angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Art in Prisons

Good news and great ideas… or just bleedin’ obvious and long overdue?

 

So there’s good news and bad news on the prison front this month.

The good news is that the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, has declared that “there is a role for the arts” in criminal justice. He believes it’s a good idea. In an interview with The Times on May 25th, Mr Gauke said “the creative sector is a big employer, you hear stories of someone involved in a prison production who ends up in the West End as a lighting technician…” He wants “a culture of rehabilitation” that encourages “drama, writing and painting in prisons.”

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For a prison service that is close to breaking point, this is good news indeed. And Mr Gauke is making sense in other areas too. Twenty five years ago the prison population was 44,000, now it’s 84,000. He wants it to drop. He recognizes that in terms of rehabilitation, short sentences do not work. Tagging could be one alternative to incarceration. There should also be alternatives for many women and mentally ill prisoners. He believes in the power of work to change people’s lives. Apparently he also wants to start a wider debate about “what punishment means”.

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It’s all good stuff. So what’s the bad news?

It’s not exactly bad, it’s just not as good as it sounds. Mr Gauke is the fourth person to occupy the position of Justice Secretary in the three years since Michael Gove (love him or hate him) self-imploded taking with him all his well-received proposals for prison reform. Mr Gauke’s ideas are not new. They are ideas that most people in the sector have been voicing for decades. Fighting for even. For many of us, they are so obvious that it is baffling that politicians are able to voice them with the earnestness that they do.

Reforms like these have been promised again and again but nothing ever actually gets done. So while I welcome Mr Gauke’s words and intentions, I will only applaud them and regain hope for our dire prison system when I see action. That will be the genuinely good news so many of us are waiting for.

 

To read more:

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/from-the-wings-to-the-workplace-the-route-to-reducing-reoffending

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/24/david-gauke-prisoner-employment-strategy

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-and-employment-strategy-2018

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/david-gauke-interview-it-s-the-carrot-and-stick-prisoners-need-to-have-a-sense-of-purpose-2mp5qt0kx

 

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What can we do? What can I do? What can you do?

“What is the most important thing we can do?” That is the question I am so often asked at the end of my ‘arts in prison’ talk. Yet I have never been able to give an answer that feels satisfactory.

Through pictures, stories, statistics and facts, my audiences get a glimpse into our prison system, into the minds and lives of offenders, and into what role the arts can play in the process of rehabilitation. “I had no idea!” is the most common response, and then,  with their new insight, people across the country, from sixth formers to retirees, want to know what they personally can do to help solve the increasingly dire situation that is our criminal justice system (CJS).

  • You can donate money or time to one of the many charities supporting prisoners and their families.
  • You could send a donation to The Forgiveness Project for their excellent RESTORE programme
  • You could sponsor an award for the Koestler Trust’s annual exhibition (on now at the Southbank until 15th November)
  • You could volunteer to help prisoners learn basic numeracy and literacy skills (65% of adult prisoners have a reading age of an 8 year old and 50% can’t write)
  • You could write to your MP to voice your concerns.

All the answers are valid but, apart from donating money, quite hard to implement. So what else could you do to make a difference? David Cameron’s 2006 “Hug a hoodie” campaign was, at best, unrealistic, at worst wholly unadvisable, but, in its sentiment, it was getting close to something.

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Yesterday, I was talking at Forest School on the edge of Epping Forest. It has a particularly effective formula for getting its students to really think about the issues raised by their visiting speakers. After the hour-long presentation, all 300 of them disappear into smaller groups and discuss some pre-suggested questions around the topic. After twenty minutes they return to the hall and, those who want to, can ask the speaker their own personal questions. As a result, the questions were thoughtful and considered:

  • In times of cuts, can the government justify spending money on prisoners when the NHS is in such need?
  • Can one art project prevent re-offending?
  • Is there enough help for prisoners when they are released?
  • Do women respond to art projects as well as men?

And then there it was again:

  • What is the most important thing we / I can do?

