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Hester Pulter

For the 'Editing Hester Pulter' project website, click here.

Hester Pulter

is the big discovery in Perdita, my project on women's mauscripts, so I am anxious to know what you think--the poems I will talk about are listed on the Lecture List so do read tham

At the moment some of her poems are available in the Early Modern Women's Manscript Poetry anthology edited by Gillian Wright and Jill Millman--as I did the Hester Pulter section in this book I am posting here my introduction and notes to the poems.

In the bokshop there should be the new edition of the manuscript published by my research student Alice Eardley--the notes are very good. When she was here she also did a web edition of many of the poems--there is also a film done by a URSS student on the Renaissance Centre website, under completed Projects.

Introductory Note

Hester Pulter’s handsomely-bound manuscript, MS Lt q 32, came to light in the mid-1990s, when it was found to be mis-catalogued in the Brotherton Library, the University of Leeds, by Mark Robson. It is entitled ‘Poems Breathed forth By The Nobel Haddassas’ although in fact only the first 130 folios are taken up with poetry: the final thirty folios of the manuscript consists of the transcription of an unfinished romance, ‘The Unfortunate Florinda’, written in from the back of the manuscript, and inverted. The transcription of the romance seems to have begun in 1660: dating of the poems and watermarks suggest a transcription date in the mid 1650s for the main body of the poetry, although some of the titles include dates from the 1640s. Folios 90r-130v are designated a separate ‘Booke of Emblemes’, 51 poems, which, although they have no accompanying illustrations, follow the fable-like narrative and moralising tone characteristic of the seventeenth-century emblem. Most of the manuscript is in a scribal hand, although there are corrections in a hand which is probably Hester Pulter’s own. ‘Hadassas Chast ffances’ on the bound volume’s second title page and a description on the emblems’ title page, ‘The sighes of a sad soule Emblimatically breath’d forth by the noble Hadassah’, are both inscribed in this hand, as are three of the later poems, two dated January 1665 (fols. 84v, 87r and 88v). A hand which appears throughout the manuscript in an annotating capacity seems to be that of an eighteenth-century antiquary who took an interest in the manuscript, transcribing what remains of the second book of ‘The Unfortunate Florinda’, adding a Pulter family tree and, probably, submitting the manuscript for binding. This hand has been tentatively identified by Sarah Ross as that of Angel Chauncey, grandson of the antiquarian Sir Henry Chauncey (Ross, 2000, p. 162). He gives a great deal of biographical information on the Pulters in his two-volume work of 1700, The Historical Antiquities of Hertfordshire (vol I: 141-147).

Hester Pulter’s poems are in various genres. Several refer to events of her life: pregnancy, illness, deaths of her children. A concern for her children is one of the two preoccupations of this volume: the other is her Royalism. Several of the poems are addressed to Charles I, and one is to the Royalist leaders shot at Colchester in 1648: several of the emblems carry a Royalist message. A few of the poems are religious lyrics in a familiar strain of seventeenth-century piety. However, many of the poems show a more wide-ranging intellectual interest. She seems to be familiar with the latest developments in alchemy, and astronomy (perhaps through the poetry of Sir Henry More). Her wide reading is apparent throughout the volume: her emblems are often taken from translations of Plutarch or Pliny, and she is clearly familiar with much contemporary poetry: one of her emblems employs the story of the Pied Piper, recently included by James Howell in his two 1640s editions of ‘Familiar Letters’. One long poem entitled ‘The Garden’ is a philosophical poem, composed, she says, at the request of her daughter Anne. Despite the literary and intellectual range of her work, she represents her authorial activity as a harmless way of occupying her time (fol. 104r). The only obvious audience for this volume is her children, for whom several of the poems are written: she represents herself as ‘shut up in A Country Grange’ (fol. 79r) and there is no evidence that her poems circulated. Despite this, she clearly felt knowledgable enough about Royalist literary culture of the Interregnum to write a satirical poem to Sir William Davenant on the loss of his nose from syphilis (fol. 83r).

Lady Hester Pulter

Hester Pulter was born in 1605, according to a manuscript written by her father, the daughter of James Ley, later Sir James Ley, the first Earl of Marlborough, and his first wife, Mary, née Petty, of Stoke Talmage in Oxfordshire. James Ley (1550-1629) was descended from the Ley family of Teffont Evias in Wiltshire. Hester was one of eleven surviving children.

