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April 29, 2008

Why do quite a lot of prisoners prefer life inside to life "on the out"? Former prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple suspects it is because our society is producing fewer independent and responsible adults

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Former prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple considers the strange phenomenon of prisoners who would rather be on the inside than the outside.

When I was a medical student, we were taken on a visit to the local prison. Our visit coincided with that of a group of magistrates. One of the magistrates said, as he prepared to leave the prison, that it was so comfortable that he wouldn't mind a little spell in it himself. As these were still the days of slopping out - of night-waste deposited in buckets in cells - I could only conclude that his concept of comfort was rudimentary, or he was lying, or the prison had successfully pulled the wool over his eyes. Of course, most public institutions are excellent at the latter procedure, although it must also be admitted that there are none so blind as will not see.

So when I heard that the assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association had claimed that prisons were now so comfortable that prisoners did not want to leave them even when they had the opportunity to escape, and indeed that some prisons had been broken into rather than broken out of, I was apt to dismiss what he said.

It is certainly true that conditions in prison - at least the physical ones - improved greatly in the years in which I served as a doctor in a prison. It is true also that in my youthful travels in Africa and Latin America, I stayed in rooms that were less comfortable than modern prison cells in Britain. Still, I think it unlikely that many readers of this would find conditions in most British prisons very congenial.

Nevertheless, the assistant general secretary's remarks were at least tangentially true. I have noticed, for example, that prisoners sent out to NHS hospitals often beg to return to prison rather than stay another day in them. The food is better, or at least more copious, in prison; the social atmosphere better. There is more laughter in prison than in hospital; psychiatric patients are often treated more humanely in prison than by the psychiatric services of the NHS. In part, I suspect, this is because prisons have a relatively clear chain of command by comparison with the continual power-struggles that wrack the NHS.

In addition, about a third of prisoners, according to my rough estimate, prefer life in prison to life outside. They used to tell me this in confidence, sotto voce, so that the others did not hear: for to admit that you actually liked prison, and got on well with the officers, was to lose caste, to appear weak and even sissy.

The rather surprising preference of some prisoners for life in prison first occurred to me (and induced me to ask prisoners the question) when I saw them returning to prison and greeting the staff like long-lost friends. On one occasion, a remand prisoner returned from his court appearance in a state of high dudgeon. I asked him why he was so angry. He said:

I got three months.
I said that this was what most prisoners would call "a good result" (as compared with the "good result" that nurses record having given their constipated patients an enema). He then said:
Good result? Three months is no use to me. I was hoping for at least twelve.
Why do quite a lot of prisoners prefer life inside to life "on the out"? Freedom is their enemy or at any rate their downfall. They do not know what to do with it. Impulsive, they do the first thing that comes into their head, which all too predictably leads to disaster. They feel safe in prison, not from their fellow-men, but from themselves. They are like de-railed trains that are put back on the tracks.

Incapable of self-regulation, they nevertheless like routine, predictability and boundaries. These prison provides for them, often for the only time in their lives; they have never achieved them for themselves. Prison is for them a refuge from chaos, the nearest thing they will ever know to a spiritual retreat.

The chaos of their lives can hardly be exaggerated. Their relations with women are so unstructured, and bring them so much grief in the sense of aggravation, that escape from the female presence (it is rarely company) is also a relief for them. Any nagging sense of responsibility for the children that they have carelessly fathered is also suspended while they are in prison, and they are glad of it. If freedom entails responsibility, they want none of it.

I am here only relating and paraphrasing what many prisoners have told me themselves. It is possible, of course, that they told me what they thought I wanted to hear, though they were not generally so considerate or obliging, and I did my best not to mould their answers to my questions. In any case, their conduct often suggested a willingness or even eagerness to go to prison: such is the demoralisation of our police force that you almost have to make special efforts to be apprehended by it, let alone apprehended by it repeatedly, as recidivists by definition were.

All of this would suggest to some people that our prisons are indeed too cushy, too comfortable; if life is better inside than out for many young men, then the easiest solution to the problem would be to make life inside a good deal less comfortable, until it no longer seemed preferable to life outside.

While I can see the logic of this, I fear it as a proposal because it could so easily give free rein to the potential sadist that lurks, if not in every human breast, then at least in many human breasts. And the scope for sadism in enclosed institutions is very great.

I do not know whether, had I worked in prisons in the 1920s, say, I should have found the same mentality among prisoners. Probably: for, where human beings are concerned, there is nothing new under the sun. It is the numbers that alarm me. I suspect that they are far larger than they used to be, for our social mechanism of producing sturdily independent and responsible adults, what used to be known as the free-born Englishman, has been comprehensively, and I suspect deliberately, smashed up.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy.


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"While I can see the logic of this, I fear it as a proposal because it could so easily give free rein to the potential sadist that lurks, if not in every human breast, then at least in many human breasts. And the scope for sadism in enclosed institutions is very great."