Yesterday I found myself replying to the last question in a different way. It suddenly seemed obvious: The most important thing we can do is to start to move away from the black and white thinking that divides people into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. To stop lumping all our prisoners into the ‘evil’ category of murderer, rapist, child abuser or terrorist – all crimes that inspire merciless cries of ‘bang’em up and throw away the key’, and place the perpetrators at the bottom of our deserving-of-sympathy lists. We need to start differentiating between those who really do need to be locked up and those who urgently need something different.

As a civilised society and as educated and/or privileged individuals, we must start taking into consideration the journeys and decisions people have made that land them in jail. Did you know that:

  • many offenders started their lives as victims: of sexual abuse, violence, neglect, drug addiction, abandonment…
  • that 52% of them are dyslexic and probably didn’t get the help they needed
  • that 42% were excluded from school and
  • 47% have not one single qualification
  • that 67% of women in prison were in care
  • that 75% of young offenders had an absent father and 33% an absent mother
  • that 41% of prisoners observed domestic violence as children
  • that 70% have some sort of personality disorder or mental health issue…

The list goes on. And once you know that, doesn’t it become glaringly obvious that a different solution is needed? Do we really need a serious crisis to force the nation to collectively wake up to the shame of our prisons? We know we can’t rely on the ever-changing politicians to sort things out. And when it comes to dealing with crime, they are generally responding to the public’s baying for harsher punishments. So it is up to all of us to start seeing nuances in the widespread, over-simplistic, binary judgment of who is good and who is bad in our society. We need to listen to prisoners’ stories, understand that they didn’t set out to be bad. Many of the people locked in our jails, often in terrifying, squalid, drug-ridden and violent conditions, were once sensitive  children whose anger, violence, or despair were quite possibly normal reactions to the dysfunction of their lives.

We don’t need to hug the hoodies we meet, but we, both collectively and individually, must stop seeing them as “other”, as all-bad, or as somebody else’s problem to fix. Condemn and punish their crimes but don’t condemn them.

So, what do you think is the most important thing you can do?!

Wish for 2017: Keeping alive Winston Churchill’s unfaltering faith “that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.”

A last minute blog before the curtains fall on 2016. As a year, will it get a rapturous applause and an encore I wonder? No, I don’t think it will. Not from the point of view of one of my main blog themes – prisons – at least. A re-wind to the beginning and a second chance…? Well that would be wonderful.

This time last year I was excited. I think all those who work in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) were. We were facing unprecedented possibilities of genuine reform within the sector. As Justice Secretary, Michael Gove had done his homework thoroughly, rather ironically consulting and listening to the experts more than most of his predecessors had done. He commissioned Dame Sally Coates to create the Education ReviewUnlocking Potential to which even individuals like me were given an opportunity to contribute. My ambition to make the case for the arts at government level was looking set to be realized. One meeting rapidly followed another until I found myself sitting at a round table in the Ministry of Justice next to Ed Vaizey, (Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries), Andrew Selous, (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prisons and Probation) and leading representatives from the main Arts charities and organizations. It was a unique gathering of brains stuffed with experience and insights, and muscle–toned limbs used to pushing open locked doors to deliver the goods. Together the ideas expressed by each person in turn formed a blissful chorus of logic and humanity.

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In previous speeches since July 2015, Michael Gove had been setting a compassionate tone for the reforms to be made: The most important transformation I think we need to make is not in the structure of the estate, it’s in the souls of its inmates. Revolutionary words for a Conservative Justice Secretary, welcome words for all of us who have worked for decades to get this message to policy level. And in February 2016, as the first Prime Minister in over 20 years to do so, David Cameron had made a speech wholly dedicated to Prison Reform in which he finally dashed all die-hard claims that “Prison Works!” and condemned them as a scandalous failure, finally shifting the emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation: In short: we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed”.

So there we were, on July 14th, a harmonious choir of top experts and government ministers, all singing from the same song sheets, endless verses of ideas that would work; that would reduce re-offending rates, make prisons safer, more productive and cost-effective; that would help prisoners learn their way out of their cul-de-sac situations and find their potential to be their better selves. Hallelujah indeed! But outside the vultures were circling above the exit to St James’s Park tube station where the Evening Standard headlines screeched like car brakes: GOVE SACKED.