There is some uncertainty about Hester’s date of birth if her poems are taken as evidence. A poem on fol. 88v of her manuscript is entitled ‘Made when my spirits were sunk very low with sickness & sorrow. May 1667 I being seventy one years old’. This would mean that Hester was born in 1596, but another poem in Pulter’s manuscript dates her birth from 1607. ‘Made when I was sick 1647’ describes her soul’s ‘forty years acquaintance’ with her flesh. ‘Alitheas Pearl’, an extended allegory of a Christian pilgrimage, contains the lines, ‘Thus have I liv’d a sad and weary life / Thirteen a Mayd, and Thirtie three a Wife’ (fol. 51r) — a statement which seems to fit with datings of the poems (1640s to 1665), and of her marriage to Arthur Pulter (around 1620). She represents herself in two poems as having been pregnant with her fifteenth child in 1648 (fols. 10v, 67r). It is most likely that Hester Pulter was born in 1607, in or around the Castle of Dublin and that perhaps the scribe mistook the date in the title of the ‘Made when my spirits were sunk very low’.

Hester’s sister Margaret is the addressee of Milton’s ‘Sonnet X. To the Lady Margaret Ley’. Edward Phillips asserts that Milton spent time in the company of Ley and her husband in the autumn and winter of 1643-4, after the departure of his wife, Mary Powell; he describes Lady Margaret as ‘a woman of great wit and ingenuity’, who ‘had a particular honour for [Milton], and took much delight in his company; as likewise her husband, Captain Hobson, a very accomplished gentleman’. Masson, pp. 56-7. Margaret Hobson and Hester Pulter allied themselves to opposing political factions in the 1640s and 1650s.

Hester Ley married Arthur Pulter, of the manor of Broadfield in Hertfordshire. If Hester were born in 1607 and married at the age of thirteen, it would have occurred in 1620. The christening of Hester and Arthur’s daughter Jane is recorded in the Cottered parish register on 1 May 1625 and another daughter, Mary, may have been born before Jane. Ten of her children’s names appear in the Cottered and Great Wymondley parish registers: Jane (1625), James (1627), Margaret (1629), Hester (1630), Penelope (1633), William (1634), Ann (1635), Arthur (1636), Edward (1638) and Elizabeth (1641). Three other children appear to have been a second daughter Mary; Charles, whose burial is recorded in Cottered parish register in January 1640; and John, with whom Pulter describes herself as being confined in 1648 (fol. 67r).

Arthur Pulter inherited Broadfield from his grandfather, Edward, at some time after 1620. Arthur was a Justice of the Peace, a Captain of the Militia and, in 1641, a Sheriff of the county. Sir Henry Chauncy, writing in 1700, explains that ‘shortly after the breaking forth of the late civil War, [Arthur Pulter] declin’d all publick Imployment, liv’d a retired life, and thro’ the Importunity of his Wife, began to build a very fair House of Brick upon this Mannor’ Chauncy, vol. 1, p. 145 Chauncy gives no intimation of the reason for his pejorative description of Hester Pulter’s character, but the house to which he refers is Broadfield, whose garden features prominently in her writing. Chauncy implies that Arthur Pulter spent the 1640s and 1650s in rural retirement at Broadfield with Hester. Hester’s poetry, written at Broadfield between the early 1640s and 1665, makes it clear that she, at least, was based there during these years (she appears to have remained resident there until her death.). Arthur resigned the sherrifdom ‘because of the Wars’: whichever side he supported (and perhaps the resignation suggests he wished to stay neutral) Hester Pulter’s occasional verses show that she was extremely Royalist.

The earliest poem that can be dated has Pulter composing poetry before 1645: much of her work seems to have been composed in the 1640s and 1650s, although a few poems are dated in the 1660s. The Cottered register contains the information that she was buried on 9th April 1678, having outlived all but two of her children. All the biographical information here is taken from Sarah Ross’ unpublished DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 2000: ‘Women and religious verse in English manuscript culture, c. 1600-1668: Lady Anne Southwell, Lady Hester Pulter and Katherine Austen’ pp. 99-173.

