Reading Erwin James’ book Redeemable, and listening to his interview ‘In the Criminologist’s Chair’, interviewed by David Wilson, first broadcast on Radio Four last week, preparing for chapter three of my dissertation, I am struck at the same time by the sheer horror of prison life, and the apparent normality of many prisoners, and indeed those retained in hospitals for the criminally insane, such as Ashworth Hospital in Liverpool.
James describes how, when he was transferred to Wakefield Prison in perpetuation of his life sentence for two murders, all movements of any Category A ( very high risk) prisoners was only allowed when the route had been lined by prison officers, yet when he was presented to the prison psychologist, small, plain looking with greying hair, he was seated in her office ( a cell on the wing) between her and the door. How can this make sense? It reminds me of the time when I was one of the GPs working at Ashworth Hospital in the early 1990s. Great care had been taken to show me the weapons that had been confiscated off the patients once they were inside. Doors were double and triple locked. Yet on one occasion I ended up in a kitchen on a ward, with the patient, who had murdered several people, and several large knives. He was between me and the door. The nurse left the room. The patient closed the door.
Then he turned off the lights.
And then of course, (passing over what happened in there, as James passes over his murders, but not for the same reason) the lights were back on, the door opened and the sounds of the ward outside reached through to me. This was the cleanest ward in the hospital as one patient had OCD and was constantly cleaning and polishing.
I carried on as normal, as we do in general practice, no matter what has happened with one patient, we wipe the slate clean, put on the smile again and warmly greet the ensuing person.
The thing I had not really thought about in any detail, although I have a terrible fear of imprisonment, mainly due to the lack of freedom, a sort of claustrophobia, was the horrors that are inflicted by prisoners on prisoners. The other side of the coin, and one that is detailed so well by James in Redeemable as well as in A Life Inside.
Working as we do in a town centre practice close to the prison, now closed, a number of our patients have spent time inside, and sometimes we meet up with one who has been released in recent days. I’m really shocked at how my approach has changed since reading James’ work. Where I used to be, I realise, guarded and more than usually reluctant to engage I now find a compassion and a kind of respect for anyone who has endured that life – and yes, I do understand it’s a two way process inside.
Which makes me appreciate more than ever the little things in life. Today – walking back through town after a run with my good friend and training partner (!) Jan, I bought a crusty loaf which, with Welsh butter applied as thick as cheese, as Naomi would describe it, was wonderful.
In our shared or ‘Wild’ reading and Pom Pom making session at Jolt (see: http://www.thisisjolt.co.uk) this week, we read of pleasures:
Are They Shadows That We See?
Are they shadows that we see?
And can shadows pleasures give?
Pleasures only shadows be,
Cast by bodies we conceive;
And are made the things we deem
In those figures which they seem.
But those pleasures vanish fast,
Which by shadows are exprest;
Pleasures are not, if they last;
In their passing is their best:
Glory is more bright and gay
In a flash, and so away.
Feed apace then, greedy eyes,
On the wonder you behold:
Take it sudden, as it flies,
Though you take it not to hold.
When your eyes have done their part
Thought must length’n it in the heart.
There was much talk of the fleeting nature of pleasures, the need for contrast to appreciate the pleasurable, the fact that a group of Californians who attended a wedding in the UK recently were disappointed: the weather was just too good! they wanted English weather…. and the need to notice pleasures and sometimes retain those memories for examination at another stage : Thought must length’n it in the heart.
The group picked up on the pace of the poem too – a slow start and a feeling that each stanza moves faster than the last – reflecting life. Is this how life feels to prisoners? Do the years tumble one after another, time racing more and more quickly?
Imagine – just imagine, life with all the time to reflect, and none of the pleasures to reflect on.
Then James tells us of a postman called Dave, sentenced to life for murdering two men who had been harassing his mother. Dave stays positive. How?
‘It was hard at first – and still is. But I thought fuck it, I’ve been sentenced to life so I’m going to live.’
Back to the reading.