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In his own words several months on, “No matter how many times you rerun the movie, it has the same ending: me driving 100mph and crashing into a brick wall”. He hadn’t only written off his own position and career though, he had also blown up his own vision leaving our song sheets fluttering in the wind. The very next day Ed Vaizey, who had been nervously consulting his phone throughout the meeting, had lost his post and shortly after, Teresa May’s government asked Andrew Selous to step down too. In one clean wipe of the round table, the vital government hands and arms of the ideas were gone and with them many of the hopes for imminent reform. In their place we have an as yet unimpressive Liz Truss, moved from her position as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – a position of staggering irrelevance to her new clientele. And while she commissions yet more reviews, people in our prisons riot, commit suicide and die violent deaths.

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British prisons are in more dire need of reform now than when I started my career in the 1980s. They are inhumane, illogical, ineffective places that cost us all a fortune. They do not work because the ideas that were sung around that table are being shuffled back to the bottom of the pack in favour of the crisis management sticking plasters that constitute normal reforms. We need radical visions, a change of attitude and approach. We need that Rehabilitation Revolution we were promised. And above all we need to treasure hunt in the heart of our prisoners, for, once they have discovered their own treasure, they will not re-offend.

INSIDE – an exhibition where art replaces prisoners and visitors can feel how tiny a cell is

“Outside the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight in one’s heart.” Oscar Wilde, de Profundis, 1897

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People were moving around the building as if it were an ancient site, a relic of times long past. Tentatively they stepped into the tiny cells, their barred windows raised to a height designed to deprive. Metal bunks, the squeak of their springs still echoing in the silence of long nights past; a painted table, names etched into the surface, reminders of identities transformed into numbers; and toilets tucked behind waist-high partitions separating toothbrushes and washing-up from another’s piss and shit.

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“When one is in prison, the most important thing is the door.” Robert Bresson

IMG_9043.jpgJean-Michel Pancin – the original door to Oscar Wilde’s cell C.3.3.

The clank of bolts and metal doors slamming open and shut, open and shut is replaced by absorbed voices of visitors wandering the wings, dipping in and out of cells in a new form of free-flow. Which one was Oscar Wilde’s? Cell C.3.3. now Cell C.2.2. on the second floor, no different from the rest. On the ground floor below, looking up out of wooden cabinets, mugshots of the others who shared his time with him, breathing the same thick air.

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This is the now-closed Reading Prison, home to the site-specific INSIDE exhibition commissioned and produced by the innovative ArtAngel and to which artists and writers from all over the world were invited to submit work. Reading Gaol was a state of the art Victorian prison opened in 1844 its cruciform architecture designed to move the inmates out of dormitories and into the isolation of individual cells. Locked in for up to 23 hours a day there was to be no contact with other prisoners. This was to be the end of prisons as schools of crime, part of a progressive mission to not solely lock up prisoners but also to reform and improve them.

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From the raised viewpoints of our contemporary thinking we look back at Victorian institutions as belonging to a distant history, times that were largely more barbaric, inhumane and backward than ours today. And yet, until 2013 Reading Prison was in full operation, latterly as a Young Offenders Institution, but often with two, sometimes three, 18-21 year olds sharing the space specifically designed for one. All around the UK there are others still in operation except now they are plagued with the additional elements of ever-increasing overcrowding, underfunding, understaffing, drugs, suicides and violence.

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Just back in 2004 I wandered these corridors myself meeting the young men who, with hammers and chisels and blocks of stone, participated in one of our Learning to Learn through the Arts Scheme 5-week projects. I have been into so many prisons, they have never fazed me and yet, each time I am struck by the same sense of utter illogic, injustice and tragic waste, human waste. We need prisons, of course we do, but as they are, how can they possibly really help these people? They are just making things worse.

