To be a Prisoner

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.

9 Comments

  1. Reading your very compelling story about your experience at the hospital, and your astute observations regarding the treatment of prisoners is quite sobering to be sure, and I’m sure your other readers would join me in wishing your family members every comfort and improvement in their circumstances as might be possible.

    The focus of incarceration clearly should be rehabilitative, and not punitive, and the goal of any prison system should be helping those men and women entrusted to their care to prepare them for successful reentry into society.

    A brief investigation of prisoner treatment on the internet found two examples of the benefits of humane prisoner treatment:

    “Despite the seriousness of their crimes, prisoners in Norway have the loss of liberty as the main punishment they suffer. Cells have televisions, computers, integral showers and sanitation. Some prisoners are segregated for various reasons, but as the majority serve their time – anything up to the 21-year maximum sentence (Norway has no death penalty or life sentence) – they are offered education, training and skill-building programs.”

    “Instead of wings and landings they lived in small “pod” communities within the prison, limiting the spread of the corrosive criminal prison subculture that dominates traditionally designed prisons. All prisons in Norway work on the same principle, which is the reason the country has, at less than 30%, the lowest reoffending figures in Europe and less than half the rate in the UK.”

    “Exponents of the “humane prison” philosophy believe that if prisons mimic the conditions of normal life, as far as is possible, offenders have a greater chance of successful reintegration into society, and less chance of re-offending.”

    “According to recent studies, recidivism rates in Norway are among the world’s lowest. Around 20% of those released from prison are arrested within two years. In the U.S., about 68% of released prisoners were arrested within three years.”

    “Greenland also runs a uniquely “open” prison system, with many inmates allowed to leave the premises to work, study, or even go hunting, before returning at night.”

    “The main conclusions are that moderate penal policies have their roots in a consensual and corporatist political culture, in high levels of social trust and political legitimacy, and in a strong welfare state; and those more punitive policies that make more use of imprisonment are to be found in countries where these characteristics are less in evidence.”

    It’s sometimes difficult to separate ourselves from focusing on all of the awful stuff we see going on in the world, since it seems to be everywhere we go. I recommend that you go to your favorite search engine or to whatever resource you prefer, and look up “Good people doing good things.” There are lots of examples of positive stories out in the world also, they just don’t get the loudest voices or become the biggest news stories in the same way that the bad stuff seems to do.

    1. That is fascinating news to me about the Scandinavian system. I have long admired their socialism which seems a far kinder and more well meaning variety than the vicious nihilism we find in the UK with the likes if the shocking and frankly probably very dangerous Corbyn. The news you bring me of Greenland is particularly welcome. I think I am right in saying both the US and UK have particularly vile and indeed violent prison systems. So much for the civilised third world. Yes indeed I must do more to seek out good news. It seems to be there if you look for it! Bravo Greenland and the Norsemen!

  2. I agree, and I hope our number is increasing, especially amongst the younger generation as they make the laws of the future. It’s impossible to conceive the immense weight of suffering humans have inflicted on each other, over and above what nature dishes out anyway. The mind wanders and soothes itself. I, for instance, couldn’t help thinking of the prison scene from The Life of Brian. We are lucky, lucky bastards.

    1. The cruelty of man to man is every bit as savage as nature. I quite agree. I’m all right jack. Bugger the poor, the stupid the sick. Bang em up and let em rot.

      1. Perhaps the earliest “profound” sociological insight that I recall making, is that people who have problems, tend to cause problems. There are always reasons for what people decide to do, and regardless of how abhorrent we may find some of those choices to be. I like to think that in later childhood this observation helped me rise above some of the standard crap, and so perhaps I didn’t get sucked down too far into base reactive function. Still the horrors of our world need to be acknowledged and dealt with rather than conveniently ignored. jjhiii24’s observation of how correction seems to be done much better in certain countries, is wonderful! I was not aware of this.