Hester Pulter, Leeds University Library, Brotherton Collection MS Lt q32 -c. Interpretetive notes

On the Same

Title. i.e. on the same subject as the previous poem in the manuscript, which is entitled ‘Upon the Death of my deare and lovely Daughter J.P.’ (fol.16v). ‘J.P.’ is Jane Pulter.

4. Cinthia] the moon.

7. Phebus] Phoebus Apollo, god of the sun.

12. Aurora] the dawn.

The Circle (notes supplied by Dr. Jayne Archer of Warwick University)

Title. i. e. life as an ongoing cycle of birth and death, here compared to the alchemical opus, the experimental process embarked on in order to try to produce the Philosopher’s Stone.. The opus and the Philosopher's Stone (the product of the opus) are traditionally represented as a circle, in which all contraries are finally united: see, for example, Ripley (1591). In alchemical emblems, this often takes the form of the ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail: see, for example, Maier (1617 and 1625).

1. Chimick Art] i e. alchemy, the transmutation (or refinement) of matter and spirit. 'Chymistry' was used increasingly during the seventeenth century to encompass both the technical/experimental and the religio-spiritual aspects of alchemy.

2. Nature in her Morning dress] A popular topos for scientific investigation in the early modern period, also used by alchemists. See Hester (1596: sig. A7), Ashmole (1652: sig. B4) and French (1664; sig. A3).

3. Mercurie and sulpher] In ancient alchemy, mercury (‘the white’, identified with the feminine principle) and sulphur (‘the red’, identified with the masculine principle) are the basic principles in all matter. In the alchemical opus, these two opposing principles are united in the so-called ‘chymical wedding’ which results in the Philosopher's Stone. In the early modern period, under the influence of Paracelsus, a third principle, ‘Salt’ was also identified. See, for example, Sendivogius (1650: p. 82).

7. Silver and in Gold] Referring both to metallic elements used in alchemical work, and also to the two opposing principles of Luna (the feminine principle) and Sol (the masculine principle), which are united in the Philosopher's Stone. Perhaps an allusion to those alchemists who wrongly concentrate on riches rather than spiritual transformation.

8. Fretting vermill poyson] i.e. vermillion (or ‘cinnabar’): mercuric sulphide, a reddish poison. Perhaps an allusion to the tradition that the Philosopher's Stone is highly poisonous just prior to its accomplishment.

9. Refin’d] i.e. spiritual as well as physical transmutation.

10. Calcind] calcination, the oxidation of a metal. A stage in the alchemical opus where the prima materia (‘first matter’) is subjected to intense and rapid heating, creating a black calx.

11. Urn] Perhaps an allusion to the alchemical vessel (limbeck), in which the alchemist transforms not simply the prima materia, but him/herself.

13. Man the Universe's chiefest Glory] Man the microcosm, in which all aspects of the macrocosm (i. e. the universe) are reflected. A central topos in ancient alchemy, and in the Emerald Tablet, the ‘bible’ of alchemy, in which it is written: ‘The structure of the microcosm is in accordance with the structure of the macrocosm.’

14. primitive's Dust] An allusion to Genesis 2: 7 (‘And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground’), often cited by alchemical writers, who compared the Creation to the alchemical opus. Cf. Vaughan (1650: p. 28).

To Aurora

Aurora, the Dawn, is a favourite of Hester’s: five poems are addressed to her. On the purely practical level, Pulter seems to have slept badly, and had bad dreams, and so always welcomed the dawn. However, Pulter also seems to mythologise her and give her a Christian significance. In his dictionary of poetic symbolism Mel Heliconium: or Poeticall Honey, Alexander Ross, His Majesty’s chaplain in ordinary, offers a Christian meaning for her: ‘Aurora is the daughter of Hiperion, which signifieth to go above; for it is from above that we have the light of the Sun, and every other good thing, even from the Father of lights’ (Ross 1642: 47). Later Ross suggests a more sacred reading: ‘Our Saviour is the true Aurora, who was in love with mankind’ (Ross 1642: 48).

4. July flower] gillyflower or carnation.

11-2. Astrea, i.e. Astraea, goddess of justice, was the daughter of Astreo (the father of the constellations) and Aurora.

