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.

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