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The most sustained and vocal resistance came from political prisoners for whom, in the 1790s, the penitentiary came to be a symbol of political repression. While political radicals were confined in prisons of all types, particular use was made in the late eighteenth century of the new penitentiaries. They had the facilities for isolating political prisoners from ordinary prisoners, and their better perimeter security could more effectively deter the 'jail delivery riots' to free political prisoners which had become an integral part of the eighteenth-century British political tradition.38 Moreover, the privileges that had been accorded the gentlemen dissenters of the likes of John Wilkes and Lord George Gordon were not extended in the penitentiaries to the radical artisans of the 1790s. This impairment of political tradition was often accomplished by detaining the radicals under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Acts, which suspended the writ of habeas corpus in certain offences (including treason) for up to a year, permitting arrest and detention without trial, merely on authority of writs issued by the king's secretaries. For the political radicals, therefore, the road to solitary confinement in the penitentiary was characterized by the denial of due process of law. The Jacobin prisoners argued that solitary confinement was a violation of the rights of ordinary prisoners awaiting trial on criminal charges and, presaging a challenge that was to be made in Canada some two hundred years later, that it was a cruel and unconstitutional punishment for those under sentence.

The resistance of political prisoners to the penitentiary took many forms. Ignatieff describes the protest of Kyd Wake, a printer who was sentenced to five years' hard labour in 1796 for hissing and booing the king as he drove in his carriage to the opening of Parliament. This protest took the form of an engraving made by Kyd Wake's wife to raise money to provide extra food for her husband who was imprisoned in Gloucester Penitentiary. This was Kyd Wake's plea against solitary confinement:

Five years' confinement, even in common gaols must surely be a very severe punishment; but if Judges or Jurors would only reflect seriously on the horrors of solitary imprisonment under penitentiary discipline!! If they would allow their minds to dwell a little on what it is to be locked up, winter after winter.. for 16 hours out of the 24, in a small brick cell -without fire -without light -without employment and scarcely to see a face but those of criminals or turnkeys. No friend to converse with when well; or to consult with or to complain to when. indisposed. Above all -to be subjected to a thousand insults and vexations, almost impossible to be described, and therefore scarcely to be remedied; but by which continual torment may be, and often is, inflicted. If they would but consider what an irreparable misfortune it is to have a considerable portion of life so wearisomely wasted; they would surely be more tender of dooming any man, for a long time, to such wretchedness. It is a calamity beyond description, more easily to be conceived than explained.39

Gilbert Wakefield, a classical scholar and lecturer at Hackney Dissenting Academy, was sentenced to two years in Dorchester Penitentiary for seditious utterance. He wrote of his experience, 'I wonder that men can endure solitary confinement without distraction, melancholy and despair ...Surely such annihilation from active life is highly cruel.'4O

Coldbath Fields, modelled after Gloucester, opened in 1794. In 1798, the radical artisans of the London Corresponding Society (a working-man's political organization) were imprisoned there, and they mounted a steady attack on the regime of solitary. An article in the society's magazine described the regime as 'an ingenious mode of intellectual torture.' It asserted that 'remorse is to the intellect what the rack is to the body.'41

In a debate in the House of Commons in 1800 following the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the treatment of prisoners at Coldbath Fields, one member of the Opposition said of the new penitentiary discipline, 'The late Mr Howard was certainly one of the worthiest men who had ever existed ...[but] if he had been one of the worst he could not have suggested a punishment of a more cruel and mischievious description ...inconsistent with the Constitution of the country.'42

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Coldbath Fields Penitentiary and Kyd Wake