“To live in prison is to live without mirrors. To live without mirrors is to live without the self.”
Margaret Atwood. Two-headed Poems, ‘Marrying the Hangman’.
I was a member of the Visiting Committee of Mountjoy Prison in Dublin for three years. It was one of the most frustrating and disheartening experiences I have ever had. I experienced feelings of despair, helplessness and simmering anger: a reflection, I would image, of what the prisoners themselves must feel. I railed against the system, against the administration, against the pointlessness of what was happening, at the trauma and misery experienced by little children who seldom see their fathers. Prisoners tend not to want their children to see them in the bleak visiting rooms, surrounded by prison officers and watched by video cameras in case drugs are passed. For the same reason, no physical contact can take place. I wondered about the women, deprived of husbands or partners for maybe years, coping with poverty and loneliness.
For those who do not know about Visiting Committees they are appointed by the Minister for Justice and serve in a voluntary capacity. They are supposed to represent the interests of prisoners and they have unlimited access to the prison whenever they wish to visit. Under fairly antiquated legislation, we could intervene in the case of say, a prison riot and hold a sort of inquiry afterwards to establish the facts. We could also suggest punishments for recalcitrant prisoners. However, what we actually did was to hear prisoners’ complaints at our monthly meetings. We would take these to the governor or the assistant governors, and then report back to the prisoner. Some of us would see individual prisoners at different times and listen to their difficulties. We would visit them in their cells – many of which had no in-cell sanitation thus requiring the prisoners to use chamber pots and submit to the degrading practice of ‘slopping-out’ – and sometimes, just sometimes we felt we might have improved a prisoner’s life marginally. For my own part I felt my real achievement was to persuade the governor to order the removal of handcuffs from a prisoner awaiting serious brain surgery during his visits to the hospital.
All the wings of the prison radiate out from the main circle where, from behind a high, wide desk, prison officers sit or stand in a powerful cluster. For the most part they are big and male. I happen to be quite small and female. When I presented my request to see a particular prisoner I would have to stand on tiptoe to reach the counter and gain their attention. I often felt like Alice in Wonderland, completely disempowered when she shrank in size and could barely peer over a mushroom.
The main function of the Visiting Committee is to write an annual report which is then sent to the Minister for Justice and is available to the public. In 1996 our detailed serious discrepancies in the medical department, our concern at the apparent use of the padded cells for punishment, instead of for containment, our overall dissatisfaction at many aspects of the prison regime, especially the fact that there were only seven psychologists for the entire prison population throughout the country. Nothing happened as a result of our report. In 1997 we did a short report and attached it in the 1996 report since we did not wish to repeat ourselves. Nothing happened. In 1998 we wrote an interim report because of concern over various issues. Since then I have left the committee but, as far as I know, nothing has changed.
There were some rays of hope in this bleak scenario and one of them was provided by Helen Haughton, a clinical psychologist who runs Alternatives to Violence (ATV) programmes on a voluntary basis within Mountjoy.
She had begun her career working in schizophrenia, then veered away from the medical model into family therapy and was a founder member of the Clanwilliam Institute. “I was interested in the influence of the family on members who seemed to be going ‘mad’ or ‘bad’. I had seen the ‘mad’ and felt the place to see the ‘bad’ was definitely in prison. Of course it’s not just families who have a part to play, it’s society and its structure. It’s a poverty issue, and an eduction issue. 90% of the prison population can barely read or are totally illiterate. They can hardly write their names. The politicians reduced the numbers of school attendance officers. Five-year-olds should be at school, not roaming the streets. By thirteen years of age the vast majority of them are totally unemployed and will be into drugs. Once they have reached adolescence and see no future, they turn to crime. It may be the only way of coping with their despair.
“Bitterness is anger. Prisoners are bitter against society, angry with themselves, bristling with it, inwardly and outwardly. It is hard for them to reach a calm place in their lives. Some of them can be helped to used their anger positively. Anger at its best is rousing energy which can be basis of a lot of progress. If only they could be like Atlas, they could shake the world. If you are self-assured you can use anger in a positive way.”
The AVF project began in 1975 in a prison in New York State and was organised by Quakers. Now 1000 workshops are held each year in USA prisons, the programme has spread to other states and countries and started in Ireland in 1994. It is not psychotherapy. It is not about releasing anger, but about controlling it, using it to work in a more positive way. Its tenets are Affirmation, Communication, Co-operation and Creative Conflict Resolution.
Helen Haughton explains: “We try and help people to affirm themselves. We do an introduction, and exercise of affirmation. We divide the group into pairs and they must speak positively about themselves for two minutes. Then they divide groups of four. It shows them there is god in themselves, that it is about building self esteem and trust. We allow no put-downs. Then we teach them how to listen as part of an anger resolution. You may be blazing mad about something but you have to listen. The men introduce their own ideas for the anger resolution exercises. They might role play a bouncer in a nightclub refusing someone admission, or someone’s anger with a neighbour’s dog who is digging up the garden and barking all night. Sometimes it can get hot and heavy but they must listen actively to each other and we show them how to be assertive without getting anger, to co-operate, to show empathy.”
She tells the story of one man who was determined to kill a particular person when he left prison and expressed himself forcibly on the subject. He then did a visualisation (as part of the programme) where he was walking along a sunny beach towards his enemy. They reached each other and stopped and held a conversation. Later he said he had changed his mind. He no longer had murder in his heart.
At the second level of the programme the men are shown how to come to a consensus decision. They find this a strange idea and they find it very difficult. Fear, anger and power are the most common topics they want to discuss.
For Helen Haughton the work can often be invigorating, exhausting and exciting. But she has mixed feelings about its lasting effects. “There will be a handful who will be touched very deeply. There will be others who will only go on the programme because it will look good at their next appearance in court. For some I think it raises hopes that cannot be fulfilled.” She was sad that one of the men who had done particularly well, and had himself become a facilitator for the programme, took part in the siege in the prison a year ago. “And yet, when I’m feeling really depressed, the chaplins or the welfare officers will tell me that we really have made a difference.”
Prisons are cauldrons of suppressed anger. Men who have done the AVF programme are sometimes taunted by prison officers. They, in their turn, can be verbally abused by prisoners. There is very little recognition of the need for follow-up after therapeutic intervention. Men coming off drugs treatment programme are returned to the main prison without counselling support: it is a small wonder that so many of them relapse. I know of only one prison in England where psychotherapy is widely used. Its effectiveness has been proved by the low rate of recidivism.
I remember one day sitting with a prisoner – we were worked allowed to use a pokey little room where the welfare officer worked. A prison officer waited outside, for my protection, or so he told me. The prisoner had committed a murder and was on remand, awaiting trial. He knew he would get a long sentence. He cried helplessly as he talked about his two small children and then begged me to stay longer because he couldn’t let the officer see him like that. Anger is accepted in prison. Tears are not.