Monday, February 29, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE PRISON DIARY OF A. C. BARRINGTON” by John Pratt (Otago University Press, $NZ29:99)
            It is rarely that I am troubled by the title of a book. But I am mildly troubled by the title given to this one. The Prison Diary of A.C. Barrington is subtitled Dissent and Conformity in Wartime New Zealand. A.C. Barrington was, as we shall see, a New Zealand pacifist and conscientious objector who was imprisoned for eight months during the Second World War. The title suggests that we are being presented with his diary. The subtitle – especially with that word “dissent” in it – suggests that the focus will be on Barrington’s dissenting pacifist views.
But while these things are part of the book’s story, this is not what it is mainly about.
You will note that the book’s author is in fact John Pratt, a distinguished professor of criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. John Pratt uses Barrington’s diary to give us a case study in imprisonment and a detailed view of what New Zealand prisons used to be like. In effect, The Prison Diary of A.C. Barrington is a work of criminology, with John Pratt’s text using selected quotations from Barrington’s diary to illustrate his points. Pratt does remark that, given the nature of prison life, there are many repetitions in Barrington’s diary and the diary in its full form does not make for exciting reading. As he notes at one point, Barrington endured “the drab monotony of prison life where every day was entirely and deliberately predictable.” (Chapter 3, p. 83). Pratt has therefore presented selections from the diary thematically, rather than chronologically. Even so, I think the title should have been something other than The Prison Diary of A.C. Barrington given that the book is mainly the work of Professor Pratt.
Having got that out of the way, let’s consider who and what A.C.Barrington was. A devout Methodist layman, Archie Barrington (1906-86) was an active member of the CPS (Christian Pacifist Society). He was in Mount Crawford prison in Wellington from May to December 1941, having been convicted for, among other things, distributing in wartime the anti-war pamphlet “Defend Freedom and Peace at Home”. The better-known pacifist (and former decorated soldier) Ormond Burton was one of his fellow prisoners. It was illegal for prisoners to keep diaries in prison, but Barrington contrived to do so by writing about 800 words a day in the margins of published books that he was allowed to keep. Only after Archie’s death did his son John (who contributes this book’s detailed Introduction) discover these marginal diaries and hand them over to Professor Pratt for editing.
Both John Barrington and John Pratt point out the irony that New Zealand in the Second World War had a far harsher attitude towards Conscientious Objectors (COs) than did Britain, Canada, Australia or America – doubly odd in that New Zealand’s wartime Labour cabinet included men who had been prosecuted and imprisoned for opposing the First World War. Unlike Britain, when New Zealand introduced military conscription in 1940, it allowed no right of appeal. Pratt writes:
Clearly, New Zealand had not learnt the lessons of World War 1. In that earlier conflict it had enthusiastically followed the British policy of suppressing dissent, imprisoning around 400 whose CO claims were disallowed and, astonishingly, transporting a handful all the way to the front line in France, literally forcing them into uniforms as they did so. Archibald Baxter famously recalled being brutally subjected to this in We Will Not Cease. Little changed during World War II. Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser (himself imprisoned during World War I for sedition) explained to a Wellington police conference in 1940 that catching the distributors of subversive literature ‘had to take precedence over everything short of murder.’ ” (Chapter 1, pp.28-29)
In the final chapter of the book, entitled “Dissent, Intolerance and the Dark Side of Paradise”, Pratt returns to the topic of why New Zealand was so harsh towards its COs. He considers the idea that Labour Party leaders were partly intent on showing themselves to be respectable wartime patriots, rather than the subversives they had once seemed to be to New Zealand’s conservative majority. Pratt, however, does not really think this explains the case. Instead he believes “rather than this policy [of treating COs harshly] being seen as an aberration, it should be understood as one episode in the long history of intolerance and repression in this country: one that had deep structural causes, which the war and attendant issues now brought to the surface.” (Chapter 7, p.154) In short, Pratt joins those (like Bill Pearson, like Jamie Belich) who see early- and mid-20th century New Zealand as being a narrow-minded and intolerant society where “ the… emphasis on conformity, homogeneity, communitarianism and respect for state authority also led to high levels of informal and formal suppression of difference.” (Chapter 7, p.157) So “conshies” got roughed up and ridiculed by the country’s majority. Pratt quotes (in Chapter 7) particularly vindictive editorials, news-stories and letters-to-the-editor that were written to present COs in a bad light.
