Monday, February 15, 2010

John Fabian Witt Gets it Wrong in Slate

In a book review for, John Fabian Witt observed, "Conditions in the British camps and ships in and around New York were what one would expect in the era before modern medicine and modern military logistics." A professor of legal history at Columbia University, Witt reviewed the book by Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

In February 1779, The New Hampshire Gazette (Exeter, NH) reported "greatly emaciated and infeebled" prisoners returning from the prison ships of New York City. The author wrote, "So the excuse made by the enemy, that the prisoners were emaciated, and died by a contagious sickness, which no one could prevent, is futile; it requires no great sagacity to know, that crowding people together without fresh air, and feeding, or rather starving them in such a manner...must unavoidably produce a contagion."

Witt's claim that murderous neglect of prisoners somehow met expectations for the era proves incorrect. Americans and Frenchmen of the Revolutionary Era rightly surmised that lethal conditions for prisoners resulted from a decision by British personnel, not from mere accident of circumstance.

John Fabian Witt, “Ye Olde Gitmo: When Americans were unlawful combatants,” Slate, 9 Dec. 2008, (accessed 15 Feb. 2010); The New Hampshire Gazette (Exeter, NH), 9 Feb. 1779

Thursday, February 11, 2010

coercive treatment

In May 1778, the Continental Congress published a message recommended for reading in every house of worship in the United States.

Congress remarked of British forces, "Their victories have been followed by the cool murder of men, no longer able to resist; and those who escaped from the first act of carnage, have been exposed, by cold, hunger, and the tedious hours of confinement, or to become the destroyers of their countrymen, of their friends, perhaps, dreadful idea! of their parents or children."

Congress observed, "Nor was this the outrageous barbarity of an individual, but a system of deliberate malice, stamped with the concurrence of the British legislature, and sanctioned with all the formalities of law."

Shortly after the war, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Jean Baptiste Meusnier, "This was the most afflicting to our prisoners of all the cruelties exercised on them. The others affected the body only, but this the mind; they were haunted by the horror of having, perhaps, themselves shot the ball by which a father or a brother fell."

Worthington Chauncey Ford, editor, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Volume 11: May 2-September 1, 1778 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1908), page 476. Albert Ellery Bergh, editor, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson 20 vols. (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1907), 17:101

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Implausible Denial: British Prisoner Abuse was Policy, Not Accident

In 2008, Basic Books (New York) published Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War by historian Edwin G. Burrows. Burrows, Distinguished Professor of History at Brooklyn College (City University of New York), won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 with Mike Wallace, as coauthor of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

With Forgotten Patriots, Burrows offered a compelling contribution to several recent reexaminations of prisoner treatment by the British during the Revolution. Burrows, however, believed the British did not intend to let prisoners die of disease and starvation. The idea that Tory personnel and British commanders did not intend for squalid conditions to prevail, and for prisoners to suffer and die horribly, contradicts the story Burrows himself told of persistent neglect, uninterrupted by official intervention, and actively concealed by dubious denials from British personnel in British-occupied New York City.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

February 24, 1776

Pennsylvania Evening Post published news of the Society for Relieving the Distress of Prisoners.

The distress of imprisoned debtors moved "many of the inhabitants" of Pennsylvania to found the Society. The Society hoped to promote the debtors' release ("enlargement"). "To find many, whose labour might be useful to the public, languishing out their days in a prison, when the payment of their fees would have set them at liberty long ago, must strongly urge the feeling mind to solicit their enlargement."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tories pondering Prison Ships?

To counter the Labour Party policy that allows releasing inmates up to 18 days before their scheduled release, the Conservative Party (Tories) are considering prison ships as a possible option. The mere possibility of prison ships may not originate with the thoughtful deliberations of Britain's elected representatives in Parliament, but with Andy Coulson, the communications director for Member of Parliament David Cameron, the head of the Conservative Party and Leader of the Opposition. An anonymous Tory told British paper The Observe that prison ships do not figure in a draft of the party's policy on crime.

After housing inmates for eight years, Britain's last floating prison, HMP The Weare, was retired in 2005. The Observer reported of The Weare, "The ship's temporary stint as a jail was controversial, with the chief inspector of prisons denouncing it as unfit for purpose because of the lack of access to fresh air and exercise."