The Starving Criminal

Recently, the august St. Petersburg Times sundered a little bit more of its augustness in the interest of chasing down the pocket change that passes for newspaper profits these days.

They started a mug shot page.

Not so long ago, the Times would not have chosen to publish people’s mug shots. Not so long ago, mug shot books were low-tech, if lucrative, publications, run off by the thousands and sold alongside car shopper catalogs in convenience stores to people whose interest in viewing the photos ranged from the personal to the prurient.

Well, we are all prurient now.

In addition to the pictures themselves, the Times posts an odd selection of data culled from the police reports. You can learn how many of the people arrested in the last sixty days have blue eyes (2,736) or weigh more than 300 pounds (98). You cannot learn how many people have been arrested for aggravated assault, or DUI, though you can click on individual mug shots to see the charges filed against that person. You also cannot know the outcome of the charges, whether the person is found innocent or guilty, or what type of sentence is handed down by the courts. The latter would be very useful information, and I do not see why it is so difficult for the Times to put off posting people’s mug shots until they can also report on case outcomes, except that judges frequently behave as if the public has no right to scrutinize the actions of the court. Knowing how much time a person actually gets for trying to kill their wife or causing an accident while drunk would be eye-opening.

But at least we know the color of those eyes.

Scrolling through the images of people who have just been arrested is haunting in more ways than one, though I imagine it quickly becomes routine, like becoming insensitive to violence in movies. Some of the people look terrified, and they are crying. Others look as if they don’t know how to cry. It may be false to imagine that you can read something about a person’s character from his or her mug shot, but many of the arrestees look unfed and unloved — un-nurtured. Scars, tattoos, torn-up faces, unfocused eyes, birth defects, malnutrition, drug ravages, blankness, rage: it is entirely possible to simultaneously pity them and hope they stay behind bars.

The British prison psychiatrist and author, Theodore Dalrymple, has an essay about malnutrition among young men in British jails. It is available at City Journal (“The Starving Criminal“) and in his book, Our Culture, What’s Left of It:

That many young inmates are grossly malnourished when they enter prison I have absolutely no doubt, because each day I see cases of severe malnutrition among those who have recently entered the adult prison in which I work. Of an average daily intake of 20 prisoners, perhaps six, of whom four are drug addicts, show obvious outward signs of malnutrition. A rough estimate (allowing for recidivism) would suggest that perhaps 1,000 malnourished men arrive in my prison annually: that means (if my prison is typical, and there is no reason to suppose otherwise) that each year at least 25,000 malnourished men enter the British prison system. . .

The prisoners’ teeth are falling out; their tongues are glisteningly smooth, angrily magenta red, and the corners of their mouths are cracked, as in vitamin B deficiency. They are in their early twenties to their early thirties.

Prison, Dalrymple observes, fattens these men up. Once free again, they return to starving themselves:

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.

Dalrymple locates the cause for this malnourishment in a larger spiritual crisis, not of faith but of parenting and socialization, or rather the lack of these things. He describes one young burglar deprived of the life experience that teaches one to eat normally:

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. The street was his principal dining room, as well as his trash can: and as far as food was concerned, he was more a hunter-gatherer than a man living in a highly evolved society. . . .

It never takes many links in a chain of reasoning to get from their smooth and raw magenta tongues to the kind of family breakdown favored by a certain ideology of human relations, encouraged by our laws and fiscal system, and made viable by welfare payments. It is the breakdown of the family structure—a breakdown so complete that mothers do not consider it part of their duty to feed their own children once they have reached the age at which they can forage for themselves in a refrigerator . . . it is hardly surprising if young people who have not learned to socialize within the walls of their own homes, who have not learned even the minimal social disciplines required by people who eat together, should be completely antisocial in other respects.

One of the things that startled me about the children I met in similar households in Atlanta — before I had seen it enough times to grow insensitive to it — was the utter absence of any normal stimulus or routine, including mealtimes, in their daily lives. My neighbor, D., who produced at least fourteen children (we lost track after that), seemed to do no parenting at all beyond shoveling her offspring out the door to the school buses and social service program vans that literally lined up outside of her house every morning: I have no doubt the Head Start employees were the ones who taught many of D.’s children to eat.

Once, when she went into the hospital to deliver yet another child, her plan for feeding the rest apparently consisted of telling them to walk to my house and ask me for something to eat, and also to ask me to please not call social services on her for doing so. This was not out of any sense of pride, for anyone could hear D. chewing out the social workers who arrived like clockwork on her doorstep if they failed to provide her with this or that thing she was demanding. It wasn’t out of any sense of fear that the authorities would notice that she had acquired an expensive, wide-screen television and other pricey electronics despite her complete dependence on public funds: social workers are not allowed to ask questions about such things anymore.

I suspect D. didn’t want me to call the child protection workers because it would inconvenience her slightly to be accused of child neglect again. Not a big problem, and nothing would come of it, but an inconvenience nonetheless. Of course, the fathers were entirely absent, except when one of them needed a place to stay or a child to beat, it seemed.

When I look at the faces in the mug shots on the St. Petersburg Times’ website, I see many people who would be surprised that anybody was bothering to notice them — if they were capable of forming the emotion.


2 thoughts on “The Starving Criminal”

  1. Tina,

    As I have mentioned before, I have a family member who was on a parole board who often discusses with me things he learned from his job. One such item was how taking a parolee to prison often saved their life. He would go pick up someone who had either malnurishment or a disease and bring them in to jail. Naturally their care was paid by the state so the doctors went to work on them and within two months they “looked like weight-lifters”, the image of health. I have not heard such a conclusion that because of the breakdown in the family they did not learn to feed themselves but it makes sense. That and the fact many are drug addicts that often spend the money they have on drugs, which dulls other pains such as hunger.

    Always enjoy your blogging, keep it up,


  2. Thank you, Daniel. Unfortunately, I think we need to constantly reiterate the fact that being a criminal is actually harmful to yourself and to others — to counter all the ways, large and small, that criminality is excused, justified, and even celebrated. I wish people who served in corrections and on parole boards would publicly talk about what they have seen on the job. Those are crucial voices, and they are rarely heard in the places where the public debates crime policy.

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