Prison is not a hospital of the soul: though of course it is a good thing if it helps prisoners to bethink themselves. The cause of crime being the decision of people to commit it, a revision of prisoners’ ideas is much to be desired. As we approach Prisons Week, which begins on Monday, I have been thinking about the inmates I worked with as a prison doctor.
For a time, a professional writer used to visit the prison every week to give a class in creative writing. He told me that, as was only to be expected, the prisoners’ first efforts were always autobiographical. To begin with they wrote quickly, without second thoughts, but they slowed down and stopped when their narrative reached the commission of their initial crimes. Then they suffered something like writers’ block, an inability to progress. I surmised that they had suddenly realised that all the excuses they had made for themselves for their own actions, all their rationalisations, now appeared false to them, and they underwent some kind of crisis as a result. Only after a deep struggle with themselves could they resume their writing.
It is impossible to say whether this experience turned them away from a life of crime. They were a small and self-selected group and most of them were not what the officers called ‘‘your typical con[vict]’’; besides, time works its effect on prisoners and their rate of criminality declines in their thirties, so that very few of them returned having committed a crime after the age of 39. Most of them were recidivists, of course: prisoners who were jailed after a first conviction were few. I would take them aside and ask them in confidence what they had really done, and they would confess to many more crimes than they had ever been suspected of, let alone convicted for.
There were some among them who preferred life inside prison, at least for a time, to life “on the out”, as they called the rest of the world, though they would admit it only in private. In prison life was more or less predictable. They were free of the conflicts that their own conduct had caused outside, the mothers of their offspring could make no demands on them, and above all they were free from the need to make decisions, which in their case were usually the wrong ones. They were relieved of the need to think. (I was several times asked, “Can’t you stop me thinking, doctor?”) Prison was almost restful, provided that they “got their head down and did their bird [sentence]”, as they put it, and did not get into debt with the barons who ran the rackets inside. It is an alarming reflection on the way they lived that their chances of dying while being in prison were about half what they were if they had remained at liberty.
Often, they would arrive in the prison in a state of debilitation. They would have made fine extras in a film about a concentration camp. They received no medical attention outside prison other than the prescription of pills that they generally did not need; they often abused drugs in a very dangerous fashion; and they ate, if they ate at all, in a very unhealthy way.
Three months later, they would appear fit young men. Yet a few months after their release they would reappear in their original state of debilitation. “Freedom for you,” I used to say to them, “is a concentration camp,” and, though badly educated, they all understood what I meant and agreed with it.
Although prisoners are said to be badly educated, they seemed hardly any worse educated than the population from which they were drawn. They were also widely believed to be of inferior intelligence. Suffice to say that I never found this: or at least, I didn’t have to speak to them any differently from how I speak to any other group of people. Perhaps that is a reflection on the simplicity of my own thoughts.
As with all large groups of people, there was considerable variation among them. I remember, for example, the “ethical” arsonist who burned down buildings to the order of owners who wanted to claim the insurance money. He was proud that he never endangered anybody’s life by his activities. He also admitted to 20 times as many crimes as those he had been caught for; in his case, crime had paid.
Then there was the specialist in antiques. He had grown to like them himself and furnished his flat with them. He told himself that people who had antiques were rich and could afford to lose them.
“What if someone stole your antiques?” I asked him.
“I’d break their f—ing legs,” he said.
I loved the prison argot, ever-changing. “I’m doing me cluck,” the addicts would say – going cold turkey.
“Shouldn’t that be gobble?” I asked, and they laughed.
Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and retired prison doctor and psychiatrist. His latest book is The Knife Went In: The Decline of the English Murder
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