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Working the Treadmill

A vivid account of what it was like to work the treadmill On the chocolate-coloured door are painted, in white letters, the two words "Wheel-House". As the Governor's master key will open it, we will go in and see hard labour as it is.

As the door opens, the dull grinding sound that we heard outside grows a little louder and clearer. The door closes behind us with the inevitable clash and click of the returning bolt. The "house" is an apartment some thirty feet long and fifteen wide. On the left-hand side are the wheels...

Each wheel is divided into compartments, cutting off each prisoner from the other. The object of this is to prevent the prisoners from seeing and hearing each other, though I have heard from casual acquaintances who have "been there" that conversation in a low voice, pitched in a different key to that of "the music of the wheel", is perfectly easy and intelligible and that newcomers who understand the trick can, in a very short time, send the latest news of the outside world all through the prison while climbing up the 'endless staircase'.

At the farther end of the house from the door there is a gong fixed against the wall, and near this is a brass disc hung like the pendulum of a clock. Every fifteen minutes this swings back and strikes the bell. Then you hear the officers in charge sing out something like this:
"A1, B1, C1, D1."

And, as each letter and number is called out, a prisoner steps from the wheel on to the stilt-like steps behind his compartment, and goes thankfully to take his place on the seat, which at the same moment is vacated by another man, whose turn to take another climb has come. The regulations prescribe fifteen minutes on the wheel and five minutes off.

Not the least interesting feature of this depressing House of the Everlasting Stairs is the difference between the way in which the work is tackled by the old hands and the new ones. Just opposite to the gallery, on which we were standing, was a compartment occupied by a cleanly built young fellow of about twenty-two. saving for the monotony of the exercise, the wheel apparently troubled him very little. As each step of the "staircase" came under the edge of the wooden partition on which the handbars are fixed, his foot slipped up on to it and rested there with no apparent effort till it was time to move it up again.

On either side of him were men, pretty nearly twice his weight and a fourth as tall again, who were labouring at the same work in a style that made one's knees and thighs ache to look at them. They were making the mistake of putting their feet on too late. The result was that they were no sooner on them than they had to be off again, for the treadwheel has a way of its own with laggards. If the foot remains an instant too long on the step it moves away from under; so the foot slips off, and the next step scrapes the ankle and instep in no gentle fashion. The resulting attitude is undignified even for a felon, added to which the officer in charge generally has something pungently unpleasant to say on the subject.

The difference in the amount of labour done in the same time was very noticeable when the periods of rest came round. The young-old hand stepped down cool and calm, and looked about him with a smiling air of superiority; with the air, in short, of a man who knows his work, and can do it with the least possible effort. The new hands, possessing twice his strength, climbed bunglingly down, limped towards the seats of rest, and sat gasping and sweating, elbows on knees and head hanging forward between their hands, from which it follows that, even on the treadwheel, there is scope for practised skill and natural aptitude.