced, I may mention the following, which I had from his own lips, in the bearing- of the deputy governor of the prison and Mr. O'Dnnnell:—For thirty-five days he was kept in a dark ceil, with his hands manacled behind his back night and day. He was not loosed even to take his food—thin porridge—which was left for him on the floor of his cell. Unless he elected to die of starvation, he had no alternative but to take it on ail fours, as an animal does: so that when he was brought out to the light of day his brave, noble face was seen by his fellow-prisoners encrusted with the porridge which adhered to it. Is there a man of any country or of any creed, except an Irish Member of Parliament, whose blood does not boil with indignation at such devilish cruelty? Now, Sir for the facts. The prisoner having committed these acts of violence, and being a very powerful man—so powerful that it required three or four warders to master him—was for a while manacled with his hands behind his back. But, so far from being kept in this condition thirty-five days, he was only so for ft part of a day; but when he took his meals the handcuffs were placed In front, so that he was able to take his meals without difficulty. The punishment of manacling a man with his hands behind his back is never inflicted except when prisoners are so violent that they cannot to be restrained in any other way. Rossa's handcuffs worn never on at night. The cell in which he was con-lined was not a dark cell. He was, however, confined in a. dark cell for three days, under these circumstances—A few days after his release from hand- cuffs, while still under punishment, he smashed all the furniture in his cell, and while it was under repair he was placed in a dark cell, as a place in which he could do no further mischief. He was not handcuffed during this time. There is another statement to which allusion has not been made by my hon. Friend, but which it is desirable should be met and contradicted. The complaint is made that seven letters he wrote to his wife were suppressed, although written at the stated periods when even the vilest criminal is allowed by the prison rules to communicate with his friends. According to the prison rules he would have been entitled to write only one letter since his admission into the Chatham Prison. By the indulgence of the Directors he has been permitted to write no less than five; but these were so full of false statements, calculated to do public mischief, that the Directors were compelled to suppress them. Another statement is, that his appearance is quite changed, and that he has suffered very much from his confinement. Since he became an inmate of Chatham Prison his weight has increased from 163½ lbs. to 171lbs. His general health is now stated to be good, and he is reported to have the appearance of a man who is in excellent health. After what I have given of this unfortunate man's career, it is a real pleasure to say that since September, 1868, the date of his last offence, his conduct has greatly improved, and he has not incurred any punishment. Captain Ducane in visiting the prison, told Rossa that his conduct had been outrageous and disgraceful; and that he was astonished that a man of his position should have been guilty of it. Since then, not only had Donovan behaved well and received no punishment, but Captain Powell said—"Of all the Fenian prisoners now under confinement, he is the best behaved." I trust that this statement of itself will be considered satisfactory by my hon. Friend. It is absolutely necessary that these prisoners should be subjected to all the discipline which is necessary for their safe confinement. I am sure there has been nothing vindictive or unusual in the punishment of Rossa, and nothing but what was consistent with the rules I have laid down; and I believe he has been treated with all the indulgence to which he could fairly be entitled.


said, he wished only to say that every Member of that House must feel, with himself, that the statement just made was one of a highly satisfactory character.