Shame – a prisoner’s response

As part of his placement from HMP Greenock with CYCJ, ‘Paul’ wrote a paper exploring the influence of shame within the criminal justice system. In this powerful blog, he responds to the issues raised from the perspective of his own experiences.

I find myself in a quandary with regard to the detrimental issues and effects of shame raised in Shame: an effective tool for justice? I have personally felt the weight of every one of them, and am inclined to agree with its findings. But I have followed a path contrary to that prescribed.

Since coming into custody I have been highly motivated to take advantage of every available opportunity to better my odds of parole and my life chances post release. For 12 years I have abstained from any substance use/abuse, violence, subversive activities and further offending behaviours. I have engaged whole-heartedly with the regime of every establishment I have been housed in, achieving a number of academic and vocational qualifications; taking part in pro-social development schemes like peer-support and tutoring programmes; been extremely proactive in my sentence management, working closely with social workers, psychologists and prison staff; and began community testing through work placements and reintegration schemes. I have made the conscious choice to engage in all these things to ensure (as best I can within the confines of my limitations) that I have the best chance at a second chance in life. To bolster myself as much as I can from the marginalised position I forced myself into at the age of 16. And to show them I am capable of being the kind of person I believe they want me to be.

However, my motivations extend beyond pure pragmatism. I achieved for achieving’s sake. I achieved because I wanted to prove that I could – to those I love, of course, but especially to those I hate – and in that I include myself. It mattered to me to rail against the box I put myself in. To be more than the deviant, monstrous ‘other’ I had read about in all the papers. To be more than an act that ruined everything and hurt everyone. It is a harsh realisation to accept that you are completely ashamed of who you are. It is quite another to voice it, which I am doing here now for the first time. But voicing it is necessary. Because the fact remains that I want to be better than what they think and say I am. I want to be someone I am not ashamed of. But if shame is what drove me to better myself, how can I agree that shame poses a detrimental threat to self-efficacy?  Certainly if my story so far is anything to go by, shame seems just the tool for the job. But I can tell you firsthand, however affable and adjusted I appear – my anxieties are eating me alive.

The multiple losses of agency, status and self-concept highlighted by CYCJ research are for me, the most devastating and overlooked factor of imprisonment. The public/media focus on the luxury facilities provided in ‘cushy nicks’ does not detract from the fact that a gilded cage is still a cage – a place where I am not in control of my own life. It is a place where I, however comfortable, exist as opposed to live. Wishing my life away and watching the world and every one in it move on very easily without me. It showed me how the world would be if I was dead. An apt, if not deserved, and truly humbling experience, and the further into it I got, the more I felt the need to stay alive and stay connected to the world, family, friends and partners, and I have been extremely lucky in that respect. But fighting that distance is not easy, especially when any happiness is followed by a sense that it is not deserved, and any display of it will be called to account. When a sanctioned family photo or announcement of engagement or marriage finds its way onto social media and is seized upon by the press. When a home visit requires a team of social workers and risk professionals to enter my home and stipulate the potential danger I pose to the people I love the most. When the community reiterates by encouraging them to stay away from me. To find myself constantly policing the happiness of my partner, telling her to keep quiet about this and post nothing about that, further imposing the binds of my shame on her life. Worse still, to defend myself against the preconceptions of people who don’t know me but think they do – professional or otherwise – and reassure the people that matter most I am not the thing they’re continually warned away from, that I would never hurt them. The shame of being seen and portrayed as a monster to my loved ones, and to see them struggle with that burden year in year out, is all too real for me. And it does not surprise me that some people withdraw from these relationships completely.

This pervading sense of undeservingness extends beyond maintaining or forming relationships to the pursuit of positive opportunities.  I have witnessed baptisms, a marriage, even funerals find their way into the tabloids and spun as some kind of scam by ‘evil lags’ to work the system. Seen the opportunity for engagement in community enrichment projects and charity events rejected for fear they would be plastered all over the papers. I see the anxiety of fellow cons on community reintegration programmes every day, forced to lie to the public about who they are and terrified it will all come to light. As such, I am wary of the opportunities I take advantage of in custody – particularly where there is the prospect of community interaction – and have reneged on several, fearful someone will vocalise their outrage. Even now as I write this, I feel it being twisted and distorted out of context ‘Why is he getting a platform? He doesn’t deserve it.’ I hear it all in my head every day. I think it first so they don’t have to. I see the headline in every paper I’m afraid to read. Feel the threat of outrage in every positive step I take.

