angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Punishment

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

IMG_9031.jpgReading Prison

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.

IMG_9078.jpgSteve McQueen, gold-plated mosquito net

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.

102 Trust.jpgRelief stone-carving project, HMYOI Reading, 2004

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

 

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If a majority in Turkey votes to re-instate the Death Penalty, what does that say about the concept of democracy?

My last blog, a gentle exploration of the IN/OUT decision that faced the UK in June, now resembles the deceptive calm before the storm. It displays the totally misplaced confidence in a ‘Remain’ outcome anticipated by so many around the world. Collectively we have since been tumbled in a political maelstrom, gradually washing up tangled and disorientated on unknown beaches. And as journalists and political commentators create mind jams of informational traffic and kaleidoscopes of emotion, it is the assurance of Democracy that urges us to our feet to take the first wobbly steps towards the blurry horizon of our new destiny.

With so much that could be said I will stick to the general themes of my blogs, for there is a particular issue on which I have questions, but no answers. It’s to do with the whole abstract concept of “democracy”. Does, can, or should the view of the majority always guarantee that the action to be taken is the right thing to do?

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At every opportunity we are being reminded of the almost sacred and unquestionable rightness of the democratic process: “the rule of the majority”. I am sure it is a sound basis upon which to make decisions… most of the time. But are there ever times when democracy, or the views of the majority, doesn’t reflect the right thing to do? Is there even an objective “right” thing to do?  Or are there just consequences?

Take the case of Turkey. If the Death Penalty is re-introduced in the wake of the coup – because a majority wants it – does that make it right? After all, the majority used to vote against the abolition of slavery, women’s votes, aboriginal rights, gay marriage… Surely getting it right is down to education and consciousness?

Taking the area of society I know and understand best as an example, namely our Criminal Justice System (CJS), I can say, with some degree of certainty, that when people vote for the largely punitive approach to offenders that we have today, they are voting for the wrong thing. It may serve their own feelings for justice and vengeance that are fed by the media, but it does not serve the more objective and complex mission of the CJS “to help prisoners lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release”. However, it is only now, thanks to the increasingly widespread acknowledgement and evidence that the current system is a “scandalous failure”(David Cameron, 2016), plus the vision of a Justice Secretary with an open mind and genuine will for rehabilitation, that the public are beginning to be in an informed enough position to vote for the things that will work more effectively.

Last year Michael Gove and his team at the Ministry of Justice took on the unprecedented task of consulting and listening to the experts on the ground: charities, artists, educators, prison officers, even me! Most importantly, they also acted on the knowledge and advice they received. Similarly, audiences of my talks on the subject emerge more educated on an area of life they previously “had no idea” about. The facts, statistics, evidence and the alternative ideas presented all place them in a position from which they can evaluate and decide, with a greater conviction and degree of accuracy, what is “right”. However, those  people who are educated in the complex issues and solutions, are as yet still in the minority, so the will of the majority, who will still be voting from a more emotional, media-spun, regressive perspective, will win.

If Turkey votes for the reinstatement of the Death Penalty by a majority vote, has democracy been successful? Or is it flawed in a way that needs to be addressed? Fairly urgently.

 

PRISON: Part 3. I challenge anybody to sit through 3 days of listening to 20 prisoners’ stories as I have just done and come out saying a punishing prison regime is the right solution.

A ten-year-old boy haunted by the face of his mother as she was stabbed multiple times in front of his eyes; a seven-year-old boy sexually abused by a family friend, then repeatedly while in care; an eight-year-old boy in charge of his younger siblings, regularly punched in the face by his terrifying mother… I could go on. These are some of the people I have just met in HMP Parc while participating in The Forgiveness Project’s RESTORE programme. And it beggars the question: is it right to be punishing people who themselves were originally the victims of primary life experiences that were so overwhelming, traumatic and desperately sad?

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The men confirm many of the statistics relating to our prison populations and their stories illustrate the open roads leading to prison onto which so many of them were born. The absence of boundaries, positive father figures and love; hopelessly failed schooling; violence, neglect, fear… they all paint pictures of ill-equipped young boys lost in jungles of testosterone, emotional confusion and familial dysfunction and devoid of the moral compasses so many of us rely on to plot strategic courses through our lives. This is not an excuse for their subsequent crimes, just a fact. How would we have turned out if we had been exposed to even a fraction of what some of them were? And how is being punished in prison going to help? In fact how are even the regular solutions put forward, like education and employment, going to resolve those traumas? Our current system just doesn’t make sense.