17. Cinthie] the Moon.

25. Juno, Belona and the Queen of Love] These are all goddesses associated with the planets. Juno is the wife of Jupiter, Bellona is Roman goddess of War, often identified with the wife of Mars, the Queen of Love is Venus.

26. Derketo/Atargatis was mother of Semiramis, who turned into a dove.

27. In Beaumont’s 1625 masque The Theatre of Appollo Eliza Berecinthia is Elizabeth of Bohemia (daughter of James I).

28. Cruell Diana] Diana prevented Agamemnon from leaving for Troy until he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to her. She is also goddess of the moon.

29. Ceres] the Earth goddess.

31. Doris] wife of the sea-god Nereus.

32. Leucothia] Ino daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes was eventually turned into Leucothia, goddess of sea foam. She is connected with the constellation Aries as the children of Nephele whom she threatened were rescued by a ram with a golden fleece

33. Ises, the Cow, the Goddes, and the Maid] In Egyptian myth the goddess Isis could be a cow. She is associated with the star Sirius and the constellation Orion is associated with her husband Osiris. The Romans adopted the cult of Isis.

The perfection of Patience and knowledg

15. infranchised] released

24. the Trump doth Sound] at the Day of Judgement, when souls will be summoned from their graves by the last trumpet.

29-30. sublim’d/Wee shall discern this Globe Calcin’d] Sublimation is the extraction of spirit from matter, and the transformation of the spirit into the quintessence (the fifth essence or element of which all heavenly bodies are composed). Calcination is an early stage in the alchemical opus in which matter is heated very rapidly, leaving burnt, charred remains. Sublimed states and calcined states are opposites: the former is stable, immaterial and immortal; the latter is death-like, impure and mortal.

33-34. Sad Saturns … Malignancie] In astrological terms, the aspect of Saturn is gloomy and sad. For Pulter, the planet’s influence was particularly malignant because Saturn was said to have eaten his children, and thus the planet was thought to preside over the death of children.

35 Conjunctions] an astrological term referring to conjunctions of the planets which were thought to have particularly dramatic consequences for a nation.

42-44. See Paradise Lost, V, 166. On certain occasions the same planet, Venus, which is Vesperus, the evening-star, appears as Hesperus, the morning-star, the following morning. John Donne’s Paradox XI is on this subject.

This was written 1648, when I Lay Inn, with my Son John

17. Love sick EnDimion] In classical legend, Endymion was in love with the moon.

24. Venus, Usher to the Night and Day] See note on ll. 42-2 in ‘The perfection of patience and knowledg’.

36-7. Pulter is asking whether the Copernican model for the cosmos is more accurate than the Ptolemaic. Even in 1667 Milton did not feel able to commit himself to either system. Cf. Paradise Lost, IV, 592-7.

44. Four bright Attendents] The four moons of Jupiter had only recently been discovered. It is possible that Pulter read about them in Henry More’s Psychodia platonica: or A platonicall song of the soul, (Cambridge, 1642), p. 96. (I owe this reference to Dr. Sarah Hutton, of Middlesex University).

47. Cinthias] moons.

48 Fixed stars] the Milky Way.

52. Uglie Wife of Accharon] Orphne, or Gorgyra (meaning Darkness), was the wife of the river-god Acheron.

55. Eumenedes] The Furies, whose task was to punish human fugitives from justice

The Larke

The similarity of the action in this poem to the Mower episode in Marvell’s poem ‘Upon Appleton House’, (lines 390-430) supports Peter Davidson’s claim (Davidson 1999) that Pulter had read Marvell’s poetry in manuscript. Both poems depict a ‘Massaker’: but the episode in which the mower kills the bird in the nest by accident is turned by Pulter into an indictment of the careless ‘Rurall Clown’ who rather than mourn his mistake (as does Marvell’s mower), takes the one surviving bird home with him for his child to play with. The sweaty mower in Marvell’s poem smells like Alexander; Pulter’s ‘clown’ is sweaty in an unpleasant way. Pulter’s poem may have been suggested by Marvell’s ‘orphan parent’s call’ (line. 413): she clearly identifies strongly with the bereaved lark, and turns this episode into a bitter depiction of her compulsive theme, the loss of her children. Alternatively, both poets could have been drawing on a stanza in Giles Fletcher’s Christs victorie, and triumph (1610), p. 66, which depicts the same situation. Here, the bird is a lark, and the parent’s mourning song is a simile for the Virgin Mary’s lament at the death of Christ. Pulter clearly finds an affinity between the lark’s song and the female poetic voice.