And yet there is another strain to this book’s presentation of Barrington’s sincere pacifist views. Many liberal, open-minded and fair people will realise that the First World War was not the same as the Second World War. Even now, historians can credibly see the first conflict as an imperialist melee between nations, all of which had interested motives. In other words, a purely imperialist war. By contrast, and even though the western Allies ultimately made common cause with Stalin’s genocidal regime, the Second World War had the clear purpose of stopping Hitler – a purpose which most people now would still applaud. Was it, I ask, really inconsistent of Labour leaders to oppose the prosecution of the earlier war but zealously support the prosecution of the latter? At one point, Pratt comes close to noting that Barrington’s views had at least an element of naivete to them:
“…. His beliefs remained unchanging and unflinching. His view – that both Britain and Nazi Germany bore equal culpability for the war – explains his dispassionate and equivocal reactions to war news he periodically received…. Subsequent revelations of Nazi atrocities were proof, for Barrington, of the evils that stemmed from war. (That a country should deliberately seek war to enable it to pursue such atrocities did not seem to occur to him.)” (Chapter 5, pp.122-123)
In his opening chapter, Pratt gives a potted history of how conscientious objectors and pacifists were treated in this country and elsewhere. But, as I have noted above, this is not really the focus of Pratt’s book. Pratt, the criminologist, is more interested in the nature of prisons and imprisonment.
He states early that Mount Crawford was one of New Zealand’s more lenient prisons – not a jail where hardened and violent criminals were imprisoned. In the months that Barrington was there, there was only one act of violence (recorded in Chapter 4), when a warder hit a prisoner. There was none of the stand-over tactics that hardened criminals often inflicted (and still inflict) on new arrivals and other vulnerable prisoners, such as happened (and still happens) in other prisons. At that time, New Zealand’s murderers, who faced the death penalty, tended to be incarcerated in Auckland’s Mt Eden prison. Hence A.C.Barrington’s experience was of a medium security prison:
By 1940 most New Zealand prisons were designed to accommodate the mainstream prison population who constituted only low- or medium-security risks…. One of the particularly important aspects of Barrington’s diary is thus that it describes not the most extreme form of maximum-security imprisonment, but the most typical, which Mount Crawford represented.” (Chapter 1, p.38)
Most of the inmates, we discover (in Chapter 5, “The Inmates”), were petty thieves, embezzlers and the like, who virtually expected prison to be a regular feature in their lives.  Though they observed a regular and rigid routine, the warders turned a blind eye to many of the prisoners’ social activities. “Most, it seems, chose not to pry too deeply into what the inmates were doing, as long as security, safety or prison routine were not ostensibly put at risk.” (Chapter 4, p. 94) While fretting at many of the boring things he had to endure, A.C.Barrington’s diary (as quoted at Chapter 4, p.90) shows him finding at least some sympathy for the warders who were locked into as dull a routine as the prisoners were. Barrington and his fellow COs were not the sort of “absolutist” pacifists who refused to cooperate with prison authorities or do any assigned work in prison. Instead, they tended cheerfully enough to the prison’s vegetable fields and pigpens. In return, the warders clearly regarded COs as “a better class of prisoner”, most of the COs being educated middle-class people as opposed to the prison’s petty criminal working-class old lags. There were some warders who played the system by taking food from the prison gardens for their own home use, and some who used unpaid prison labour for their own private work. For all that, the relationship between prisoners and warders was as mutually considerate as it could be in the circumstances.
On the positive side, Pratt infers from Barrington’s diary that New Zealand prisoners were fed far more generously than contemporaneous prisoners in English or Australian jails. Large, hot meals were served daily at Mount Crawford. On the negative side, the menu was nearly always the same and was, like so many aspects of prison life, very monotonous. (Chapter 3, pp.73 ff.) To vary the monotony, prisoners often scrabbled for different sources of food, even delving into garbage pails to retrieve unused fruit and vegetables.
