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Hunger Strikes in British Prisons, 1913-1940  > 
Hunger Strike in British Prisons 1913-1940


In the entire record, spanning from the second half of 1913 to the first half of 1940, there were 1,159 recorded hunger strikes. These strikes were spread over 52 prisons across Britain, though 4 of the prisons could not be identified. 

As the tables below show, more than one-third of strikes (more than 500) had no record of force feeding, by far the largest group in "Methods of Force Feeding." The "Reasons for Strikes" chart contains more diversity. Prisoners who went on hunger strikes did so for a wide variety of reasons, though nearly a third fell under the larger category of a complaint about punishment. Still, more than a fifth of strikers refused to give a reason, which appears to discredit the strike as a desire to redress a grievance or bring about change. 

There is much to learn from the record of hungers strikes during this eventful era between the beginning of World War One and the beginning of World War Two. Below are several several conclusions and analyses based on examination of the data.

Conclusions and Findings

Everyday Prisoners, Everyday Problems

This record of more than one thousand prison hunger strikes clearly shows that prisoners carried out strikes for a variety of reasons. But it also shows that not all of them, in fact a minority of them, were ideologically driven. Of course, there were conscientious objectors protesting the injustice of national conscription, and Irish nationalist groups coordinating to protest British rule. There were also individuals who went on hunger strikes to protest laws or conditions which they considered unjust.

But a majority of the cases appear to be carried out by common criminals, men and women convicted of crimes such as robbery, assault, or fraud. These prisoners went on hunger strikes as a response to their individual and immediate situation, protesting their innocence, demanding better treatment in prison, or complaining about prison conditions.

But Ideology Behind Busy Years

Even if most of the strikes were attributed to individual concerns or complaints, Politically-driven strikes were most noticeable in years of great activity in the record. As the table below shows, the three most active years for strikes were 1918 (103), 1921 (102), and 1939 (107). Unlike most years, these three years each had a major political group going on hunger strikes. In 1918, the last year of World War One, it was conscientious objectors. In 1921 there were the Connaught Rangers and Sinn Fein prisoners from the Anglo-Irish War. Finally, in 1939 there were Irish Republican Army prisoners arrested for conspiracies against Britain.  

Expectation of Results?

Why did so many prisoners go on hunger strikes, if even for seemingly petty reasons? This suggests an expectation that the strikes would help effect change, either by forcing the hands of prison officials directly, or by drawing enough attention to a problem to force redress. Throughout the record are examples of men and women explaining their reason for striking by stating a belief that it will force officials to address their problems.

But what does this mean for the nearly 250 strikes for which prisoners refused to give a reason? By not identifying a problem, how could they hope to force its redress? Perhaps these men and women, like others who explicitly stated so, were simply seeking to protest.

Repeat Offenders

A cursory study of the data reveals that many of the strikes were carried out by the same men and women. More than 125 prisoners went on at least two strikes, with many going on quite a few more. It appears that during their sentence, prisoners would periodically go on hunger strikes for several days, usually for the same or similar reasons. While some strikers admitted to simply desiring to cause trouble, the repeated strikes of so many prisoners suggests a sincere belief that such actions could draw attention to their problems and bring about change.

Decline in Questions of Mental Condition

One noticeable trend in the hunger striker record was the decline of officials attributing strikes to a prisoner's mental condition. Indeed, of the 59 total cases attributed to mental conditions, well over half of them (38) came in the first 5 years, compared to only 2 cases over the last 5 years. What explains this decline? Perhaps care for the mentally ill had improved over the course of the record, and less were being housed in prison. Parliament had passed the Mental Deficiency Act in 1913, which set up protocols to keep "mental defectives" in separate institutions and out of prisons. It is possible that it took a few years to fully implement the new law, which would explain why there were so many more cases of strikes by men and women later deemed insane in the early years than in the later.

What about Force Feedings?

Over the course of the entire record, more than 4 out of 10 strikes had no record of force feeding. This number was especially high in the last years of the record (in fact, strikes with no force feeding records made up at least half of all strikes for every year during the 1930s). What explains the marked decline in force feedings? Similarly, did force feeding policy differ by prison? Were officials given the freedom to choose which methods they used, and how often? Such questions would require further study of Home Office policy, but could provide interesting details about the nature of hunger strikes in British prisons.