I spent the week incarcerated in Calais. It lead me to contemplate the unimaginable horror of prison life.
I must not exaggerate. My mother in law had broken her hip on the first day of her holiday and was taken by ambulance to the Centre Hospitalier in Calais. She is 88 and my father in law 90. We took a vastly expensive last minute fare on the Eurotunnel to offer such assistance as our limited command of the French language permitted. We remained binned up in the Holiday Inn in Calais for a week, while operations were undertaken by the highly proficient French surgeon and excellent nursing care provided to the point where the poor lady was fit to be repatriated by ambulance.
The incarceration was by dint of the fact the elderly lady needed constant visits to bolster her moral. Not of strong mind in recent years and with no short term memory, she was very fearful and, frankly, was lucky to survive such was her state.
So we trundled the four miles to the hospital and back from the seafront hostelry four or five times a day. We barely saw daylight or felt the wind on our faces. the food became monotonous as did, needless to say, the hospital.
I looked up all the dismal French plays I had studied in my school years. Les Chaises was probably the most apt, closely matched by Huis Clos. Oh and let’s not forget Waiting for Godot. Satre, Ionesco, Brecht, Beckett…and the dismal Camus. What cheer the thought of that lot brought to my week. Sitting in a windowless room for eternity only to discover, eventually, that I was dead.
We were released today and both suddenly asked what it must be like for those banged up in jail.
Our week was luxury indeed by comparison, a mere walk in the park. Real chokey is not a laughing matter.
A few days before our unexpected holiday treat, I had been chatting to the fellow who came to mend our fridge. His wife works as a nurse in a Category B prison on the Isle of Sheppey. The island itself represents nothing if not a prison, never mind the bars. Fans of Charles Dickens may remember Abel Magwich who did time on a prison hulk a few miles up river from Sheppey. What a place for a prison – like Dartmoor it is a place for the damned, a veritable hell on earth. Flat, grey, windswept, sitting in a miserable river estuary. Suitable only for birds of the feathered variety, although god knows how even they can put up with the place.
But I digress. The nurse was presented on her first day, a few years back, with a vision out of Dante’s Inferno. A real life scene from Hieronymus Bosch. One lag had committed a cardinal sin – he had nicked a packet of cigarettes. His reward was to be sliced under the arm pits and hung up on the wall by a coat hanger put through his neck. That punishment turned out to be mild – violence orders of magnitude worse is apparently meted out with terrible regularity. One long term prisoner was released from jail after a particularly savage beating. It was a mercy release – he was beaten so badly he did not have long to live. He was crippled so severely they just let the poor fellow go. In his condition he was a threat to nobody.
The trouble with me is I am a sucker for reform. I can not join in the almost universal condemnation of the criminal fraternity, however psychopathic and, some would argue, “evil” they may be. Or some of them at any rate.
I remember seeing a TV program on psychopaths. Their brains are wired differently. Violence would mean nothing to them. They are amoral in that they are simply unable to appreciate their behavior is wrong or harmful. Funnily enough the presenter himself was a relative of Lizzie Borden and discovered on scanning that he had a psychopath’s brain. Happily, in his case, the condition had not been triggered. His family must have been much relieved not to be chopped up by Lizzie’s relative.
The depression, misery and frustration I felt this last week put me in mind of the prisoners and their dilemma. I was tied. Unable to go home, unable to walk on the beach, fiddle with my computer, sing or dance or …….whatever.
Imagine being banged up in the Isle Of Sheppey. Or the Scrubbs. Or Dartmoor or any of those other hells on earth.
Is it any surprise that their is no redemption to be had? Is it any surprise that the rate of re-offence is so high? Such peoples’ minds must be turned, corrupted, destroyed by their incarceration.
Of course many of them were not pleasant people to begin with. Their violence on the outside the mirror image of their savagery when put behind bars.
But those of us who have considered such matters as determinism might question whether the criminals’ behavior is actually their “fault” in the first place. Many a reputed scientist, including the late lamented Stephen Hawking, believe that we are mere robots with no free will or culpability for our actions.
We humans are in general not a pleasant species but I believe that it is very largely not our fault. Leaving aside the question of free will, my own normally fairly reasonable behavior was badly affected by the circumstances of the past week. Feeling trapped and imprisoned, I became deeply disoriented, bad tempered and depressed. Although I managed to restrain myself from chopping anyone up or hanging them up with a coat hanger through the neck. Much as I may have been tempted.
But picture the destitute kids from the worst slums. Consider the conditions they live in, the futures to which they must look forward. Is it any surprise that they embark on a career of crime and violence. There but for the grace of god…..
Our society is broken. Our species in broken. We are mere an animals who have evolved to kill and maim to survive. It is high time we realized this. The time will come when we may be able to eradicate violence. To alter our behavior through genetic engineering.
Until such time perhaps we could make a more genuine effort to help the criminal, the destitute, the untermensch.
I realize I am a bleeding heart liberal, a wishy washy Guardian sympathizer. But I do wish there was a better way to treat the outlaws, the violent, the inadequate.