1. Arachne] Arachne was turned into a spider by Minerva.

2. Tincile] tinsel: the spider’s web.

4. The Bane of Harmles sheep] **

26. Flora] goddess of flowers.

29. Clown] country bumpkin.

31. unbracet] with his clothing undone.

32. Temp’] the Vale of Tempe in Thessaly, Greece, was proverbially beautiful.

33. stew’d in sweet] soaked in sweat.

Gripple hide bound] tenacious, narrow-minded.

35. sweltring him] sweating profusely.

36. Purling] rippling, murmuring.

40. stradling] straddling: probably refers to the bandy-legged way he is walking.

57. Syth] scythe.

61. squale] a squalling child.

62. Who in a thred … Hale] The child puts a thread around the lark’s neck and pulls it tight.

Made when I was not well.

10 Erra Paters] Erra Pater, supposedly an ancient monk, was the author of an almanac with prognostications for the future.

sibbils] the Sybil, the ancient prophetess who lived at the Oracle in Delphi. See headnote to Jane Seager’s sibylline translations, above.

22. Sportive Wit] Also the title of an anthology of royalist verse published in 1656, which may have inspired Pulter’s use of the phrase.

24. Hester’s daughter Penelope, born in 1633, is obviously recently dead by this date.

To Sir Wm. D.

Title. Sir Wm. D.] Sir William Davenant, royalist poet and playwright.

the unspeakable loss] i.e. of his nose (see headnote).

2. Cheapside ... cross] the market cross at Cheapside, London, was a famous landmark.

3. Diall ... Gnoman] the gnomon is the upright post of the sundial, which casts the shadow.

8. one Flesh] i.e. having given a graft of flesh to Davenant’s face, with a pun on the sexual intimacy of marriage. There are a series of jokes in the poem drawing attention to the fact that Davenant had lost his nose through contracting a sexually-transmitted disease.

14. Blur my Fame] compromise my reputation.

15. Gallant Dame] fine-looking woman.

20. my Leg] a curtsey.

27. blind Boy] Cupid.

31-4. The ‘Coy young Lass’ is Angelica, the heroine of Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso (English translation by John Harington published 1591). After spurning all the heroes of the Christian army, including Orlando, she chooses the pagan page Medoro as her lover (Canto 19).

37. Astolpho like] In Orlando Furioso, Astolfo goes to the Moon to seek for his friend Orlando’s lost wits (Canto 34).

45. or … or ... or] either ... or ... or.

46 A bold Ordinance] **.

47. Parces] the Fates.

50. glued it on again] **

‘Dear God from thy high Throne look down’

Note Pulter’s imagery of various alchemical processes in this religious lyric.

4. calcine] see above, note to ‘The perfection of Patience and knowledg’, lines 29-30.

7. Should I to Tears dissolved be] This literary commonplace often appears in alchemical literature: the human body is compared to the alchemical vessel, with tears the distillate of experience and emotion.

11. Rarify’d] Rarification: another alchemical term meaning the extraction of spirit from matter, here using spirit as spiritus (air).



The story of The Pied Piper, later made famous by Browning, first came to England in Richard Verstegan’s A restitution of decayed intelligence: in antiquities Concerning the most noble and renovvmed English nation (Antwerp, 1605), p. 85. It was popularised in James Howell’s Epistolae Ho-Elianae: Familiar Letters, Domestic and Forren (1645), Sect 6, p. 71. Pulter however cites the Verstegan volume as her source. There were several editions printed in England during the seventeenth century.

7-11. These plagues are listed in Pliny; see Philemon Holland’s translation, I, 8, 29: ‘M. Varro writes, That there was a towne in Spain undermined by Connies: and another likewise in Thessalia, by the Moldwarpes. In France the inhabitants of one citie were driven out and forced to leave by Frogs. Also in Affrick the people were compelled by Locusts to void their habitations; and out of Gyaros, an island, one of the Cyclades, the Islanders were forced by Rats and Mice to flee away. Moreover in Italie the Citie Amycle was destroyed by serpents’ (Pliny 1601).p. 212.

