The Starving Criminal

Monday, February 24th, 2003

The Starving Criminal, by Theodore Dalrymple, starts by reporting some recent findings from the British Journal of Psychiatry:

Researchers carried out a double-blind trial of the effect of vitamin and mineral supplements on the behavior of prisoners aged 18 to 21. Two hundred and thirty-one such prisoners were divided randomly into two groups: one that received real vitamins, one that got only a placebo. Those who received the real vitamins committed about a third fewer disciplinary offenses and acts of violence during the follow-up period than those who took the placebo.

That’s amazing, until you realize just how malnourished most prisoners are — when they get to prison.

From the dietary point of view, freedom has the same effect upon them as a concentration camp; incarceration restores them to nutritional health. This is a new phenomenon, at least on the scale on which I now see it. Last week, for example, I treated in my hospital a skeletal man who had been released from prison only two months before and had in that short time lost 44 pounds. A recidivist, he had served many short sentences for theft, and his weight went up and down according to whether he was in prison or at liberty. This is a common enough pattern of weight gain and weight loss among the males of my city’s underclass. It has a meaning quite alien to those who believe that modern malnutrition is merely a symptom of poverty and inequality.
He smoked heroin, but the connection between his habit and his criminality was not what is conventionally assumed: that his addiction produced a craving so strong, and a need to avoid withdrawal symptoms so imperative, that resort to crime was his only choice. On the contrary — and as is usually the case — his criminal record started well before he took to heroin. Indeed, his decision to take heroin was itself a continuation, an almost logical development, of his choice of the criminal life.

He was thin and malnourished in the manner I have described. Five feet ten, he weighed just over 100 pounds. He told me what many young men in his situation have told me, that he asked the court not to grant him bail, so that he could recover his health in prison — something that he knew he would never do outside. A few months of incarceration would set him up nicely to indulge in heroin on his release. Prison is the health farm of the slums.

I examined him and said to him, “You don’t eat.”

“Not much,” he said. “I don’t feel like it.”

“And when you do eat, what do you eat?”

“Crisps [potato chips] and chocolate.”
I asked the young man whether his mother had ever cooked for him.

“Not since my stepfather arrived. She would cook for him, like, but not for us children.”

I asked him what they — he and his brothers and sisters — had eaten and how they had eaten it.

“We”d just eat whatever there was,” he said. “We’d look for something whenever we was hungry.”

“And what was there?”

“Bread, cereals, chocolate — that kind of thing.”

“So you never sat round a table and ate a meal together?”


In fact, he told me that he had never once eaten at a table with others in the last 15 years. Eating was for him a solitary vice, something done almost furtively, with no pleasure attached to it and certainly not as a social event.
These young men’s malnutrition is the sign of an entire way of life, and not the result of raw, inescapable poverty. Another patient whom I saw soon after, similarly malnourished, told me that he ate practically nothing, subsisting on sugary soft drinks.

Creepy. Dalrymple’s darkly humorous suggestion?

It can’t be long before someone suggests that the solution to a problem like this is to fortify chocolate with minerals and vitamins.

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