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A Maverick Psychologist’s Jail Diary

Part 2

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Back to jail

I ended up on the induction wing in Hull. First in a cell with a flap on the cell door and then I was moved to one without. I seemed to be constantly being asked if I wanted methadone. The first time a female officer opened the flap and posed this question I laughed, but after that it ceased to be funny. One time I woke up thinking I had fallen asleep inside a swimming baths, the acoustics around the wing being quite similar. Jail was just like before and I settled down to reading a book a day and watching a less than perfect TV, with only about three channels, at night. I normally don’t have a TV at all but you can’t read all the time: after a while your eyes start automatically scanning the lines without taking anything in. Fortunately one of the stations was a film channel. Most importantly, I was on my own and this compensated for a lot of things. Another novelty I saw immediately was that the expiry date on the long-life milk cartons we were given every evening was later than my release date. My licence expired on 16 April and they couldn’t hold me after that. In jail you notice these things.

I took part in a few cosy cell-huddles during association. One time the conversation turned to criminal (probably drug) matters and someone said “He looks well dodgy, he does,” meaning me. “I don’t want to know” I said and beat a hasty retreat. Later I caught up with the speaker leaning against some railings and joked with him “The accusation of dodginess is a compliment, coming from you!” because he was indeed dodgy. Another time there was someone I was told felt stress in any social interaction. This was one of those times when I put my psychologist’s hat on. I said it was not my area but thought that social empathy as a sort of ‘brain muscle’ which usually operates automatically and unconsciously.

Social empathy

This ‘brain muscle’ becomes evident when one is sick or dealing with people with mental illness. A patient in a hospital becomes rapidly exhausted by visitors, for example. Our natural tendency when transacting with another individual is to reach some midway point, to achieve some reference for further understanding. This capacity for social empathy must confer considerable survival advantage because its energy allocation has a high priority, so that in normal everyday life we hardly notice it. Only when someone is sick does that energy drain become noticeable. When talking to someone who is psychotic, one must curb the natural tendency to reach a midway point otherwise one is drawn to share the other’s psychosis. This is why attendants at mental institutions can mock and mistreat patients: they are broadening the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ to protect their own mental health. Reportedly mental health workers have a tendency to go senile early. Mental illness can be contagious.

So in this individual the part(s) of the brain which I call the ‘brain muscle’ may have been weak or dysfunctional, much as I have difficulty recognising faces (prosopagnosia). Then I launched into some procedural analysis, saying that the natural domain for the male is things, taking apart car engines and so forth, while the natural domain of the female is relationships. All relational activity is really sex for the female. We were interrupted before I got any further.

I’ve had various prison names: “the Professor,” “Jackanory” (because I told stories) and “Reader.” As far as stories went, their favourite seemed to be the one about the origin of the term “rule of thumb.” I would tell about the judge (it was reputedly Sir Francis Buller) who, from the bench, ruled that it was lawful for a man to beat his wife providing the stick was no wider than his thumb. This was in the days of coverture, when a husband was responsible for all the debts, and even criminal acts, of his wife.

Sociopathy and psychopathy

I think one thing of significance was learnt during this brief (5½ weeks) jail stint. In my own mind at least I have established models of the sociopath and the psychopath. A clear distinction between the two has never been obvious, according to the definitions I have seen. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, psychopathy features “superficial charm, pathological lying, egocentricity, lack of remorse and callousness.” I have met and become aware of several psychopaths, both inside and outside prison.

Probably the most dangerous type is the psychopathic politician, representative examples being Tony Blair and Nick Griffin just for starters. Because of their influence, having clear definitions is important.

My conclusion is that the sociopath exhibits superficial charm, pathological lying, lack of remorse and callousness but lacks egocentricity. All the psychopaths I have met have had a compulsion to “get one over” the other person, to always come out on top. The psychopath always has to come out better, to prevail in whatever the particular contest is. This also works in business, where the psychopathic businessman always has to feel that he has come out ahead (I think I met one such once; he was also exceptionally promiscuous). Psychopathic politicians generally use legal means, but the criminal psychopath will exploit the advantages and weigh the risks of using illegal ones.

The individual I recently shared a cell with exhibited superficial charm, pathological lying, lack of remorse and callousness but without any sign of that ruthless compulsion to prevail. The ego seemed normal or near-normal. Moreover his ploys were crudely executed, making the manipulations obvious. He was compared to a true psychopath with whom I had shared a cell in Leeds prison: that individual had lain awake at night plotting how to trick me out of more tobacco. I don’t remember him ever actually asking me for a smoke, that would have been tantamount to surrender. His manipulative ability was exceptional: it’s likely that he had manipulated the staff into putting me into his cell, solely because I had tobacco.