13 Hamell] Hamelin.

27 Telesma] 17th century version of ‘talisman’, a consecrated object endowed with a magic power to avert evil.

28. In 1 Samuel, 6, a plague of haemorrhoids and mice smote the country of the Philistines when they stole the Ark of God from the Jews. They had to make five golden haemorrhoids and five golden mice and give back the Ark before the plagues were remitted.

31. Burgers] i.e. burghers, townspeople.


According to myth, the turtle-dove is so faithful to its mate that after its death it does not seek another. Many Renaissance poems had taken the turtle-dove as their theme, including, most famously, Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle.

17. Alcestis] Daughter of Peleas, king of Thessaly, she gave her own life to save her husband, Admetas. See Goulart (1637: 149).

Artimitius] Probably Artemesia, wife of King Mausolus, ruler of Halicarnassus. When he died in 353 BC Artemesia was broken-hearted and built for him a tomb which became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and which ensured that his name is now associated with all stately tombs.

19. Deboras] Deborah was a prophetess, married to Lapidoth, who was a judge of the children of Israel: Judges 4:4.

Annas] Anna was a prophetess who recognised the baby Jesus as the Messiah; see Luke 2:36. Deborah and Anna are often enlisted in catalogues of virtuous Biblical women, but Pulter seems particularly interested in their status as faithful married women. Anna, whose husband had been dead for 84 years, exemplifies the virtuous widow, as Deborah does the virtuous wife.

25-6. Hide Park, Hanes … Mulbery Garden] I have not been able to trace Hanes, but the others – Hyde Park, St John’s College, Oxford, St Catherine’s Hall, Oxford, Spring Garden, and Mulberry Garden – are all places where women could go to be noticed by the opposite sex. Pulter is particularly concerned about their reputation for sexual assignations.

31. a scurvey Cheescak or A Tart] delicacies on sale at some of these locations. See Sedley (1668).

41. Halcions] Alcyone, according to Greek mythology, was the daughter of Aeolus, the wind god. Her husband, Ceynx, drowned in a shipwreck during a trip to consult an oracle. Alcyone followed her husband and jumped into the sea. The gods took pity on the couple and transformed them into sea birds, Alcyone becoming a kingfisher or halcyon.


Pulter took this Emblem from Plutarch. See Plutarch (1603: 708). This is a story from the Life of Alexander.

1. Brackman] i.e. Brahmin, a Hindu priest.

10. Possibly, ‘Till Phoebus’ rays her gaudy feathers singes’.

20. Sols fulgour] the Sun’s dazzling brightness.

21. Gymnosophist] a sect of ancient Hindu ascetics (known to the Greeks through the reports of Alexander’s companions) who wore little or no clothing (see Plutarch 1603 p. 705).

23. There is a complex description of the clothing of Aaron in his priest’s robes in Exodus 28, but I have found no Biblical mention of putting off his old clothes. I wonder whether Pulter has taken this from Herbert’s poem ‘Aaron’, where he describes a symbolic disrobing and reclothing for Aaron that is at once the seventeenth-century priest’s experience of wearing vestments and every believer’s experience of being ‘clothed with righteousness’.

27. Hadassah] Hester Pulter’s pen-name, another name for the Biblical Esther.

33. Dormient] sleeping, dormant.


This emblem was used by Geoffrey Whitney in his Collection of Emblemes, (1586), p. 128, but with an entirely different moral in which the mouse is punished for his greed. Note also that Pulter has set this emblematic occurrence in her personal history.

1. Fergus line] the Stuart dynasty, in this case James I, to whom Pulter’s father was High Treasurer.

13. Mecian Tongues] mouse languages.

15-20. The poet is Homer. The Batrachomyomathia, which describes the battle between the mice and the frogs, had been translated by George Chapman and published as part of his collection The Crowne of All Homers Works (1624). The poem is now known not to have been by Homer.

26. Deliane Twins] Apollo and Diana (who between them control the tides), born on the island of Delos.

31-2. A vulgar] The common people. Hester Pulter is particularly hostile to Cromwell, who seems to be the ‘dul fish’ (line 29; i.e. the oyster). As often in her poems, she is thinking sympathetically of royalist prisoners.