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Here in Reading Prison art works replace prisoners as artists strive to find meaning in the dark corners of our society where at times there seems to be none. Our thinking has got stuck with devastating results and what Oscar Wilde could articulate then, so many prisoners still feel but can’t express: “In the great prison where I was then incarcerated, I was merely the figure and the letter of a little cell in a long gallery, one of a thousand lifeless numbers as of a thousand lifeless lives.” Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, 79812

 

PRISON Part 2: People are calling it “the biggest shakeup in prisons since Victorian times”? It’s certainly a welcome start…

Finally, finally, the news is exposing what an appalling mess our prison service is in. For the first time ever the Queen, a Tory Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary, the BBC, both  prisoners and staff alike are all singing the same tune the pesky Inspectors of Prisons and irritating campaigners – once dismissed as idealistic, bleeding heart liberals and ‘soft’ on crime – have been singing for decades. There’s no going back now and I am in my element!

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Prisons filled the headlines of last week’s media. We saw the rusty bars of our Criminal Justice System being rattled by the Prison Reform Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech and hailed as the “biggest shake-up of the prison system since Victorian times”. There was the BBC’s inside coverage of HMP Wandsworth, truly shocking footage of a lawless human jungle of drugs, violence, squalor and terror, right in the midst of our consumer-, digital- and sugar-fuelled society. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-36327325?SThisFB) That the BBC was reporting on the state of our prisons as if it were breaking news, would be amusing if it weren’t so tragic to those of us who have been working or living in these environments for years and saying as much. Never the less, many of us welcome the exposure and the steps being taken, such as giving more autonomy to governors in six Reform Prisons to create their own regimes. But the scale of the problems that desperately need addressing – like sentencing laws, over-crowding, under-funding, under-staffing, the increase in violence through the widespread availability of legal highs like Spice – dwarf the measures outlined in the bill making it look hopelessly inadequate and above all desperately slow.

You can read the main proposals of the Prison Reform Bill included in the Queen’s Speech  here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/biggest-shake-up-of-prison-system-announced-as-part-of-queens-speech. But what I find makes more exciting reading (!) is Dame Sally Coates’s Prison Education Review, which was commissioned by Michael Gove, Justice Secretary, and also released on Wednesday 18th May:  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/524013/education-review-report.pdf

I was fortunate enough to have had an opportunity earlier this year to meet her and contribute my ideas on the vital role of the arts within prison education (You can read some of them here: http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com/the-case-for-the-arts/ or come to one of my Talks on the subject http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com/speaker-3/prison-public/ ) So, it was with huge joy that I saw these ideas included in the foreword and dotted throughout the excellent report.

  • “Many prisoners will have previously had unsatisfactory experiences of the classroom. They will need encouragement and support to take their first learning steps. This should include greater provision of high quality creative arts provision, and Personal and Social Development courses. Both improve self-knowledge, develop self-confidence and therefore help tackle reoffending.”
  • “The provision of art, drama and music courses is not a core part of current OLASS arrangements. Where they do operate, and where there have been one-off projects or performances with visiting arts companies, they are often the first thing that prisoners, staff and Governors tell me. The arts are one route towards engaging prisoners when they have had negative experience of traditional classroom subjects, or struggle with self-esteem and communication. They can be the first step towards building confidence for more formal learning…
  • “There should be no restriction on the use of education funding to support the creative arts, Personal and Social Development opportunities. These can be used to engage prisoners in education and support them to make progress against their Personal Learning Plan.”

Dame Sally Coates really listened to all those with whom she consulted. Her recommendations for education – if implemented – would genuinely be the “biggest shake up since Victorian times” and would bring about real and lasting change for everybody: the prisoners, the staff, the government, the taxpayer, and society in general. I just pray they are now taken on without further delay  because as one audience member said after one of my recent talks on the subject: “What you are saying is so bloody logical, such common sense. So why on earth isn’t it just being done?” I had no answer for him.

PRISON Part 3 will follow next week after I have taken part in The Forgiveness Project’s 3-day RESTORE programme in HMP Parc.