A sportsman has a strong will to win, and strives to do so, but he is not a psychopath. Here is an important distinction, because real, physical activity is involved: it might be running, swimming or throwing. The athlete’s own physical limitations are of account. The psychopath has only moral and legal constraints (the former being more fluid). His activities are cerebral: he is devoid of conscience and limited only by his ability to manipulate others and plot a path for himself.

The prisoner with whom I talked about ‘brain muscles’ evidently had a social disorder, but I don’t think it could be deemed sociopathic. Most of the time during association periods I leant against a radiator and read. I would try and read a part of some educational book (psychology or science) then after I’d done my daily quota, pick up a novel again.

Move to Northallerton

After 13 days at Hull I was moved. Northallerton is a small but old prison which had formerly been a Young Offenders Institution. There were two wings, a large one for Category C prisoners and a smaller one for Category D. I had been Category D at Wolds and while at Hull I had received paperwork again stating that I was Category D (which qualifies you for an open prison). Inexplicably however on my move to Northallerton I became Category C, so was located on the larger wing. I saw the Cat. D wing several times during trips to and from the prison library, and the regime there was that the cell doors were open all day, but it wasn’t as if there was anywhere to go. It was only about seven cells long and was reminiscent of a Lilliputian tower block. I found it rather claustrophobic. They made a big thing of the fact that there was a carpet on the floor.

One character I was re-acquainted with from a couple of years before had a persistent compulsion to shave his body. I doubt if anywhere was spared. I had shared with him briefly at Wolds prison but now he had a cell to himself, which was a good thing. I used to be woken at five in the morning to the sound of him scratching with a razor. I told him about the neurotic paradox, which is that regardless of how illogical or detrimental an individual knows his behaviour to be, he cannot stop himself doing it. Nowadays the fashionable term is OCD, but formerly these maladaptive behaviours were classed under the general heading of neuroses.

At Northallerton I finally managed to get hold of some toothpaste, but then came a disappointment. After mercifully spending three years inside without toothache it now struck with a vengeance. Having toothache inside and being dependent on the prison dentist is no joke. Prisoners’ teeth are often extremely poor, due to all the drugs. However the nurses’ station did me proud and soon I had clove oil and painkillers. A week or so later the dentist herself was much less impressive and I elected to struggle on with the clove oil. Both prisons gave me immunisations; at Northallerton there had been a recent measles outbreak. At Hull during one of the induction talks a man revealed incidentally that antibiotic resistant gonorrhoea was now at large in Britain – it could be controlled but not cured. This valuable warning was not delivered by a medic though, I don’t think I was aware of a single male medical worker in either of the prisons. Northallerton was more feminine than Hull, with pairs of female officers sitting together to gossip while keeping an eye on the prisoners.

Shortly after arriving at Northallerton an Imam walked into my cell, dressed in full gown and garb, asking about religious matters. He started acting on behalf of the Christian chaplaincy by inviting me to Christian services. This is the second time this has happened, a Muslim acting for the CofE in prison, there’s been some kind of directive about it. It’s also practically impossible in British jails not to eat Halal food. I got rid of him as quickly as I could and engaged the chaplain later. One had already got an earful about Holocaustianity being a post-Christian quasi-religion, and quoted Chesterton, that when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything. In Holocaustianity we have Auschwitz as Calvary, Hitler as the Devil and the Jews as completely innocent, sacrificial lambs. Us “racists” and “Holocaust deniers” are cast as the angels of Satan, seeking to disrupt the coming multiracial utopia. I think this end-times scenario is called a secular eschatology.

One man told me his situation “on the out” had been so grim that he deliberately set about having himself sent to prison. A catalogue of woe followed, the details of which I cannot give here since they would identify him and I was sworn to secrecy. Another set of people seemed incapable of managing money, short and in debt in whatever situation they find themselves, apparently never having been other than dependent on the State. Of course the prison currency is tobacco. The trick to getting by in prison is to see the best in people, and the truly bad individuals are a definite minority, certainly in the jails I have been in. There were a couple of ex-policemen in this jail, in for smuggling tobacco, and I had regular chats with one of them. I asked him if he would lose his pension but he said no, he’d paid into it for years so it couldn’t be taken away. An oft-made pronouncement of mine was “If our country was governed properly, 80% of these people wouldn’t be here.”

One time I was standing in the queue for food and immediately in front of me a couple of prisoners were mock-fighting. One of the dummy swings came uncomfortably close, I backed away and some remark was made about my retreat. “I’m a writer not a fighter” I said. The prison authorities were very good about forwarding mail, and the other prisoners were in awe of the messages of support I received. Some were plainly jealous of the money I was sent. I told them you have to be a political prisoner to get such treatment.




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