Churchill on Prison

Winston Churchill’s thoughts on his time as a prisoner (of war)

I’m not sure, and am too lazy to verify, whether if Winston Churchill is the only head of a Commonwealth government to have been a prisoner; but there cannot have been many. (UPDATE: As my friend Malcolm Lavoie points out to me, Nelson Mandela is another example. It is rather stupid of me to have forgotten that and, as you will presently see, quite ironic.) Churchill did not long stay in captivity ― he escaped the converted school where he (a war correspondent at the time) and British officers taken prisoner during the early days of the Boer war were held ― but the experience still marked him, and he wrote about it in his memoir My Early Life, written in 1930:

[T]he whole atmosphere of prison, even the most easy and best regulated prison, is odious. Companions in this kind of misfortune quarrel about trifles and get the least possible pleasure from each other’s society. If you have never been under restraint before and never known what it was to be a captive, you feel a sense of constant humiliation in being confined to a narrow space, fenced in by railings and wire, watched by armed men, and webbed about with a tangle of regulations and restrictions. I certainly hated every minute of my captivity more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life. (273)

In My Early Life, Churchill says relatively little about his philosophy, and almost nothing about his political career in the 1910s and ’20s, focusing mostly on telling the story as he lived it at the time of the events. However the topic of imprisonment prompts a rare digression:

Looking back on those days, I have always felt the keenest pity for prisoners and captives. What it must mean for any man, especially an educated man, to be confined for years in a modern convict prison strains my imagination. Each day exactly like the one before, with the barren ashes of wasted life behind, and all the long years of bondage stretching out ahead. There in after years, when I was Home Secretary and had all the prisons of England in my charge, I did my utmost consistent with public policy to introduce some sort of variety and indulgence into the life of their inmates, to give to educated minds books to feed on, to give to all periodical entertainments of some sort to look forward to and to look back upon, and to mitigate as far as is reasonable the hard lot which, if they have deserved, they must none the less endure. (273-74)

This is, I think, something that those in charge of prison policy at various levels would do well to consider ― all the more since they, unlike Churchill, will typically lack the experience, however short, of the shoe being on the other foot.

And speaking of books for a mind to feed on, whether or not the body that houses it is in prison or at large, one can find worse than My Early Life. Though it is, no doubt, somewhat politically incorrect by our standards, the events it tells are fascinating; the author’s philosophical observations, though infrequent, are sharp; there is a somewhat wicked pleasure in reading it while knowing what Churchill did not know when it wrote it ― the events that would made him one of history’s great heroes, instead of a minor footnote; and last but not least, it is brilliantly written and thus simply a joy to read.

One thought on “Churchill on Prison

  1. This post is going to be a little bit off,but whenever I hear the name Chruchill always Nick Griffin comes to my mind when he was invited to the BBC studio and he was talking a lot of crazy things quoting Churchill. He managed to anger people so badly that they ended up fighting in front of the studio,it was hilarious. Ever since then the name Churchil makes me laugh. I guess I like to write creative novels which can be a bit off too,but I am most definitely not dangerous and hope am not so bad…

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