 

PRISON Part 1: From victim to perpetrator, perpetrator to victim – blurry roles except in the eyes of the Law – just look at Helen and Rob…

Having disclosed earlier this year, albeit unwittingly, that I listen to The Archer’s, I might as well go further and write about the incident back in April that was so dramatic it hit the headlines. For months listeners had has been pursuing a story line about domestic abuse, which then escalated into a stabbing and prison – topics far closer, I have to say, to my areas of interest than crop rotation.Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 07.46.17.png

The details are unimportant here except to say that the woman being abused, Helen, did the stabbing, transforming her in an instant from victim to perpetrator and the abuser, Rob, from perpetrator to victim. Of course stabbing someone is, in the eyes of the Law, a clean-cut case of wrongdoing, a serious and punishable crime. But the law can be clunky, a heavy-handed waiter in mittens trying to extract dirty glasses from a dinner table.

Most of the characters in The Archers were not privy to the manipulation, deceit, dishonesty, and control that have been going on behind the scenes. They, like the law, look at the facts in front of them and form judgments. We the listeners, however, have been flies on the interior walls of the couple’s home, witnesses to Rob’s subtle, undermining comments and sinister infiltration of control designed to induce a gradual deterioration of Helen’s confidence and increasing sense of madness. She is the clear victim and he the perpetrator… until, in a knife’s flash, the roles reversed and she became the perpetrator and he the victim. These black and white terms are blatantly insufficient, as are the cowboy and Indian duality that still guides many American policies, or the goody-baddy definitions that, to a degree, still dictate the World War narratives in this country. There are always two or more sides to any conflict but rarely do we, let alone the Law, take into proper consideration the perpetrator’s back story.

Amongst women prisoners

  • 46% report having suffered domestic violence
  • 53% report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood.

Amongst men, abuse rates are lower but also widespread. I remember working in the segregated unit for severe crimes in Cologne Prison with Herr P, a quiet, sweet, intelligent man who looked more like he belonged on a college campus than in a cell. However, he had stabbed his pregnant girlfriend multiple times as they were unloading the shopping from their car. As with Helen, this violent outburst was just too incongruous with his gentle character to stick. You found yourself, like Helen’s family, begging to know what had happened. And when you heard his back story you understood. And by “understanding” I don’t mean you condone, excuse or justify the crime, just that you can comprehend or empathise with how it came about.

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Herr P’s character and confidence had been whittled away first as a child by his domineering mother, then by his nagging girlfriend. Together they formed a focused team of abusers, every bit as dreadful as Rob and his mother. His sense of identity was attacked almost to the point of extinction; he was pushed further and further into a corner until, one day, in one single unplanned moment, he made a bolt for the only exit he could see.

Archer fans are all rooting for Helen to be freed, for the truth to come out, for Rob to be punished and locked away and for the Law to realize that she will not re-offend because such a situation will never re-occur and her goodness is so much greater than her bad action. But how many people are rooting for those in prison like Herr P whose abuse was not witnessed as it built up like steam in a pressure cooker, to explode in one unique Molotov cocktail of desperation?

 

 

 

 

I applaud these Prison Reforms, but the crucial element to bringing about real change is still missing

I am no fan of David Cameron and the Tories, but I’d like to give credit where it is due. And his Prison Reform speech on Monday, though flawed in places, does deserve applause. After decades of Michael Howard’s delusional “Prisons work!” approach, we finally have a prime minister who is talking some sense.

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I started working in prisons back in 1987 and the same backward ‘hang’em, flog’em’ method of dealing with offenders has largely prevailed until now. The terror of appearing “soft” on crime has led to our system being the “scandalous failure” that it is now proclaimed to be, even by the very government that has contributed to prisons being “at their worst level for 10 years”. Successive governments have preferred to continue pumping more than £13 billion a year into an over-crowded, under-staffed, under-funded, violent and ineffective system, which even fails its primary goal of helping prisoners “to lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release” in more than half of all cases it handles.

So, it is music to my ears to hear some sensible reforms outlined that could make a difference (see below links for details and analysis). And hearing both Cameron and Michael Gove openly appreciating the issues prisoners have – mental health, drug addictions, traumatic and dysfunctional childhoods, illiteracy etc – and being genuinely committed to “finding the diamonds in the rough and helping them to shine” is truly heartening. BUT, and it is a big but, nothing anywhere has been said about what in my, and other’s experience, is the most crucial part in the multi-layered process of preventing re-offending. You can give a person a qualification, a job, accommodation, financial support… but none of it will stick if the “underlying problems that caused the offending in the first place are not addressed.” (Frances Crook, Howard League for Penal Reform).

