Category Archives: jail

Why we read and re-read the doctor-essayist

Dalrymple is identified by an acute English journalist (also a skilled and powerful debater), Peter Hitchens, as

one of the greatest men of our age [second item in Hitchens’s 6th August 2017 column in the UK newspaper the Mail on Sunday].

For decades, Hitchens reminds us, Dalrymple

worked in a major British jail, listening to the excuses and self-justifications of people who had done terrible things to others, and to themselves.

Refusing to follow fashion,

and genuinely concerned for these often very sad characters, he treated them as adults, urging them to take responsibility for their actions instead of offering excuses for them. Many, who had come to despise authority, were glad to be up against someone they could not easily fool.

Hitchens’s guess is that many of those Dalrymple treated

benefited greatly from his tough-minded approach. He didn’t fill them with pills or substitute one drug for another. His observations of the way heroin abusers feign terrible discomfort, after arriving in prison and being deprived of their drug, is both funny and a badly needed corrective to conventional wisdom.

All this, Hitchens notes, is to be found in the Dalrymple collection The Knife Went In (2017).

The title, a quotation from an actual murderer, is an example of the way such people refuse to admit they had any part in the crimes they commit. The knife somehow got there and went into the victim, by itself. It is a series of short, gripping real-life stories in which he recounts his experiences with our broken, lying penal system with its fake prison sentences and its ridiculous form-filling as a substitute for action.

The book is mainly about prisons and crime, but, says Hitchens,

it tells a deep truth about the sort of society we have become. It is one in which almost nobody is, or wants to be, responsible for anything.

Hitchens concludes:

A future historian, a century hence, will learn more about 21st-century Britain from this book than from any official document.

Jail and the Left

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 08.17.07The Left, writes Dalrymple,

has never been easy with the idea of prison because the majority of those imprisoned are not only poor, but guilty of property crimes; and in its heart of hearts, the Left still thinks of property as theft and crime as a kind of spontaneous redistributive justice. To imprison anyone, therefore, in the name of property is to commit injustice.

Some hangings

Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 09.27.27In the prison where he works, a hanging Dalrymple is called to attend turns out to have been a case of murder. The hanged man’s cellmate boasts

that he had intimidated the dead man into hanging himself. He had threatened to cut his throat in his sleep if he did not hang himself first, and the man, who was two weeks from his release, chose the rope—or rather, the bedsheet torn into strips, dampened and braided into a noose. The cellmate helped him up on to the chair and obligingly kicked it away from under him.

Another hanging is

Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 09.38.22complicated by the fact that the dead man had on his chest a small puncture wound that penetrated to his heart, inflicted by the thrust of a ballpoint pen, which I had not until then considered a potentially lethal weapon. Even where there is a high illiteracy rate, the pen is as mighty as the sword.

There have been, Dalrymple writes,

many more hangings in my prison since the abolition of the death penalty than there ever were before.

Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 09.29.59Dalrymple is glad that it is not one of his duties to pronounce a man fit for execution.

The last doctor I met who had examined men for fitness for execution—in a former British colony—was an alcoholic, though I cannot positively say that he was driven to the bottle by a disturbed conscience.

Winson Green

Winson Green

 

The lash

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 23.22.47Its administration and physical properties

You can find out about the Victorian regulations on this in Pit of Shame: The Real Ballad of Reading Gaol (2007) by Anthony Stokes. Dalrymple points out in his foreword that

much of what goes on in any prison is very funny.

The humorous side is captured well by Stokes, along with all

the horror, the misery, the difficulties, the successes and failures

Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 08.54.56of imprisonment in Britain. Dalrymple says he does not think anybody could read the book

and conclude that the harsh treatment of prisoners is either a good idea or morally justified.

Bureaucratic mentality

H.M. Prison Winson Green, where Dalrymple was a specialist

H.M. Prison Birmingham

Speaking grosso modo, Dalrymple writes that prison officers he worked with were more astute and kinder than staff at psychiatric hospitals.

They had not had their heads filled with psychological jargon. When they came to me to tell me that a prisoner was not himself, or was acting strangely, or that ‘he’s not your typical con’, I soon learnt to take their observations seriously.

Rampton Secure Hospital

Rampton Secure Hospital

Dalrymple says that prisoners he knew were in general

far more afraid of psychiatric hospitals than they were of prisons. One of their most plaintive cries was, ‘You’re not nutting me off, are you, doctor?’

In official reports of disastrous cases in psychiatric hospitals, salient phrases include ‘lessons have been learnt’ and ‘errors of communication’.

One could write almost all reports on disastrous cases before they have occurred. By ‘lessons have been learnt’ is meant ‘it will be exactly the same next time’.

The lesson that has been learnt

is always that a new form, longer and more complex than the old, should be introduced. The form-filling gets in the way of genuine contact with or concern for the patient. The form-filling is the work itself.