Prison doctor lifts the lid on Britain’s most notorious jails

Despite its challenges, prison doctor Amanda Brown says her work is rewarding. Hannah Stephenson reports.

Dr Amanda Brown. Photo: HQ/PA
Dr Amanda Brown. Photo: HQ/PA

Dr Amanda Brown has witnessed more horrific injuries than you’d see in an average slasher movie, from slit throats and boiling sugar water attacks, to one prisoner who had put razor blades up his rectum.

She has treated some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, from drug dealers to psychopaths and knows how prisoners make deadly weapons out of razor blades, or lethal clubs by stuffing snooker balls into socks.

It’s difficult to understand why this amiable GP, who quit her quiet suburban practice in Buckinghamshire over changes in GPs’ pay structure and performance bonuses, opted for a world of high security gates, clanging doors, metal stairwells and dangerous patients.

But when Brown was nearly 50, she took a leap of faith after a doctor who was recruiting GPs to work in prisons in the south east of England contacted her. That was 15 years ago.

After initially spending time at a young offenders’ institution, she went to the notorious Wormwood Scrubs and finally Bronzefield - Europe’s largest women-only prison, where Brown has encountered some of the country’s most infamous murderers - including serial killer Joanna Dennehy.

Brown, now 64, has now charted her experiences in her first book, The Prison Doctor, which features not only startling anecdotes but also the more rewarding aspects of her job, the prisoners who sent her letters of thanks, the ones for whom there remains hope.

“I feel alive when I’m at work,” she says. “Being with these fascinating people is invigorating and makes me feel young. It’s a privilege to be accepted by them and to try to be on their side. It gives me a sense of feeling worthwhile.”

Brown says she has never really felt scared, despite being in an environment which is often pretty intimidating. In Wormwood Scrubs she was duty doctor, on call for emergencies, usually accompanied by a nurse, but often she would see prisoners on their own, particularly when screening new arrivals in the First Night Centre.

“I was told that I should always leave my door open and sit between the door and the prisoner because if it was the other way round, the prisoner could just shut the door and take me hostage.”

She says for her, the most horrific sights have been the attempted suicides. “The most disturbing was a lad who slit his throat in Wormwood Scrubs. That was horrendous to see and the most dramatic and unpleasant thing.”

The incident prompted a ‘Code Blue’, an emergency call that saw nurses, prison officers and doctors to race to the cell in question. Brown arrived to a bloodbath. “I can still remember every bit of it...You don’t forget that sort of thing.”

It turned out the prisoner was a foreign national on remand for burglary, and had only been at the Scrubs for a few days. Some time later, Brown was making her way to the healthcare wing when she heard someone shuffling behind her - there, was the prisoner she’d helped. He mouthed ‘Thank you’.

“I could never forget the fact that he survived and that he thanked me for helping him - that was magical.”

After seven years at the Scrubs, Brown moved to Bronzefield in 2016, where she works today. She was warned that women prisoners were more difficult to deal with than males, but says that isn’t true.

“The most overpowering thing to me is how many of these poor women have been abused and are victims themselves. The lives some of them have lived that have led them to be in prison are so shocking and so tragic that I feel for them, and I do find their stories fascinating and I want to try to be somebody who’s on their side.”

The Prison Doctor by Dr Amanda Brown is published by HQ, priced £8.99. Available now.