The Prison Doctor (Amanda Brown) - Book Review
Alastair Reith, Magdalen College
Rating: 2.5 Stars
We all love stories. We love reading autobiographies which spin the jumble of someone’s life into a compellingly simple narrative for us to follow. And, in the same way, as doctors—particularly GPs—invest themselves in their patients, they can become part-doctor, part-counsellor, skilfully intervening at the most trying moments in people’s personal stories, weaving their words into the text, keeping the story on course towards an auspiciously happy ending. This is the value of continuity of care. So it is jarring when all that suddenly changes: when the stories we are so accustomed to become fragments, when we never get to read the ending, not even the next chapter; and the stories themselves are unpredictable, dangerous even. This is the story of what happened to Dr Amanda Brown.
First, she leaves her sleepy Buckinghamshire GP practice behind. She walks out of a partners’ meeting—in protest over the introduction of QOF1—and straight into a self-induced mid-life crisis. As often happens, chance strikes: as one door closes, another (slightly scarier-looking) door opens. One day she wakes up and walks into a totally new environment, like starting a new rotation after over 20 years. From HMP Huntercombe, she travels to Wormwood Scrubs, and eventually ends up working in the high-security women’s prison at Bronzefield.
Overnight, she has to deal with an entirely new patient population, changing frequently with cycles of transfer and release. This is where the book, I think, tells us an exaggerated version of the story we already expect to hear. We encounter razor-blades up prisoners’ back passages, drugs smuggled into prison in the letter-paper,2 and prisoners who chuck their faeces through the hatches in the doors. And, of course, we see the flipside of that: the moments of genuine heartfelt kindness, on both sides of the bars. The reader is bombarded with stories of child sexual assault, of gang-rape, of absent parents and unhappy strings of foster-homes. It is painfully emotive throughout. But surely—I am thinking, as I read about even more trauma—this cannot be the all day, every day of Dr Brown’s thirteen-hour shifts. It feels like the narrative has been falsely compressed, the routine parts of her work quietly erased. Time and again, the story simply cuts out when the next patient walks in. I can’t imagine the next patient also has a gaping ulcer packed with sanitary towels—they probably just want to talk about their asthma.
I suddenly realise I am holding only a millimetre or so of pages in my right hand—and yet the tempo of the book has failed to change. I confess I was hoping for something more than a collection of fragments of stories; I was expecting a deep and meaningful argument to surge through at the end. The Prison Doctor reminds me very much of Neil Woods’ Good Cop, Bad War—a similarly action-packed autobiographical thriller, this one about an undercover police officer who secretly infiltrates drug gangs. As Good Cop, Bad War comes to an end, all of Woods’ disparate stories are eloquently channelled into a strong, passionate, well-supported argument for the legalisation of drugs. And suddenly, whether you agree with him or not, you are captured by the force of his argument; the book has been written for a purpose; there is an important socio-political point to be made. When The Prison Doctor comes to an end, the story simply cuts out, and the next patient walks in. I felt deeply for some of these prisoners, trapped in a vicious cycle of victimhood and abuse, and I felt how important Dr Brown must have been to them. As for the book though, I was left feeling strangely unsatisfied.
1 – The Quality & Outcomes Framework (QOF) was introduced on 1 April 2004 and rewards GPs with financial bonuses to incentivise them to comply with national guidance.
2 – Dr Brown mainly covers the “zombie drug” spice, derived from synthetic varieties of cannabinoid – so much of a problem in some prisons they began photocopying all prisoners’ letters to try and eradicate it.