And this sense of undeservingness is not exclusive to these more noteworthy events in custody. Its reinforcement is felt in even the simplest interaction. Now let’s be clear, I believe society needs prison, and I know I deserve to be in one. But I believe there is something fundamentally wrong with how prison is used. However compliant, civil, and exemplary our behaviour, we are always marred by nature of our subject position and all that it entails. Should suspicion ever arise, it will be on us to prove our innocence first, our guilt already a foregone conclusion. The simplest pursuits in custody, such as attending education or skills training are often disregarded as pointless and derided by staff.  Indeed, prisons as institutions have a knack for crushing the aspirations they seek to build. Be it the sneers of prison staff regarding the right to engage in forums that air complaints and seek to improve living conditions, through to the trivialising of things as pertinent as meeting target dates for progression, parole or release. There is a sense that our concerns don’t matter, rather, they are an impudence borne of the leniency and care we are extended far too much of, and obviously do not appreciate. There is a sense our time is not important – that these milestones don’t matter. There is no value placed on the months and years of our life we see bleeding into an arbitrary void. If it takes another six, 12 or 20 months to get home to our family, our partner, our children, it is our own fault for being here. We should just be grateful we have the opportunity to get out again at all.

This is by no means the party line. Nor is it the express view of all prison staff, many of whom have helped and supported me over the years. But this is also by no means an uncommon experience for many people in custody.

Furthermore, the culture of prison can often mean the pursuit of positive opportunities and futures are viewed negatively by peers. The idea you are not a real con for buying into the system’s lies and the false hope it propagates to elicit your compliance. For thinking you are better than your lot and can somehow rise above your deviant status. For believing society will ever take you back. Again, this is not every con, many of whom have been great friends as well as supports. But again, it is far more common than not. A dual shaming then, which I have personally experienced, forcing me to lament all the bad choices I did not make, regret all the pride I swallowed, and all the impulses I did not act on. Not only is this a stark opposition to the positive self I’m trying so hard to cultivate, it’s a massive blow. How can I ever truly hope to be better when I’m still angry at times for not being worse? And if I feel that way, does that mean they are right about me after all? Am I only kidding myself? Can I ever be more than this? The simple fact is I struggle every day with the drive to be the person I think I want to be, trying to make sense of that person, to see where they fit in, and will I come to resent this prospective abstract as much as the versions that got me this far? More importantly, will I continue to separate myself from previous and potential selves to lessen the blow I always sense coming? Will I ever be comfortable in my own skin? Or will I forever feel shame crawling all over it?

From the media, the public, practitioners and peers, the real and tangible effects of shame are hard to ignore. Be it relationships, life skills, education, employment or community reintegration, I am in no way surprised people give up long before they try. I have felt the same way a hundred times before. I have felt the urge to give up and withdraw – to self-medicate and self-destruct. I am sure I will feel those urges again. There is no doubt in my mind that shame has helped shape me into a markedly damaged individual. And though shame has not completely hindered my capacity for the self-efficacy required to achieve and even succeed academically, vocationally and socially; the confidence to expose myself to situations where I feel most vulnerable; and to see a potential self-worth aspiring to, I am still, without question, at its mercy.

One response to “Shame – a prisoner’s response”

  1. David Ashford says:

    This is indeed a ‘powerful blog’ – brilliantly written with enormous courage in the face of ‘shame’ undermining confidence.
    There are two dimensions that are missing knowledge of which might help with strengthening a sense of perspective. First – the need to understand that human beings are over-developed animals thanks to our brains surging ahead of our bodies – initially millions of years ago. As such, we retain the basic instincts of fighting for survival ruthlessly because that is the way all animals cope with surviving in life. The challenge for us humans is to use our brains to construct ways and means of controlling our animal instincts. Hence all the hugely complex structures we are surrounded by in order to achieve some semblance of – yes, order! Prison is just one of them and both inside and outside there will inevitably be people would behave with fear of aggression from an offender. Being aware of and contemplating these facts of life on this Planet, might help to ease the pain which has been expressed by you with such articulate excellence.
    Secondly – a resolve to focus away from personal negatives and seek positives through working for other people doing things for which you have talent too. The effect of being part of a team of folk who have enhanced the lives of say, young people in their Youth Clubs or pensioners trying to combat loneliness, is immensely rewarding and transformational. It can result in providing the sinews with which to withstand introspection and empower you to ignore the hurt that comes from people trapped in their prejudices and fueled by an inability to control their animal instincts.
    I hope this makes sense and wish you every success with moving to a constructive plateau of positive opportunities where present restrictions are well and truly buried in the past!

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