1950s >> 1955 >> no-610-june-1955

Prisoner’s Story

In the summer of 1953 Rupert Croft-Cooke, a novelist by profession, was arrested on a charge of homosexuality. A few months later he appeared before the Quarter Sessions at Lewes, was found guilty on some charges and not guilty on others, and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment. Apart from a few days at Brixton he served out his sentence (actually six months, allowing for remission) in Wormwood Scrubs. His book, “The Verdict of You All,” is the story of his experiences there.

Rupert Croft-Cooke, to judge by the scraps of personal information scattered throughout his book, has not been too hardly dealt with by life. Well-educated, much-travelled, a lover of things good to eat and drink, he was living a well-ordered and comfortable existence in the Sussex countryside until he was rudely awakened one night by the village policeman and two detectives. These, after due observance of the usual legal ceremonial, took him off to the local police station, and from then on he found himself in a world he had hardly known existed. “The Verdict of You All” records his reactions to, and observations of, this world into which he was so suddenly and so rudely thrown, an alien world inhabited by beings he had heard about only through the crime stories of newspapers, a world a million miles removed from the bright and comfortable surroundings he had been accustomed to enjoy.

To those who cherish comforting delusions about the wonderful reforms that are supposed to have been wrought in our prisons, this book will come as a shock. The tale told by the author is of a penal system grim, drear, unimaginative, means, and degrading – to prisoner and keeper alike. It tells only of Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton the first a prison for first offenders serving sentences of six months and over, the second for men sentenced to less than six months. Only briefly and occasionally does he make mention of places such as Dartmoor, most notably on the occasion when some of its inmates were sent up the Scrubs to receive their annual visits from relatives unable to make the journey to Princetown. To the author these men conveyed

“by their very appearance and movements, dark horrors suffered, depths of evil and desperation, which the Star prisoners of Wormwood Scrubs had never known.”

Yet the picture he draws of even a Star prison like Wormwood Scrubs is frightening in its grimness; and of Brixton, which he thinks is much worse, he is vitriolic. This is his account of the sight that met him on his entry for the first time into Wormwood Scrubs:–

“A long interior street on each side of which are rows of identical cell doors. The floor of this street is of concrete, the doors are blank and painted a dull cream with formidable black bolts on each and a small eye-hole. The street is a hundred yards long, lit with naked not-too-powerful electric bulbs and running down to iron railings and a gated wall at the far end… There was, as we entered, complete silence in this grim and ugly street and it was hard to realise that behind each of the uniform doors was a man in a cell.”

There are four floors like this, each containing 80 cells. At the level of the first floor is stretched wire-netting to lessen the risk of suicide from those throwing themselves over from the upper floors, and also prevent injury from articles dropped intentionally from above. The author adds:–

“A prison ‘hall’ realises the hopes of its original architect for it is probably the ugliest structure ever conceived by man… From entry to discharge the prisoner never sees anything inanimate which is not positively ugly, and of living things there is nothing on which the eye can bear to dwell, except occasionally the faces of some fellow-prisoners.”

So much for Wormwood Scrubs. His description of Brixton is even more horrifying.

“It would be difficult to imagine and impossible to create a more rank and stagnant breeding-ground of evil than Brixton goal. Life at the Scrubs was not without a certain gloomy dignity; a prisoner could pass his days there with no affront to his manhood and the men he met were often rumbustious sinners with a tale to tell. Here everything was mean and degrading – the very appearance of the place was grimed…

“C Wing, in which most of the convicted men were herded, was a ‘hall’ about half the size of those in the Scrubs, but housed more prisoners, since they were crammed three to a cell. This leads to the most filthy pollution. Imagine an airless cell, scarcely large enough for one man, filled with the bunks, the bodies, the clothes and the chamber-pots of three. If it were an ordinary bedroom or a ship’s cabin it would be monstrously unhygienic, but when it is an almost windowless cell in which men are locked without respite from half-past five in the afternoon to seven o’clock the next morning it becomes foul and pestilential beyond all words…

“The whole place stank. The cells at night were pigsties and the effect of this gloom and neglect on the wretched prisoners was evident. Abject creatures, for the most part they made no attempt to keep their spirits up, or show any of the generous geniality of men suffering together, but grumbled and blasphemed in the filthiest terms, abandoning themselves to the atmosphere of shame and abomination which filled the place like a cold miasma.”

“The Verdict of You All” is a book of highly personal comment and description – one man’s account of his experiences in prison. His account may be true, it may be false, it may be a mixture of the two. Every reader must be his own judge of the category in which it should be placed. The author is a novelist, has naturally a good command of words, can tell his story well. Inevitably, there must lurk a suspicion that harbouring a feeling of injustice (he strenuously denies that he was guilty of the charges brought against him) he may tell the story too well. In spite of himself, indignation may get the better of judgment. Resentment may carry him beyond the limit of accuracy. Situations, conditions, may become over-coloured. In the last analysis, only those who have themselves been subjected to his experiences can confirm or deny his story.

This much, however, can be said: If it is, in fact, an essentially reliable and authentic account of life as it is actually lived in such prisons today, then it is a downright, uncompromising challenge to all the fine words that have been said about the reforms in our penal system. If it is but half true, it is a grim and sorry reflection on the efforts of those reformers who have laboured over the years to improve conditions in our prisons.

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