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It is the mental and psychological make up of a person that will ultimately enable them to hold these things down… or not. I have seen in Germany how offenders were provided with all these (outer) props on their release only to then fail because they lost it with their boss, or found working to earn a wage so much less profitable than stealing, or became bored as they didn’t have as much fun as when they were getting high on drugs. Talking to hundreds of prisoners as I have done, you can hear how often they feel justified in what they have done. There’s usually someone else to blame or it isn’t really that bad: “The insurance will pay for the handbag and money I stole”; “She was asking for it”. I’ve heard a man who dropped breeze blocks on the heads of prostitutes claiming “Well, prostitutes are scum, the world is a better place without them”. And with those attitudes that diminish, justify or excuse their crimes, people are released back into the community!

So, you people who believe we should be tough on crime, I agree with you, but not by depriving people of education and locking them in their cells to watch TV for up to 23 hours a day in blissful ignorance of the full extent of what they have done. That is letting people “get away with it”, that is the soft option. Instead it is absolutely essential that offenders are confronted with the human impact their crimes have on others, above all their victims. It is essential that their attitudes to what they have done are challenged to a  point where they gain victim awareness and can feel the murmurings of empathy, two critical elements of being a good human being that are so frequently absent in offenders.

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This is the process that can take place through Restorative Justice or Art projects tailor-made for offenders. This is what leads to a prisoner saying “Until this day I’ve never felt so much remorse or pain for someone I’ve caused hurt to. I could never do this again…”

“I could never do this again” – that is what will stop a prisoner from re-offending far more effectively than building more prisons, extending the use of satellite tagging and publishing league tables. The government without doubt needs to tackle the huge structural problems in our Criminal Justice System but it is the handling and transforming of the small, negative and (self-)destructive belief patterns, the neglected behavioral issues that ultimately lead a person to reoffend… or not.

 

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prison-reform-prime-ministers-speech

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/08/the-guardian-view-on-david-camerons-prisons-speech-it-wont-work-without-sentencing-reform

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/02/david-camerons-prisons-speech-could-be-start-something-good

 

I haven’t worked with many terrorists during my prison years but there was one who for years I, and my class of eight male prisoners, called ‘Habibi’ – the word for ‘my darling’ as we later found out.

Behind every terrorist act is a human being with a grievance. Some will probably call me a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ for saying that, but one of the most important lessons I learnt from working and talking with countless criminals is that people themselves are not innately evil. Their deeds might be, but they themselves are not. That’s why many of the over-simplified, dualistic discourses in the recent ‘To bomb or not to bomb in Syria?’ debate really got under my skin. Action vs. Non-Action, Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong…

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I have no first-hand experience of today’s terrorists (thank goodness) but in the nineties I did work closely with a Lebanese man awaiting trial for his major role in one of Germany’s biggest terrorist attacks in which five Kurdish politicians were blown up in a restaurant in Berlin in 1992. As a terrorist he was considered a potential danger and security hazard and kept in enforced isolation. So for him my art class became his only excursion from his cell. Why the authorities found it fitting to place him in my care when I myself was locked in the room with no beeper, no key, no guard, still puzzles me! He asked the group to call him Habibi, so obligingly we did. It was only many years later that I discovered that was the word for “my darling”.

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Back then you would have never associated Habibi (I will stick with that name for potential legal reasons) as looking like a typical terrorist. Today his big dark beard would possibly arouse an involuntary prejudice against a stereotype, but other than that he had smiling eyes, a polite and gentle demeanor and wore shorts and sandals. In an introductory exercise to my mural workshop I got the men to plant a painted seed into a painted earth and let it grow up into the (painted) sunlight. Habibi’s seed blossomed into a beautiful, expansive, healthy looking shrub with red flowers.