Might not prison life be made tougher without being made brutal? I lack your extensive first-hand experience, but (as far as I can determine) little is expected of inmates, who are left to their own devices much of the time. Indeed The Howard League has complained that offenders languish in their cells for days on end --- although I doubt that lack of industry is the burden of their complaint...

At the risk of sounding like a pious hand-wringer, I also worry about bullying in prisons. I don't mean the sort of episode triumphantly held up by the antinomian Left, where a member of prison staff is found to have been beastly to an offender (no doubt the former are now too fearful for their jobs these days, given the capture of the penal system by the human rights circus). No, I mean this kind.

The people who wear their ostensive compassion like an Elizabethan dandy might have worn an outlandish codpiece insist that prisoners are "just like us". They probably don't really mean this (after all, the baseball-capped armies of Albion are apt to have little in common with their chattering-class champions --- save perhaps an overendowment of ego), but might we not call their bluff? Why not take them at their word and apply The Golden Rule: how --- if one did something dreadful --- one would wish to be treated? Nobody with a functioning conscience would be truly happy to escape scot-free: personally (and I'm no paragon of scrupulosity) I would expect a punishment as my due. ...Preferably one in which I could make some restitution for my misdeeds and --- if not "pay my debt to society" (an absurd phrase) --- at least ease my conscience somewhat. The expectation that I should work each day (cleaning up the verges of the A55, for example) is perfectly reasonable. My overriding concern, however, would be that --- whatever I had done --- I would be able to serve my sentence safely and free from fear.

I once overheard (in my defence, it was very hard not to) a newly-released youth offender boast to his associates of how his time in prison --- for pulling a knife on a customer in a kebab shop --- was "the easiest I ever done". My reaction was to imagine it to be a show of bravado. ...Until he described the regime there, at some length: a sort-of tax-funded youth club for the criminal idler. And, though back in society, he was hardly the soul of contrition. One was left in little doubt that his only (mild) regret was getting caught --- were another kebab-shop-type incident to occur, he'd respond as before. Had the lad been required to get up and pick litter during working hours, in return for a few perks (such as non-spartan food, phone-calls, education and basic entertainments), then prison might not have seemed such a contemptible joke.

...Mind you, given the egotism endemic in Britain these days (in all strata of society), he might on release just go and finish off the victim of his previous crime, in payment for the "injustice" done to him. What a Hell the self-esteem ideologues have created. I'm not sure that there's any way back from this.

Posted by: Paul Hayman at May 1, 2008 10:31 PM
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my hayman might prefer the US approach, where prisoners are sold as slave labour.

no, i'm not exaggerating or else not by much. their labour is sold to private sector bidders, and if the prisoners do not agree to work for the equivalent of twelve pence an hour, they are kept in solitary confinement and denied early parole. there are vast sectors in which slave labour allows companies with prison-servoice contracts to crowd out ordinary private enterprise. i do not know if those in solitary confinement are provided with the same food as the prisoners who agree to be slave labourers.

here too, i think that the good dr dalrymple strikes a fine balance between justice and mercy, and of course practicality.

Posted by: s masty at May 9, 2008 10:19 PM
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"my hayman might prefer the US approach, where prisoners are sold as slave labour."

I'm not your "hayman". And saying that "prisoners are sold as slave labour" is like saying that "prisoners are held captive against their will". It's a sentimentalism. And it is intended to portray advocates of moderate, safe, custodial punishment as heartless barbarians --- the modern equivalent of the slave-ship operators.

"their labour is sold to private sector bidders"

...Not something I "prefer" at all. Any work done should be in the nature of a public service: pulling junk out of canals, removing graffiti, clearing waste ground, repairing vandalised property, etc --- primarily in the poorer neighbourhoods which are worst affected by crime and urban decay.

"and if the prisoners do not agree to work for the equivalent of twelve pence an hour, they are kept in solitary confinement and denied early parole"

Again, you trot out "twelve pence an hour" with evident distaste, as though you were speaking of the life-or-death struggle of Indian street kids. Why should thieves, thugs and rapists be paid at all? Cannot their victims expect the courts to hand down some form of reparative punishment?

"with prison-servoice contracts to crowd out ordinary private enterprise"

The sort of jobs I'm on about are those which "private enterprise" generally doesn't touch, and which should rightly be done by the sort of miscreant who chucks mattresses in rivers, smashes up bus shelters and defaces private property.

"here too, i think that the good dr dalrymple strikes a fine balance between justice and mercy, and of course practicality."

I admire his writing no less than you do. But nothing he's said is incompatible with what I've written.

Posted by: Paul Hayman at May 13, 2008 12:29 AM
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This is only anecdotal, but ...

'Doing time didn't put me off crime'

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 21, 2008 04:36 PM
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...Thanks, Robert --- very interesting. I'm amazed the BBC could bring themselves to put it up on their website...

Posted by: Paul Hayman at May 23, 2008 01:16 PM
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