The state prisoners [letter from the Eureka Rebellion prisoners, 14 February 1855]
[Editor: A letter from the Eureka Rebellion prisoners. Published in The Age, 14 February 1855.]
The state prisoners
The following is the copy of a letter addressed by the state prisoners now awaiting their trial in the Melbourne Gaol to the Sheriff, complaining of the treatment they have received:—
Her Majesty’s Gaol, Melbourne,
February 6th, 1855.
To the Sheriff of the Colony of Victoria:—
Sir — As the chief officer of the Government regulating Prison Discipline in Victoria, we, the undersigned Ballarat state prisoners, respectfully beg to acquaint you with the mode of our treatment since our imprisonment in this Gaol, in the hope that you will have the goodness to make some alterations for the better.
At seven o’clock in the morning we are led into a small yard of about thirty yards long and eight wide, where we must either stand, walk or seat ourselves upon the cold earth (no seats or benches being afforded us), and which at meal times serves as chair, table, &c., with the additional consequence of having our food saturated with sand, dust and with every kind of disgusting filth which the wind may happen to stir up within the yard.
We are locked in, about three o’clock in the afternoon, four or five of us together, in a cell whose dimensions are three feet by twelve, being thus debarred from the free air of Heaven for sixteen hours out of the twenty-four. The food is of the very worst description ever used by civilised beings. We are debarred the use of writing materials except for purposes of pressing necessity; are never permitted to see a newspaper; and strictly prohibited the use of tobacco and snuff. We have been subjected to the annoyance of being sometimes stripped naked, a dozen men together, when a process of “searching” takes place that is debasing to any human being, but perfectly revolting to men whose sensibilities have never been blunted by familiarity with crime — an ordeal of examination, and the coarse audacity with which it is perpetrated, as would make manhood blush, and which it would assuredly resent, as an outrage upon common decency in any other place than a prison. And again, when the visiting Justice takes his rounds, we are made to stand bareheaded before him, as if &c.
We give the Government the credit of believing that it is not its wish we should be treated with such unsparing malignity and apparent malice, and also believe that if you, sir, the representative of Government in this department, had been previously been made acquainted with this mode of treatment, you would have caused it to be altered. But we have hitherto refrained from troubling the Government on the subject, in expectation of a speedy trial, which now appears to be postponed sine die.
We, each of us, can look back with laudable pride upon our lives, and not a page in the record of the past can unfold a single transgression which would degrade us before man, or for which we would be condemned before our Maker. And we naturally ask why we should be treated as if our lives had been one succession of crime, or as if society breathed freely once more at being rid of our dangerous and demoralising presence. Even the Sunday, that to all men in Christendom is a day of relaxation and comparative enjoyment, to us is one of gloom and weariness, being locked up in a dreary cell from three o’clock Saturday evening, till seven on Monday morning (except for about an hour and a half on Sunday), thus locked up in a narrow dungeon for forty consecutive hours! We appeal to you, and ask was there ever worse treatment in the worst days of the Roman Inquisition, for men whose reputation had never been sullied with crime?
We therefore humbly submit that, as the State only looks at present to our being well secured, we ought to be treated with every liberality consistent with our safe custody, and that any unnecessary harshness or arrogant display of power is nothing more or less than wanton cruelty.
Some of us, for instance, could while away several hours each day in writing, an occupation which, while it would fill up the dreary vacuum of a prison life, would lend elasticity to the mind, as would the moderate use of snuff and tobacco, cheer it and soothe that mental irritation consequent upon seclusion. But that system of discipline which would paralyse the mind and debilitate the body — that would destroy intellectual as well as physical energy and vigor, cannot certainly be of human origin.
Trusting you will remove these sources of annoyance and complaint,
We beg to subscribe ourselves,
Your obedient servants,
[Here follow the names.]
The Age (Melbourne, Vic.), 14 February 1855, p. 5
sine die = (Latin) “without day”; in legal terms “sine die” means “without a day being fixed”; in this instance, without a day being designated for a trial
[Editor: Corrected “sand dust” to “sand, dust”; “wile away” to “while away”.]