Rumblings from the Inside

By Maull, Fleet | Tikkun, March/April 1998 | Go to article overview

Rumblings from the Inside


Maull, Fleet, Tikkun


Just the other day at mail call, which immediately follows the 4:00 PM "standing bedside count," I received a very kind letter from Ms. Carol Evans, a social worker at an inner city New Orleans hospice. She thanked me for the prison hospice literature and training materials I'd sent to help her organization establish an inmate-staffed hospice volunteer program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. She also expressed her gratitude for the critical on-site support they'd received from the staff of the National Prison Hospice Association (NPHA), an organization I founded in 1991 based on my experience as a volunteer caregiver in the pioneering inmate-staffed hospice program here at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. I founded NPHA to promote this highly successful approach to the care of dying prisoners throughout the country and to provide exactly this kind of direct assistance to start-up programs.

It's difficult for me to express the deep gratitude and satisfaction I felt in reading Ms. Evans' letter. Daily prison fare consists of experiences of quite the opposite sort. Day in and day out, the prison environment communicates one thing to prisoners-shame. It's built into the wake-ups, the body counts, our prison jobs, the mainline stampedes to the mess hall and the body searches upon leaving, the periodic room shakedowns and urine drops for drug testing, and the "bend over and spread 'em" full body searches coming and going from the visiting room. There are continual messages built into the system, and consciously and unconsciously reinforced by staff and prisoners alike, to remind us that we are second class human beings at best.

Buried under a mountain of guilt, shame, and demonization heaped upon us from day one of our arrest onward by prosecutors, judges, jailers, the media, politicians, correctional staff, and society, we have a very difficult time making contact with the appropriate and genuine feelings of guilt and remorse we need to acknowledge in order to begin a process of change and healing. Instead we tend to project our shame and self-hatred outward in the form of anger, bitterness, and hostility toward the system and its representatives.

Bo Lozoff, author of We're All Doing Time and cofounder of the Human Kindness Foundation, argues that the problem with both the rehabilitation and punishment models between which the pendulum of social policy and politics has swung over the years is that both make the prisoner the sole focus of attention, thus reinforcing the already strong narcissistic character traits which brought most of us to prison in the first place. Those favoring rehabilitation have made the prisoner the focal point of various psychodynamic, cognitive, and behavior modification treatment strategies, in effect turning prisoners into clients or patients. The punishment model does essentially the same thing, except in this case the treatment combines callous, lock-em-up warehousing with continual reinforcement of prisoners' self-hatred: "You're no good, you're a criminal, an animal, a thug," which leads to: I'm no good, I'm a criminal, I'm an animal, a thug."

Neither approach encourages, much less empowers, prisoners to take responsibility for what they've done, for making amends, or for changing their future. Lozoff suggests that we should take the seemingly radical approach of treating prisoners with kindness, decency, and respect while empowering them to take responsibility for changing their own lives through work, education and service. He calls on prisoners to begin treating each other and the staff with this same respect, and to take responsibility for transforming themselves and their world, in and out of prison.

Recently, a magically transformative three-day training program called Beyond Release was brought into the prison by two staff psychologists and Athanor, Inc. …

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