The overall impression we get of this particular prison is that it was a place of petty annoyances. Strict and sometimes redundant regulations governed everything. A warder had to go through the cumbersome process of getting written permission before he could replace a blown light bulb in a prisoner’s cell. Loud radio broadcasts blared out most of the time, driving some prisoners to distraction. (Yet, surprisingly, Barrington was allowed a private radio in his cell, which he could listen to through headphones.) The prison library was a paltry thing containing hardly any books worth reading – a particularly irksome matter for literate and studious men like Barrington and Ormond. The clothing the prisoners had to wear was thin, worn and threadbare, which left many prisoners permanently cold in the prison’s chilly, windblown climate. Occasionally films were shown to prisoners, but they tended to be puerile entertainments or old newsreels. Visitors from outside – sometimes distinguished people – offered prisoners W.E.A. (Workers’ Educational Association) lectures. Of course some prisoners came to listen only so that they could surreptitiously pass notes to each other or trade cigarettes for biscuits, but the lectures were still a civilising influence. But any “lecture had to finish by the appointed time, otherwise the routine and rhythm of prison life would be disrupted.” (Chapter 2, p.48) Often, then, lecturers would be cut off in mid flow.
There is little in Barrington’s and Pratt’s account to move us to laughter, although we might smile wryly when Barrington, the devout Christian, notes in his diary: “Burning, tearing or defacing books in any way is strictly forbidden. (NB I notice that marked New Testament in my cell ends half way through St James Epistle, remainder having been torn out, possibly for toilet & cigarette paper).” (Chapter 2, pp.58-59)
In his lengthy commentary, what annoys Professor Pratt most is the way repeated attempts to reform prisons tended to come to nothing, and annual reports on prisons smoothly glossed over real problems. At the end of Chapter 2, Pratt remarks:
It is clear … that a very large gulf existed between the aspirations of the prison authorities – to develop a more reform-focused, ameliorated prison system – and the reality of prison life. The annual reports merely acted as a frontispiece for a prison system that was badly run down and that seemed to have little purpose other than maintaining its own continuity. The morass of prison regulations not only reinforced the subordinate status of the inmates and denied the warders any initiative, but also solidified the prison’s own impermeability.”  (Chapter 2, pp.63-64)
Of Mount Crawford in particular, he remarks at the end of Chapter 3:
Despite the intended reforms of the twentieth century, the prison had in fact lost little of the uniformity and predictability associated with its late-nineteenth-century administration. Incarceration was no longer intended to terrify prisoners away from crime and relentlessly crush any recalcitrance they might display, yet the underlying traditions and conditions were still in place, corrupting, narrowing and diminishing the supposed reform initiative. Any real prospects for reform were negated by the debilitating environment: a cold prison made colder by the unrelenting dampness of the Wellington winter; ramshackle farming practice; split or overflowing chamber pots; tea that tasted like porridge and porridge that tasted like tea; and disinterested warders supervising work about which they knew or cared little.” (Chapter 3, pp. 83-84)
Above all, the professional criminologist is angered that no real attempts were made to educate or rehabilitate prisoners:
Nothing was done to prevent them from returning after release; instead, the gates were simply opened to usher them back in. The prison’s main purpose was to provide a sanctuary – albeit a tawdry and shabby one, one that stripped men of their dignity and autonomy – for those whom society had discarded.” (Chapter 5, pp. 117-118)
            If we are expecting Pratt to tell us that New Zealand prisons have improved since the primitive 1940s, Chapter 6 (“Prison Past and Present”) gives us a rude shock. Mount Crawford prison, he notes, closed in 2012. But what we now have is more high security in all jails, with prisoners now clothed in high visibility suits, a far stricter separation of prisoners and prison officers (none of the affable interaction and chat that Barrington recorded) and the absolute impossibility of outside speakers coming in to offer civilising lectures. Instead, prisoners are pacified and mentally drugged with in-cell television. Worse, the median age of prisoners has got lower. 24% or prisoners in New Zealand jails are now under 24 years of age, with a far higher proportion being convicted of violent offences than was the case 70 years ago. It is Pratt’s belief that, now as then, New Zealand locks up far too many people and our prisons still do too little to really rehabilitate prisoners.
You can see that these issues take us quite some way from the prison experience of A.C. Barrington. I do not think that Barrington’s experience was particularly harsh. Eight months in a relatively humane prison is not the worst thing a CO could have endured. But I can see that the boredom and discomforts of prison could have numbed a less resilient soul.

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