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He subsequently translated it onto the wall and then, with a newly found artistic confidence he painted another tree, and added birds. But these birds looked war torn with tatty feathers as if they were fleeing exploding bombs – the bombs that were tearing his country apart, or the bomb that he himself had helped plant? One bird painted with special care was sitting on a nest of five eggs. I couldn’t help but make a link to the five for whose deaths he was in part responsible.

One day Habibi entered the classroom looking like a freshly shorn sheep. He was trembling, in shock and somehow horrifyingly naked. I encouraged him to tell me, and subsequently draw, how he had come to lose the big dark beard that was both his religious and personal identity. This proved to be the trigger for a huge release of pent-up rage first against the prison guards, thirteen of whom had frog marched him out of his cell, chained him to a bed and, pinning him down, shaved off his beard. His rant didn’t stop there however. He raged on about the war in his country and how “they” were killing “his” children. He clearly felt his bombing activity to be justified. It was self-defense derived from a sense of total injustice and helplessness, a state in which he and his people were the victims not the perpetrators.

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Does this ring any bells? Is this not part of what is happening today – for both sides? Reacting to violence with violence perpetrates… well, more violence. And more innocent victims whose deaths need to be avenged. Of course it does, and as this progresses each side feels ever more justified in their violence. So when “taking action”, in itself a potentially positive thing, becomes synonymous with bombing and every other attempt to solve the problem is seen as taking no action, don’t our leaders too become advocators of the very eye-for-an-eye Old Testament mentality that we are trying to combat?

Armed with more national self-reflection, basic human psychology and a genuine will for peace, our leaders could become real leaders in their quest to find solutions for some of the worlds’ massive and complex problems. But for them to be that they need to act completely differently to the real terrorists.

 

 

 

Germany’s welcoming response to the refugee crisis doesn’t surprise me. The more Germans are allowed to acknowledge their own WW2 traumas, the more their personal and collective memories of the horrors of the 1944-50 flights and expulsions come to light.

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Germany’s ‘open house’ policy and newly attributed “moral leadership” within the mounting refugee crisis was indeed initially surprising. It certainly wasn’t always so. I’m remembering the 17-year-old boy I met in the nineties when I was working as an artist in Cologne Prison. His name was Christian and he had been placed in the special segregated unit there because his crime was so contentious on a national scale. He was one of four young Neo-Nazis responsible for burning down the house of a large Turkish family in Solingen in May 1993, killing three girls and two women and injuring fourteen other family members. It was the most severe instance of anti-foreigner violence in modern Germany and in 1995, Christian was found guilty of murder, attempted murder and arson and sentenced to 10 years.

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He joined my art class in September’93 and in my notes I wrote: “Strange, he has the “courage” to throw fire bombs into a house to destroy 5 Turkish people and yet when it comes to painting in a communal picture, he is so hesitant, unsure of himself, scared. He paints delicate flower heads with blue petals with incredible care and concentration… and gets very hurt when other members of the group destroy them.” This apparent contradictory combination of tenderness and vulnerability mixed with extreme hatred and violence often surfaced in such prisoners’ artworks and would no doubt also be visible in the works of today’s perpetrators of violence.

Fortunately the relatively few Neo-Nazis today are the last of the extreme right Germans determined to maintain the legacy of Hitler’s pathological racism and nationalism. In the nineties they still had support from some ordinary people who applauded them when they burned down refugee camps. However, Germany and Germans have changed, even the tabloid press coverage of the current crisis is more sympathetic with one paper, Bild, printing out information sheets in Arabic for refugees.

There are many layers and reasons behind this change but one important one has to be the on-going emergence of the war-torn memories and personal traumas long suppressed within German families and long ignored by the World War 2 narrative of the history books. After the war, the experiences of the German population were considered irrelevant in the face of the trauma Germany had inflicted on others. Its status as a country of immigration has always been denied yet most Germans today will have family members who have memories of being caught up in the massive migrations of 1944-5 when 14 million people of German ethnicity were on the move. Largely made up of old people, women and children under 16, the stream of refugees were either fleeing westwards from the rapidly advancing and avenging Soviet army, or were forcibly expelled from their more eastern countries of origin – East Prussia, Pomerania, the Baltic states etc. It was a quarter of the German population and, as Neil Macgregor, out going Director of the British Museum said, “is the largest episode of forced mass migration in history”.

