20 JULY 1991, Page 17

If symptoms persist. . .

AS I WAS walking through the prison's delightful kitchen garden the other day °n my way to the prison hospital, I thought how therapeutic it must be for armed robbers to cultivate vegetables. Dreams of ill-gotten but instant wealth Would fade from their minds as a result of fruitful labour; they would cease to Covet their neighbour's goods, and come to value honest toil at its true worth.

One of my patients was an armed rob- ber. 'I'm an HMP,' he said, as he entered the consulting room. I thought for a moment that he was boasting of an education qualification. Then I realised that HMP stood for Her Majesty's Pleasure — that he was, in short, a lifer. It was a qualification, of a kind.

He said he had committed his armed robbery to gain entry to the prison where the man who had cuckolded him, a small-time burglar, was imprisoned. There, he cut his throat with a knife and earned himself his sentence without limit of time. He was quite unrepentant. 'If he walked in here now,' he said, his eyes bulging with rage, `I'd do it all over again. I'd do it to anyone who done what he done. I hate adulterers.'

I felt mildly uncomfortable and sticky around the collar: it was a humid day.

`Anyway,' I said, 'what can I do for you?' It seemed the man had recently been deprived by the resident prison doctor of his pills for indigestion, on the technical- ly correct grounds that he did not suffer from indigestion. But the man had come to rely on his pills and was very angry, to judge by the way he pounded his fists on my table. I assumed a pose of exaggerat- ed calm.

`I see from your record,' I said, 'that these pills haven't been prescribed by the doctor for several months.'

`No,' he said, tut I still been getting them.'

I went to the head nurse to ask whether it was possible that a prisoner was receiving his pills without a prescrip- tion. `Well, sir,' he said, 'I wouldn't like to say it was impossible, but don't ask me how it happens.'

I know how it happens. The man threatens to cut the dispensing nurse's throat at some time in the near future. He has, after all, very little to lose by doing so. And, as he so eloquently put it when trying to persuade me to repre- scribe his pills, 'What does a man have to do here to get treatment, kill a f—ing doctor?'

As it happens, I am a liberal pre- scriber. If a patient wants pills, I usually give him pills, provided, only that they won't actually harm him (though this was a principle I was prepared to waive slightly in the present case). I prescribed the man what he wanted, but received little thanks for it.

`What about sleepers?' he asked. `Do I have to f—ing kill someone to get some sleepers?'

I thought of recommending healthy exercise as a promoter of sound sleep the kitchen garden, for example. After all, it fact cultiver notre jardin.

Theodore Dalrymple