Wednesday, February 4, 2015

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Did Prison Make Me a Better Person?

Alex Cavendish reflects on his own prison experience and the lack of effective measures for reintegrating prisoners back into society. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

In addition to posting on this blog, I also maintain a Twitter account as many readers will be aware. I tweet and retweet about prison issues, the criminal justice system and human rights.

Occasionally, I get asked questions via Twitter that are really difficult to answer, especially in 140 characters or less. It seems that not that many people know anyone who has been a prisoner, so they are keen to take an opportunity to find out more about the prison system and the effects incarceration can have on inmates. Even some of those who work in the criminal justice system sometimes ask me for my opinions on subjects that concern them. On occasion, it’s about getting a view from ‘the other side of the cell door’ and I do my best to give honest answers.

Recently I was asked – for the first time – whether I felt that having been in prison had made me a better person. Now that was a very difficult one. I’ll admit that I really had to take some time to think it through before I gave my answer, which was “yes” – although not for the reasons that might have been expected.

In my own case, there are several reasons that I believe prison did make me a better person. The first of those is that I had a chance to re-evaluate my entire life and the direction that my career had been going. I did a fair amount of re-evaluation while I was sitting in a high security cell down the Block (segregation unit), but it that was just the start of a process that has continued for several years. 

Prison toothbrush
I quickly realised that I actually didn’t need all the trappings that a successful career can bring. When the entire range of possessions at your disposal in the Block consists of a cheap wristwatch, a pair of reading glasses, a paperback book and a prison toothbrush, you can suddenly see all the rest in its proper perspective. Strange as it may sound, I am grateful for the opportunity I had to reflect following what amounted to a very radical de-cluttering. Possessions can be nice to have, but very few of them are actually essential.

Another key issue for me is that I rediscovered the skill of listening to other people. I came to realise that this was something I had forgotten during what had been a very intensive period spent getting to the top in my chosen career. Back then I rarely listened to colleagues or to others on my staff. I had become opinionated and was often impatient with other people. I had so little free time that I suppose I’d come to resent spending any of it dealing with other peoples’ concerns and problems.

Relearning the ability to listen
In prison, however, I found that listening to others is not only a very valuable skill, but it can quite literally be a life-saving service for vulnerable fellow cons who are in deep distress. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about that side of the job when I applied to be an Insider (peer mentor). However, having trained as a counsellor early on in my career, I suddenly found that prisoners wanted to speak to me about their problems and actually valued my advice and support. That, in itself, helped me to regain a sense of balance while I was serving my own prison sentence.

I also had to confront the fact that I hadn’t been a very nice person during the previous few years. Arrogance is never an attractive character trait and learning some real humility – the hard way – in prison certainly didn’t do me any harm. The experience has made me a different person and, I hope, a nicer one.

Being arrogant when you are in the slammer can be a very risky business. Screws hate arrogant cons and some will actively seek ways to put them in their place, whether by ‘nicking’ (charging) them for disciplinary offences, by giving them negative write-ups – putting critical comments on a con’s individual file – or by blocking requests and applications.

Arrogance is dangerous
Being arrogant to fellow cons can be even more dangerous. A perceived insult or slight – often referred to as ‘mugging’ someone off – can lead to violence, particularly when someone has poor anger management skills. In prison, it usually pays to be polite.

So, based on the above, I think it is clear that prison has made me a better person. But did I get rehabilitated? That’s a difficult question, particularly as I still have an appeal against conviction ongoing. However, on balance, my answer would be no, but then I never saw myself as needing to be rehabilitated in the first place.

It’s a funny word, rehabilitation. Not least because it’s one of those odd terms that is regularly used, but very rarely defined. And therein lies the problem. Without a clear definition of any word, it can mean something – or nothing.

It’s also complicated because the term is often used in a medical context, whether the condition being treated is physical or mental. As ‘rehab’ it refers to support to recover from an addiction (something that there isn’t much of inside the nick these days). Then again, in the Soviet Union it meant the quashing of a conviction – often posthumously – of those convicted for political offences during the Stalinist era.

Taken at its most basic level, rehabilitation can be defined as preparation for reintegration back into society of a person who has been convicted of a criminal offence. Of course, they don’t necessarily need to have been sentenced to a custodial term, but it can equally apply to someone who has been given a community penalty, or even a fine.

The whole question of rehabilitation should be central to the whole debate over our prison system. Can imprisonment reform and rehabilitate? Anyone who is a regular reader of this blog will probably know that my personal view is that any real pretence of achieving rehabilitation while cons are inside has been abandoned in recent years, even if it still exists on paper. 

Not much rehabilitation here
During a recent online debate on the subject of deteriorating conditions in our prisons, one of the contributors suggested that deprivation and poor living conditions should be “what prison is all about” because it might deter prisoners from committing further offences and getting sent down again. In my reply I pointed out that if this theory was correct, then there would be far fewer repeat offenders in our jails.

My own view is that treating people inhumanely or brutally has never made anyone a better person. Indeed, given the terrible childhoods that some prisoners have already experienced – including years of physical, mental and often sexual abuse – it seems pretty obvious to me that brutality and violence are often learned behaviours that can have disastrous consequences in later life. The key issue is whether these can be ‘unlearned’, whether in prison or in the community and, if so, how? 

Mistreatment and abuse simply seems to reinforce these undesirable personality traits, particularly when a person already has very low self-esteem. Making daily life inside prisons even more grim, humiliating and miserable than it already is really doesn’t seem to work when it comes to reducing reoffending, as the very high reconviction rates appear to demonstrate. As the rising figures also show this ideological approach of being ‘tough on cons’ also appears to fuel self-harm, violence and suicide.

