The Criminal Code of Prisoners

13/11/2011 23:33 | Updated 13 January 2012

Have you ever thought about how unpopular traffic wardens are? Imagine how much grief they must have to put up with on a daily basis. Well, I think I can top that...

I worked in a prison earlier this year, as a detox doctor, prescribing methadone to heroin addicts, and other medications to alcoholics, who had just arrived at prison, in withdrawal. They would demand obscene doses of medication, which I was not allowed to prescribe for safety reasons - you can die from a methadone overdose, but not from opiate withdrawal. I used to think I had reasonable levels of charm and charisma, but even Sean Connery would struggle to tame this demographic of people. I don't imagine many criminal drug addicts were taught the best of manners.

But one thing that really struck me from getting to know the prisoners there was the moral code they lived by. It's also rife within forensic psychiatry wards that I have subsequently worked in, which is unsurprising, as many of these particular patients have spent time behind bars. The code seemed bizarre and contradictory to a naive yet inquisitive man like me. Some staff members called it the "con code".

"We judge others by their behaviour. We judge ourselves by our actions" - Ian Percy, motivational speaker.

For example, in the prison I worked for, sex offenders are segregated in a separate "vulnerable prisoners' wing", in fear of retribution from the other inmates. I have been to such a wing and far from the debauchered, nefarious hellhole I imagined (I told you I was naive), it looked identical to any other wing. Its inhabitants looked and acted no differently to the other inmates, many of whom would gladly take the opportunity to inflict their own style of physical retribution on them.

Similarly, there was one prolific sex offender, Mr C, who was resident in a medium secure forensic unit I worked in, who was bullied, spat at, insulted and disdained because of his crime. But who were the perpetrators?

They were all men with a long history of violent assaults, who in their own way caused profound physical and psychological traumas on many innocent people. What made them feel they needed to act so righteously? Why did they consider themselves to be morally superior?

It reminded me of the case of Peter Bryan, who murdered a fellow Broadmoor patient, Richard Loudwell in 2004, in cold blood, because the latter's Index Offence was the rape and murder of an 82-year-old lady. Apparently all the other patients knew what was about to happen, and some even helped orchestrate the incident. But Peter Bryan himself had killed two people; the first of whom was a random, innocent 20-year-old female shop assistant, and the latter was a friend, whose brain he proceeded to eat. He was hardly a man of the moral calibre to judge another criminal!

Don't get me wrong, of course I believe that sexual offending and paedophilia are heinous crimes (call me old-fashioned!), and of course I believe perpetrators should be castigated. However, I also believe in rehabilitation for these, and any offender that will eventually be released into the community, contrary to the beliefs of many others (usually old-fashioned!) Not doing so, in order to take the moral high ground, in my opinion is naive and above all dangerous in terms of risk management and public protection in the future.

I'm not a robot. In my work, of course I have private thoughts and judgements about individuals, but I would never allow them to interfere with my professional duties. My job is to identify, consider, and treat individuals' risk factors, including personality traits and mental illnesses. I do not confuse my role of a doctor for that of a judge.

But, I guess it's not really surprising that prisoners adopt this mind-set. It's only a reflection of what is thought in wider society, when some crimes and cases are judged and punished much more harshly than other similar ones. Look at the London Riots.

I wonder if these prisoners project the parts of themselves that they hate onto sex offenders, as it is easier to attack another under the shadow of the false morality than to have to accept it in themselves. The latter option would require introspection, insight, but above all the acceptance of guilt. Perhaps that is too painful for a fragile psyche to cope with.

"Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." - Carl Jung

Well put, Mr Jung. Thanks for backing me up.

This inability to accept guilt was particularly apparent in one of my patients, Mr B, who resided on the same ward as Mr C. He was a career drug dealer, who in his line of work often ran into the occasional...difference of opinions - much more than even traffic wardens and prison detox doctors. He inevitably found himself in the midst of brutal turf conflicts, and used to brag to staff and patients about how he was well respected, and that he "only ever hurt scumbags who deserved it". However, looking at his records, I know that he has a prolific history of robbing dozens of innocent people at knifepoint in his earlier days - some of whom were lone women. Yet he genuinely holds a distorted view of committing only "honourable violence". I find it all remarkable.

As it happens, despite Mr B's past, he was actually a friendly, charming young man (no Sean Connery, though), but when I heard conversations between him and his peers about their past criminality, and their current disdain towards Mr C, I found it exasperating. Their code of honour did not conjure up images of a classic criminal fraternity such as the mafioso in the Godfather. Far from it. It's reminded me of a bunch of sniggering kids, calling another kid names behind his back.

They say there is honour amongst thieves. Maybe. But in my experience, when it comes to many violent criminals, there's a lot more bullcrap.