For the past six months I have been reading and researching material on the emotional, physical and behavioral impacts resulting from the stress of trauma. The most notable sources I have encountered in this recent research effort are three different, well-known medical practitioners, including a psychiatrist. The writings of Dr. Gabor Maté, Dr. Steven Porges and Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk all reveal promising new perspectives about the physical, neurological, emotional and spiritual effects of trauma and in particular early childhood trauma. Each of their insights contributes to new approaches in the treatment of trauma.
The stimulus for doing this research arose as a result of the experience I have had over the past two years as a volunteer working with long term inmates inside the federal penitentiary at William Head Institution in British Columbia, Canada. Many of these inmates are “lifers”, who have committed serious offences and have spent many years behind bars in a variety of prison environments ranging from maximum to medium to minimum security.
My contact with these men is in two forms. One night a week a group of about 15-20 volunteer inmates gathers in a Restorative Justice Circle conversation with a handful of volunteer “outsiders” (members of the Restorative Justice Coalition of William Head Institution). For 3 hours the group engages in a facilitated “conversation” about life in prison and the process through which inmates must transit to be released on conditional parole.
The second engagement I have with a smaller group of volunteer inmates is through a weekly offering of the Intensive Journal ® workshop process. I have been doing this for almost a year at this writing. It consists of a two hour workshop session that includes meditation, writing and private self-reflection about the past, present and future prospects of their individual lives. Very little talking or group interaction as per the discipline of the Journal method.
The prison system is operated by Correction Services Canada. Their highest declared priority is public safety. Their rehabilitation practices are basically non-existent, focusing primarily on punitive confinement, outdated psychological concepts and required “recovery programs”. Addressing issues of personal trauma is focused exclusively on the victims of these “criminals”. Nowhere in the rehabilitative process, that I have witnessed, are the issues of the perpetrators pre-or post-crime trauma considered, related to inmate rehabilitation.
The most penetrating “insight” for me at this point, given my experience with about 75 different inmates, and as a result of my current research in the trauma phenomena, is the following:
The prison rehab system, in it’s woefully underfunded, and outdated methods, is asking an unproductive question of inmates. The question is premised on the medical meta-narrative of “normalcy” and assumes that with proper programming, psychiatric assessment, psychological treatment and prisoner will-power (induced through punishment), these men can be “cured of their criminality.” The misdirected question, upon which these practices are premised is WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?.
It was in a Youtube video (Vicki Kelley: “The paradox of trauma-informed care”) where I learned this simple truth. The more productive question for these inmates is WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU? The problem with this is that there is absolutely no capacity for the prison system, in its current practice of punishment, addiction treatment programming and isolation, to pose this question or help facilitate the inmates answer to it.
More on this personal discovery, and how it applies to The INTENSIVE JOURNAL process, and the ironic paradox of self-healing, in my next blog posting.