Kicked out of the gate...
So what does rehabilitation mean for ex-prisoners? I have deliberately avoided using the preferred criminal justice term ‘offender’ here, because I think that rehabilitation should equally apply to those who have been held unconvicted on remand, as well as victims of miscarriages of justice. In my experience, these are two specific groups that are routinely overlooked when it comes to rehabilitation. If a conviction gets quashed by the Court of Appeal, then the former prisoner is just kicked out of the prison gate with absolutely no support or assistance, even if they have already served many years in custody and have become totally institutionalised.

Writing as an ex-prisoner myself, my view is that any support that is offered to assist with the reintegration process will be welcome, both pre-release and when former prisoners are discharged back into the community. Unfortunately, major budget cuts and staff shortages within our prison system mean that resettlement outcomes across the board are often very poor, as recent reports by HM Inspectorate of Prisons have highlighted.

After prison: a struggle to get a job
This also raises the vital, and much more difficult, issue of finding gainful employment when a person has a criminal record. In reality, most of the former prisoners I know who have found legal employment are either self-employed (which requires some initial start-up capital and a range of skills to deal with the paperwork), or else they are working for family, friends or – in a small number of cases – former employers. Obviously the last option is only there for ex-prisoners who had a job prior to being sent down.

However, for a far larger number of ex-cons, there are still massive challenges to face, particularly those who have very limited education or who struggle to read and write; those who are living with mental health problem or who are still struggling with addictions, in some cases fuelled by the easy availability of a wide range of drugs (legal and illegal) inside jails. It’s these much more difficult cases – including those who will leave prison with nothing beyond a £46 grant and no-one to go home to – who will be the challenge to resettle back into the community. In far too many instances, their most likely destination will be back in court and through the ‘revolving door’ of our prisons.

As a society, we just don’t have sufficient support mechanisms in place to address their complex needs, including starting to deal with childhood abuse and all the emotional damage, including self-hatred and the destructive behaviours, that it can cause. Nor will imprisonment have addressed most mental health problems, mainly because these often go undiagnosed because of scarce resources, or dependencies on alcohol or drugs. Some of these ex-prisoners are just so alienated from society that reintegration is probably the last thing on their minds as they step out onto the pavement outside the prison gates - and that is an issue that should concern us all.


Anonymous said...

RE My own view is that treating people inhumanely or brutally has never made anyone a better person. Indeed, given the terrible childhoods that some prisoners have already experienced – including years of physical, mental and often sexual abuse – it seems pretty obvious to me that brutality and violence are often learned behaviours that can have disastrous consequences in later life. The key issue is whether these can be ‘unlearned’, whether in prison or in the community and, if so, how?

=’s YES… The revolving door syndrome and stigmatising of those who have done time go hand in hand… The unlearning of detrimental behaviours is possible if adequate long term group homes for ex immates were set up and reintegration skills taught as well as one to one counselling.

It is extremely hard for some ex immates to let go of that hypervigilant feel and physical rage - ready to fight for your life. This is often a problem in therapeutic homes because it is not perceived as such, anticipated nor understood. People fresh outta jail can act out violently emotional/physical often more from the fear/duress they are under rather than actual wanting to be violent. Then they get ejected from the group home. Staff who work in shelters (I have extensively in the past) seem to understand better these dynamics imo and can dampen down stuff and not be highly punitive.

Every immate or ex is an individual with specific needs. There is no one fits all mold therapeutic approach. I don’t think psychological rehabilitation is a reality in a prison system as the systems/staff are so corrupt, largely brutal and negate any imparted therapeutic assistance – it just erodes it all…

What you wrote is very good – you have a heart for the people. If you had not suffered you would not have that kind of heart/insights. Jail did u good.

The only thing that riles me is how ppl can get educated inside and not have to juggle work and study and paying bills etc For decades I had to juggle NA meetings, therapy sessions 1-1, work and study and pay the rent and such No-one ever said to me poor, broken you, you have had a traumatic life - here’s some help – it was just one big societal f.k you at me all round - do or die. You were on your own and fighting in ea. 24 hrs – I got RESPECT in the end but I have never forgotten nor forgiven hypocritical societal stances. Maybe jail does have its perks in a sense of shared experience./knowings between ex immates… (insert twisted face here)

NB Institutionalisation – feeling comforted by an imposed regime and orderliness is a real thing esp. when u come from a fragmented background family wise and also something that just happens if you do a lot of time. It can be really hard to let go of it all because it gets grafted into your psyche as normal. Sometimes the only role models and substitute fam you get in your youth are ones hoisted on u in jail or rehab.

That’s why some ex immates have huge meltdowns on the outside. The structure is gone and there is just a terrifying world coming at them

Even now as an oldie I enjoy circumstances like going away on a seminar or such when you get a designated bed and someone dictating time to go to sleep and get up. Everyone groans about it all but me I love that kind of imposed shit. I mark out my turf, carefully lay out my possessions and when the bell rings for the shuffle to grab the meals etc I am first in becos its all about me - I u/stand the shit well – coded in. It’s called survival. It’s called the past kicking into the present. And u know the drill - the worst kind of prison is your own mind.

Henry JoY said...

Thanks Alex.

'Learning to listen that we may listen to learn' doesn't come easy to those of us who fail to take adequate time for self-reflection.
Sometimes people you know have to fall hard before grasping such truths.

"The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being" Socrates (c. 470 BC - 399 BC).

Alex Cavendish said...

Thank you both for your comments above. I'm glad that you found my blog post interesting and thanks also to Anthony for re-publishing them on his own excellent and thought-provoking blog.