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(This is believed to be a lost article by John MacLean and was rediscovered by the author of John MacLean and Conspiracies, Jim Clayson, which is available to read on our site. This article first appeared in "The Red Dawn" Vol. I. No 1, March 1919; pp 8-9.;)


John MacLean prison photograph 1916Life in a 'local' prison such as that dismal one called Duke Street Prison is very different from life in a 'convict' prison such as Peterhead Prison, so I shall confine myself to a word or two about Peterhead.

In that Scottish abode of scientific torture your hair is cropped very close and is kept close by being cut once a fortnight. However, a boys' brigade bonnet of thick, brown, matted wool keeps the head quite warm. You are supplied with strong well-nailed boots, cell shoes, woollen stockings, moleskin knickers and waistcoat, a strong jacket of brown, matted wool like the bonnet, a warm semmet, a durable shirt and a pair of drawers. In winter heavier drawers and semmets are given out along with mittens for those working outside. The only complaint one can make about the clothing is the use of knickers instead of ordinary trousers. Trousers would do away with the need for moleskin leggings, which are supplied during the winter. the clothing is perfectly comfortable and the underclothing is kept clean and sanitary by being washed once a fortnight. Instead of a waterproof each prisoner has a 'slop' the name for an overall jacket. If the weather is wet prisoners do not go out to work, and if out when heavy rain falls they are allowed to seek shelter till it goes off, or until the time for returning to the prison - for most outside work is done far beyond the prison walls.  Prisoners are entitled to dry clothing if they have received a wetting.

However to torment prisoners and to develop colds, sometimes torn, badly patched and very thin and threadbare clothes are supplied to prisoners; and the warders, or 'officers' as they are called, can refuse to give a man dry clothes. Time and again I got semmets holy and threadbare at the back and over the left lung to start a cold. The shirt and the semmet would often be without buttons, to lay bare the breast to cold. On these occasions I kept on the dirty semmet or shirt and returned the dangerous one. The doctor at Perth prison is a masterpiece at this 'scientific carelessness' intended to injure the prisoner.

The cell in Peterhead is about four feet broad, eight feet long, and less than seven feet high-- just a little box. However in the spring of 1918 two cells in 'A' hall were knocked into one for English prisoners brought up to help construct an aerodrome beside Petrhead harbour, and I suppose that in time the little cell will be abolished. The cell window is very small and broad spars outside prevent much light entering the cell. The glass is so twisted that the prisoner cannot see out. The purpose is to make him brood and fret. Imagine, if you can, how dreary a Sunday must be to a man who cannot read or to whom reading is a difficulty and not a pleasure! And many convicts are illiterate. The only relief on a Sunday is twenty minutes exercise, service at the chapel and Sunday School for Protestants if they care to attend. Each cell is heated by warmed air from the hall. The air in the hall is heated by American stoves burning cole, and enters the cell by two slits or openings atDuke Street Prison, Glasgow the foot of the door. Most cells are very cold in winter as the method of heating is of no use, and to wrap oneself round with blankets is a crime the governor can punish by sendind a man to the 'separate' cells, each more miserable than the others. Of course, anyhing can be made a crime, and by nagging and threatening to bring men before the governor the warders are able to make their charges lives unbearable. the purpose is to break up the men's nervous system, and veritable wrecks are made of many. It is the systematic nagging that causes periodic outbursts of the men against one another and against the warders. It must be borne i mind that the warders just carry out the instructions that come from the head warder and finally from the doctor, and that they are watched to see that they carry out their instructions. Of course, if they were men they would refuse to do their vile work and leave the job altogether....

In all the small cells the bed consists of a hammock, a mattress, two sheets, two blankets (three in winter) and a cover. It is very comfortable, but one can only use it between 8.30 pm and 5 a.m. unless the doctor gives special permission to use it at other times.

At 5 a.m. a bell rings and every prisoner must get up, make his bed and wash. About 5.30 a.m. the orderlies serve out a big pot of porridge containing half a pound of meal and three-quarters of a pint of skimmed milk. At 7 a.m. the cell doors are opened and all make for the yard, each to his own group or 'party' where he is searched. Then each party proceeds to work, formerly in the granite quarry but latterly in the Admiralty yard. At 11.30 all are in the yard again ready to be searched before proceeding to the cells for dinner, which used to consist of a pint of broth, seven oz. of beef, six oz. of bread with variations as to potatoes, cheese, etc. Out all must turn again at 1 p.m. to return at 5.30 p.m. when a supper of 14 oz of dry bread and a pint of coffee was served out (less since 1917). The prisoner has from then till 8.30 p.m. to read or amuse himself as best he can. The books are all selected because they suggest murder, suicide, imprisonment, poisoning, ghosts and all such morbid ideas as are not healthy for the mind that is not very strong.

Peterhead Prison, ScotlandThe general condition of food, clothing, and bedding are superior to those of multitudes outside prison, and the hours of labour are fairly short and not over-straining. Prisoners are not supposed to speak except in connection with work, but they do speak nevertheless. This is partly winked at, as it enables the authorities to use prisoners as spies to find out what others are thinking.

After one settles down the days, the weeks, the months, and the years slip in very quickly if one is a reader. As a matter of fact, one could enjoy twenty years in Peteread better than ten in a coal mine, say, were all I have described the only side of Peterhead life. I enjoyed my first stay in Peterhead until the 'fun' began, and then it was an intractable hell through the drugging of the food.

This time I refused to take the food, and so was forcibly fed from July I intil two days before my release. There is nothing wrong with forcible feeding if you get get milk, switched eggs, margarine and bovril. One could live for years thus fed and yet be perfecty healthy. I felt very well all the time, getting out twice a day for exercise and sitting the rest of the day reading or looking out of the hospital cell window (large and plain glass) into Peterhead harbour. Although the doctor developed bronchitis in my left bronchial tube, still I had a far better time on this last ocasion than formerly as I pinned the doctor down to full responsibility for my condition. However he has left me with a legacy I shall keep whilst alive. If the treatment meeted out to C.O.'s, Sinn Feiners, and myself inspires all Socialists to kill the great enemy, Capitalism, this year, then we have not suffered confinement and its consequences in vain."

Image 1 - John MacLeans prison photograph 1916


Image 2 - Duke Street Prison, Glasgow


Image 3 - Peterhead Prison