Shame and Violence

We can equip prisoners with real skills to deal better with the feeling of shame out of which violence arises. I know, because I did it in one of the largest prisons in Western Europe, HMP Wandsworth...

HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.

As part of my research for a movie script, I relied on an interpreter for interviews that were so important to gain a deeper insight into the world I wanted to dramatise. Often during the interviews, I needed further explanation from my interpreter, which they gave me. But then they sometimes kindly explained the same thing twice. And inside I could feel my aggression spike toward this dedicated professional.

I wanted to be seen by my interpreter as someone intelligent enough to be able to understand on the first explanation: my feeling of aggression was caused by my feeling of shame. And I'm not alone. I worked in prison for 12 years. With the exception of the psychotic and seriously mentally ill who shouldn't have been there, every single violent prison incident I ever came across was caused by shame. This held for incidents of verbal abuse, threatening behaviour, fighting, and assault with or without weapons - whether the victim was another prisoner, a member of staff, or a visitor. It could all be traced back to feeling slighted and belittled in some way, to feeling that one's status had been called into question, to feeling vulnerable and exposed instead of competent and in control.

The prison service usually employs a purely reactive approach to violence: punishing violent prisoners through the internal adjudication system, and through outside court, and keeping the prisoners apart. As long as the violence isn't repeated within the same prison with the same individuals, this is deemed a success. However, just as conflict from the street can be imported to jail when individuals are incarcerated, conflict from jail can be exported to the street when individuals are released. But violence occurring outside their establishments, even where it may be caused by violence occurring inside their establishments, is not something prison governors are ever incentivized to address.

There are accredited offending behaviour programmes in prison designed to reduce violence, but prisoners who're currently being violent are not allowed on them. This screening points to an obvious credibility gap: courses designed to tackle the risk of violence outside sessions do not demonstrate an ability to tackle the risk of violence inside sessions. The compliant participant screened for violence may then as part of the course, often on camera, be invited to speculate on what he might do after he's released if he happens to be faced with a certain provocative situation - say another man talking to his girlfriend. Prisoners can easily work out the 'right' answers; those who have done the course can even share the 'right' answers with other prisoners before they enrol.

We can equip prisoners with real skills to deal better with the feeling of shame out of which violence arises. I know, because I did it in one of the largest prisons in Western Europe, HMP Wandsworth. I called my approach Shame/Violence Intervention (SVI), and it won the national Innovation Award of the biggest therapy organization in the UK.

SVI was different, because it targeted influential and often gang-related prisoners who were currently being violent in the jail (the "main players" as they were known by staff), and, if that wasn't enough, SVI also worked with these prisoners in the genuine heat of the moment. It wasn't a sanitized, hypothetical situation. Prisoners called it the "seeing is believing" approach: conflict was personal and intense, and things escalated to the edge of violence. But there was never any blood on the walls. In fact, there was never even a single contact violent incident in any SVI session, and never a single contact violent incident between sessions involving active SVI participants.

The options when shamed in prison are: a) emotional and/or physical violence, which transforms the feeling of shame into one of apparent self-confidence and force; b) running away - less desirable, especially in prison, because it signals weakness and therefore makes a prisoner more vulnerable further down the line; or c) handling the shame, feeling it and being fully in touch with it, which enables the prisoner to convert his aggressive response into one of potent assertion. In learning how to stay out of their fight-or-flight reaction (options a and b), violent prisoners at the top of the prison hierarchy were helped by my facilitation in SVI to take on board a high-status alternative to violence (option c). This meant violent, often gang-related, influential prisoners who would normally have to be kept apart could come together in SVI to resolve their differences with no loss of face. This changed the culture.

In 2010, however, after 12 years' uninterrupted delivery with no violent incidents, despite the fact I was at that time delivering it for free, SVI was suddenly stopped. The administrative reasons given for the closure still don't add up. The Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service twice refused to investigate, and my third letter to him went unanswered.

After I left HMP Wandsworth, director David Mackenzie made my first movie script, a prison drama called Starred Up, into a multi-award-winning film. It's fictional, but draws on my SVI experience. So, having transitioned into the movie business, that's how I came to be researching for that film script with that dedicated professional. Emotional and/or physical violence is not only morally wrong, but it also frightens me. My default when my aggression spikes is to run away - a luxury none of the prisoners I worked with could afford. But I handled my shame, and asserted to my interpreter that if I didn't get it the first time, I'd ask for their help. I'm grateful to them.

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