The Covid Occupation

CITY JOURNAL - Summer, 2020 -

Reflections on the recent lockdown in Paris

During the many years that I worked as a prison doctor, never a day went by when I did not ask myself how I would react to imprisonment. “There but for the grace of God go I,” was a constant refrain in my mind, or, alternatively, Hamlet’s question to Polonius: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” Surely everyone has done something in his life that might justify imprisonment. I never dreamed, however, that 15 years after my retirement, I should experience a type of imprisonment, admittedly of a lenient kind, in Paris, not being allowed out of my small apartment for more than one hour a day—and then only with a permit, or laissez-passer. In just one respect was my imprisonment harder than the real kind: I was to have no visitors and no casual social contact.

I was surprised, working in prison, to discover that the type of person who one might imagine would find prison particularly awful was able to endure it with comparative ease, if not with pleasure, exactly. I mean people like me: doctors, professionals, and academics, who occasionally (and to my great embarrassment) ended up incarcerated. Surely, prison would be an insupportable torture to them, humiliated by their loss of status; forced into social promiscuity with people with whom they would not normally associate; experiencing constant noise that made concentration impossible; deprived of the sense of agency that, until then, they took for granted; and with little choice now as to what to eat, read, or do, and subject to the favor of men much less educated than themselves. Yet they settled in without special difficulty. They were not, as so many first-time prisoners were, subject to suicidal thoughts. In the cant phrase used by old lags to advise younger convicts, they “got their head down and did their bird.” In other words, they did not make themselves conspicuous to the authorities, complained little, and did not stand on their dignity.

Why were they able to adapt so well? Whatever the advantages—as well as sometimes the disadvantages—that education and intelligence might confer outside prison, on the “in” (as prisoners call it), they permitted the prisoner to distance himself from his own situation and to take an interest in the foreign country around him: for like the past, prison is a foreign country; they do things differently there, and difference has an interest in itself, even when it represents a worsening.

I was surprised also that the generality of prisoners expressed no antagonism toward those of patently higher social class. They were not averse, as such, to expressing antagonism: an imprisoned policeman or prison officer could expect a very rough time. But professors, doctors, and lawyers did not experience such harsh treatment. Perhaps my surprise testified to the thoroughness with which educated people have absorbed the notion of class war, which they now expect to manifest itself on every occasion. But educated people were precious assets to the other prisoners: doctors could be asked for medical advice, lawyers for legal counsel, and all could help in writing letters, especially to the authorities (but sometimes love letters, too), for good letter-writing was not a talent common among prisoners.

It became penological doctrine during my career that deprivation of liberty was the sole punishment to be imposed on serious or habitual lawbreakers, rather than any particular hardship of the prison regime itself. Therefore, physical conditions improved in prisons—so much so that some may have become more comfortable than the home conditions of at least some inmates. This breaks the rule of less eligibility, the principle of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which holds that relief of poverty in a workhouse should be less attractive than that afforded by any possible way of earning a living outside. Still, for most prisoners, deprivation of liberty remains deeply unpleasant. The educated, however, are on the whole better placed to endure that deprivation, for they are better able, as Richard II puts it, to “people this little world” with their thoughts.


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