VertreibungLike the refugees today the Germans only had what they could carry with them. Unlike the refugees arriving today however, they arrived in a largely destroyed land where they were not welcome and were seen simply as a burden and threat to the already scarce housing and resources. On arrival in the Allied Occupation Zones some expellees / refugees were interned in former concentration camps, like Auschwitz less than 2 weeks after its liberation by the Soviets. Or they were placed in labour camps where they were often subjected to sadistic beatings, torture, sexual violence and malnutrition. Other expellees lived in refugee camps; many were just stranded and some, like my mother and her family, were able to live with relatives.

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The story of my mother’s escape by train from a burning Berlin and the brutal Russian army in 1945 impressed on me, already as a child, what it must be like to lose everything – home, belongings and every other symbol of safety and familiarity. I have vivid imaginings of her as an 11 year old, being rudely woken at 4am, grabbing a hideous new doll instead of her love-worn, old one, and being taken with her little sister to the heaving Berlin main station where they were shoved through the window of a train leaving their mother and older sister behind to a fate unknown. Weeks later they too left to catch the last train out of Berlin, locking the door of their home behind them never to see it or any of their belongings again. I imagine this story resonates with millions of Germans then and so many millions more people now.

Christian was an extreme example of post-war German xenophobia. His heinous act back in 1993 along with the atrocities of the Third Reich in the 1930s-40s may, however, have contributed to Germany’s slightly unexpected current role as “moral leaders”. Could it be that it really is lighting the way forward for all other European nations and beyond to what is widely perceived as the “right thing to do”? Either way, I am proud of Germany’s government for its spontaneous open arm policy and proud of the Germans for going out of their ways to make it happen instantly. I just find it frustrating that the Volkswagen corruption scandal (how can people be so stupid?) is now distracting from this otherwise clear demonstration of a country that has collectively learnt the lessons of its past.

What makes us act, or not act, in a violent way?

In the first half of this month I had an experience that showed me first hand what lies behind so many acts of violence, malice, destruction and aggression. What drives a person to put a seductively dark thought into action? And what stops them from actually doing so?

I felt badly wronged by someone close to me; disrespected and unfairly treated. The innate need to right the wrong sent my mind into overdrive plotting delicious forms of revenge with the creativity (or should I say destructivity?) and imagination that goes into producing an artwork. By indulging my dark fantasies I could re-write the narrative allowing my character to emerge in tact instead of in tatters.

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Through the countless conversations I have had with convicted criminals I became aware that it is precisely this sense of having been disrespected – “dissed” – that leads to so many brutal crimes. In his insightful article Pride, Guilt and Shame based on his work with violent prisoners in Broadmoor, (http://internationalpsychoanalysis.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/shamegilligan.pdf) James Gilligan, the psychologist, identifies that it is the desire to restore “pride, dignity and self-esteem” that lies behind the often fatal outbursts. Among gangs, respect is key and disrespect can be fatal. The human need to re-establish respect comes often at any cost, no matter how inhuman the means. In 1920’s / 30’s Germany, after the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the ground became fertile for a strong desire to restore face and respect with consequences more devastating than ever before.

In today’s digital world it would only have required one little tap of a finger for me to deliver a blow. I am lucky though. My upbringing and education equipped me with a moral compass, emotional literacy, self-discipline and a mind that can ‘understand’ or as they say in German, “verstehen”, a word which implies standing in the other person’s shoes. I am fortunate that I have access to infinite good examples of how to deal with (self-) destructive thoughts rather than exercise revenge.

So many people aren’t that fortunate. Their upbringing, religious convictions, lack of guidance or simply their experience of the world don’t equip them with what it takes to hold those thoughts in check. I believe that far behind the heinous acts that fill our newspapers actually lies a deeply hidden need to be understood, respected and seen; loved even. It’s so hard to do, but I know I want to try.

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