        The thing about genetic engineering solutions is that we don’t ultimately care about future people, but rather about ourselves. Might one ever genetically engineer one’s own self to be smart, beautiful, healthy, and so on? Beyond a bit of CRISPR genetic splicing, that doesn’t seem possible. (Note that if we did actually care about future people, then we could simply provide government incentives for those with inferior genetic traits to use superior sperm and egg for their procreation.)

        So what do I consider hopeful? I believe that our soft sciences (such as psychology) should soon develop founding principles from which to finally build. From there these sciences should progressively teach us more effective ways to lead our personal lives, as well as structure our societies. Hard sciences have made us powerful, though our soft mental and behavioral sciences have not yet shown us how to use that power as effectively as we might.

        1. I think the trouble with soft sciences like psychology is that our problems are largely if not wholly physiological and physical. That is obviously a mere “belief” on my part but it is based on decades of thought. Trying to think our way out of physiological problems seems a pretty hopeless solution. Did Freud, Mesmer, Jung or any of their successors actually “heal” anyone”? Cynically speaking I rather doubt it although I must confess that my opinion is based entirely on my own lack of success in altering my own life through such techniques. We need some sort of “philosophy” for sure. We need to be able to find direction, to find what is “right”. And of course many things which may be right for me may not be right for my neighbor.

          My belief however is that some things must be incontestably right for everybody. Happiness is one such thing. Or at least the choice to be happy; or equally to remain unhappy. I am no totalitarian. Sadly I believe that qualia are very probably of physical origin. I don’t think we can choose our emotions to any great extent. I think (believe) we have a hedonic set point around which we oscillate and that for some, the set point is set higher than for others.

          Back to criminals. Food, shelter, medicine – it seems fairly obvious to me that if these needs were universally satisfied, to some extent crime would decrease. Basic needs (or rather their lack) must, I feel, be a major cause of crime.

          But beyond that I believe we are made “bad” and some people are made “badder” than others. Bad in the sense of violence and destruction. Bad in the sense of the criminals I refer to above who slit a mans armpits and hung him up by a coat-hangar through his neck.

          Surely such people are born rather than created by circumstance. The study of psychopaths seems to suggest that. And therefore my suspicion, my belief, my guess is that to eradicate such behavior from our species over time will require not soft but hard science.

          Breeding it out as you suggest. I think we can count that as a hard science remedy. And mind altering drugs, genetic modification and so forth. If given the choice perhaps even the coat-hangar offender would choose to undergo personality change in exchange for release once cured?

          One of my earliest forays into the disciplines of science was to consider Conway’s Game of life. I was profoundly affected by it. So many others over the years have suggested that from the strings of string theory upwards, our universe is at its most basic level one of extreme simplicity. And that from a few simple and basic rules arose the incredible complexity we see around us. If that is the case then a reverse engineering of such rules should eventually enable us to take any part of the universe apart and put it together again.

          Including ourselves, our damaged, violent, sad and broken species.

          In days gone by we may have laughed at the alchemists who tried to turn base metal into gold. And then we learned that the suns turn nitrogen into helium and indeed eventually into gold.

          So we do perhaps after all live in a mechanistic universe. A giant Lego set. What came together can be taken apart and reassembled. Ourselves included. Or so it seems to me. Here’s hoping!

          1. Wow Anthony, that was deep! Furthermore I agree. But let’s see what I can add…

            I consider “happiness” to essentially exist as the fuel which drives the conscious form of function. Because this is not yet formally understood (perhaps given competition from the tool of “morality”) psychology largely fails. We’ll need to help fix this oversight so that the field can finally become a hard science, and thus teach us how to better lead our lives and structure our societies…

            Perhaps greater than food, shelter, and medicine, is “respect”. We can put up with a great deal, that is if we feel respected by our peers. Theory of mind sensations are huge for us…

            We don’t need to reverse engineer everything. All we really need is to make ourselves as happy as we can, for as long as we can….

            Nice touch on how alchemists were not ultimately wrong…

            We find nothing more precious in our lives, than having good reason to feel hopeful rather than worried…

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