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An essay by Hans Christian Andersen

The Prison-Cells

Title:     The Prison-Cells
Author: Hans Christian Andersen [More Titles by Andersen]

By separation from other men, by solitary confinement, in continual silence, the criminal is to be punished and amended; therefore were prison-cells contrived. In Sweden there were several, and new ones have been built. I visited one for the first time in Mariestad. This building lies close outside the town, by a running water, and in a beautiful landscape. It resembles a large white-washed summer residence, window above window.

But we soon discover that the stillness of the grave rests over it. It is as if no one dwelt here, or like a deserted mansion in the time of the plague. The gates in the walls are locked: one of them is opened for us: the gaoler stands with his bunch of keys: the yard is empty, but clean--even the grass weeded away between the stone paving. We enter the waiting-room, where the prisoner is received: we are shown the bathing-room, into which he is first led. We now ascend a flight of stairs, and are in a large hall, extending the whole length and breadth of the building. Galleries run along the floors, and between these the priest has his pulpit, where he preaches on Sundays to an invisible congregation. All the doors facing the gallery are half opened: the prisoners hear the priest, but cannot see him, nor he them. The whole is a well-built machine--a nightmare for the spirit. In the door of every cell there is fixed a glass, about the size of the eye: a slide covers it, and the gaoler can, unobserved by the prisoner, see everything he does; but he must come gently, noiselessly, for the prisoner's ear is wonderfully quickened by solitude. I turned the slide quite softly, and looked into the closed space, when the prisoner's eye immediately met mine. It is airy, clean, and light within the cell, but the window is placed so high that it is impossible to look out of it. A high stool, made fast to a sort of table, and a hammock, which can be hung upon hooks under the ceiling, and covered with a quilt, compose the whole furniture.

Several cells were opened for us. In one of these was a young, and extremely pretty girl. She had lain down in her hammock, but sprang out directly the door was opened, and her first employment was to lift her hammock down, and roll it together. On the little table stood a pitcher with water, and by it lay the remains of some oatmeal cakes, besides the Bible and some psalms.

In the cell close by sat a child's murderess. I saw her only through the little glass in the door. She had had heard our footsteps; heard us speak; but she sat still, squeezed up into the corner by the door, as if she would hide herself as much as possible: her back was bent, her head almost on a level with her lap, and her hands folded over it. They said this unfortunate creature was very young. Two brothers sat here in two different cells: they were punished for horse stealing; the one was still quite a boy.

In one cell was a poor servant girl. They said: "She has no place of resort, and without a situation, and therefore she is placed here." I thought I had not heard rightly, and repeated my question, "why she was here," but got the same answer. Still I would rather believe that I had misunderstood what was said--it would otherwise be abominable.

Outside, in the free sunshine, it is the busy day; in here it is always midnight's stillness. The spider that weaves its web down the wall, the swallow which perhaps flies a single time close under the panes there high up in the wall--even the stranger's footstep in the gallery, as he passes the cell-doors, is an event in that mute, solitary life, where the prisoners' thoughts are wrapped up in themselves. One must read of the martyr-filled prisons of the Inquisition, of the crowds chained together in the Bagnes, of the hot, lead chambers of Venice, and the black, wet gulf of the wells--be thoroughly shaken by these pictures of misery, that we may with a quieter pulsation of the heart wander through the gallery of the prison-cells. Here is light, here is air;--here it is more humane. Where the sunbeam shines mildly in on the prisoner, there also will the radiance of God shine into the heart.

[The end]
Hans Christian Andersen's essay: Prison-Cells