Lessons Learned about Working with Men: A Prison Memoir

By Sternbach, Jack | Social Work, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Lessons Learned about Working with Men: A Prison Memoir


Sternbach, Jack, Social Work


From the very beginning of my career as a social worker, I have believed that the fullest and most effective use of self requires an integration of personal, professional, and spiritual-political values and beliefs into a framework that respects their dialectical tensions while striving for wholeness. In this very personal memoir, I tell of such a period in my life. The setting is a maximum-security prison. I learned about mutuality, transparence, risk taking, openness, and vulnerability from men in the prison: inmates, the warden, and other prison staff. The lessons I learned have served as ground and guide for my subsequent psychotherapy practice with men, my own relational growth, and my commitment to the struggle for gender equality and social justice.

Key words: men; prisons; racism; therapist; self

The last few chords of Dylan's The Times They Are A'Changing were still vibrating in the air. I hit the stop button on the cassette player, and some 30 bemused, confused and a few angry correctional officers, social workers, administrators, cooks, and clerks at Foothills Correctional Institution got ready to end another training session with the professor from the university--me. It was early in the 1970s, and a reform-oriented correctional administration had appointed the first black warden in the history of the state. I had also been taken on as consultant and staff trainer as part of the effort to restructure and humanize this maximum-security institution. Later, as we deepened our relationship, Superintendent (his official title) Henry broadened my role to include administration--inmate liaison and trouble shooter.

The whole situation was a bit bizarre--I felt the ghosts of generations of tough (mostly white) security-minded officers wailing in the walls as Superintendent Ed Henry, a few years older than myself, and I walked down the main corridor together on my first visit to the prison. The fact that I was decked out in my finest hippie splendor added to the effect: beads, leather vest, laceless low-cut sneakers, long hair, and a red bandanna. My arrogance was matched only by my ignorance, and both were balanced by my innocence. I had done prison work previously in Wisconsin, but always within a traditional social work service structure and never with the kind of administrative entry and backing for system change as at Foothills.

I could say much about the social function of prisons--that is, in defining and justifying the "otherness" on which cultural and socioeconomic hierarchy is based. Men with low socioeconomic status who fill our prisons, these days overwhelmingly black and Latino, are necessary for the maintenance of white male entitlement. The racial and socioeconomic disparity in apprehension, adjudication, and sentencing helps to justify hierarchy and privilege for the rest of us. And, these days, in a time of conservatism and economic plenty, to justify the wholesale neglect of housing, job, and public health programs for either the inner-city or the hardscrabble impoverished rural areas. I also could speak of the vital role prisons play in small-town economic life, how they are a part of a multimillion-dollar correctional industry, of theories of rehabilitation and other related matters. As I rewrite this article, in 2000, prisons are again very much in the headlines. We note that more black young men are incarcerated tha n are in college. We also observe how prison construction and management have become a growth industry, attracting capital from seemingly unrelated sources (for example, American Express) and becoming privatized--for profit undertakings.

In this article, however, I want to focus on what I learned about men together with other men, under conditions so oppressive and brutal, you would expect to find the worst kinds of male aggression, dominance, and exploitation. There was that, in abundance. What is more important is how much I learned of the positive and affirming ways so many men found to be with each other even under such conditions. …

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