RESTORE is a 3-day programme facilitated by The Forgiveness Project in prisons around the country. The officer in my group said of all the courses they run, it was the best, achieving better results in 3 days than other courses achieve over weeks. I can see why. But what are “better results”?

In July 2015, Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, said in his speech entitled The treasure in the heart of man – making prisons work that “the most important transformation…we need to make is not in the structure of the estate, it’s in the soul of its inmates”. He is absolutely right and what I have just witnessed and experienced in the RESTORE programme achieves just that. As with Restorative Justice the format is relatively simple and involves the perspectives of both victims and offenders. And the core is basically story-telling. One story told by a ‘victim’ who has found their way to forgiveness; another by a former ‘perpetrator’; followed by the stories of each prisoner plus those of the two officers present. Throughout, with exceptional and sensitive guidance from the three facilitators, the men are offered opportunities to contemplate the possibility of thinking and acting differently within their individual situations.

It was extraordinary to witness. The men participated with a hunger for something that extended well beyond the packets of biscuits and cups of instant coffee on offer. You could see their prison pallid faces fixed in concentration as they listened intently while each person talked, their furrowed brows wrestling with concepts and words unfamiliar to them. You could see men who appear fearless in the face of knives, having to dig deep inside themselves to find the courage to overcome their terror of speaking. You could hear heart-felt encouragement in their applauses and you could watch on as their auras of prison grey broke into tentative kaleidoscopes of colour and smiles that shone through broken teeth and wounded eyes.

The silent young ‘murderer’ covered in scars with his head hanging under the weight of his sentence swearing he would not say a word; the ‘perpetual thief’ and ‘heroin addict’ who insisted he had no story to tell as “nothing had happened”; the young ‘armed robber’, his own trauma bursting out of his body; and the man in for “domestic violence” who showed no apparent remorse. All of them transformed and softened as humility, respect, gratitude, courage and awareness replaced their well-worn defiance, shame, blame and anger. Honesty shattered the lies they had told themselves, their stories revealing to all both their inner demons and the damaging impact of their actions on others. And love bounced around the room between the traumas and crimes that had been placed there, gently touching each and every person’s wounds with the balm of hope.

A logical, humane and effective Criminal Justice System (CJS) would do well to re-think how the annual £37,000 costs of each adult prisoner could be spent. For just £300 p/p, each prisoner on this course was given the biggest chance imaginable to change deep inside and find the will to lead a crime-free life. The course is not a magic wand but it does sow seeds of change and equip men with the tools to tend them, and surely that is what the CJS is there for.

To read more or book / hear one of my talks on the subject please go to: www.angelafindlaytalks.com

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?

 

 

 

 

“German court sentences 94-year-old ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ to four years in prison.” Is this Justice? Or is this the German Judicial System’s attempt to atone for its appalling failure since WW2 to bring more of the real culprits to justice?

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This is an obvious choice of topic for my July blog for it touches on all my main themes: WW2 Germany, prison, punishment, forgiveness, redemption.

What we have here is a 94-year-old former SS officer whose job at the age of 21 was to sort the luggage of the new arrivals to Auschwitz and register the prisoners’ goods and valuables. Oskar Gröning was not a guard but a bookkeeper who counted the money the Nazis stole from the Jews. During the trial that started in May in the German city of Lüneburg he admitted: “It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz. Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. But as to the question whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.” Today he was sentenced to 4 years in prison after the German Courts found him guilty of being accessory to murder of 300,000 people.

For more than a decade Gröning has been giving interviews with a candidness that is very rare among other surviving SS men and women. He fully admits to what he did and saw, knowing all too well that his honesty would help get him convicted and most likely sentenced to spend his last days in jail. He is clear that he wants his testimony to be used against those who deny the Holocaust – “I would like you to believe that these atrocities took place, because I was there”. He also gives valuable insights into his now-inexplicable mind-set and motivations describing how as a young man his enthusiasm for the Nazi cause had quickly turned into euphoria, not least because of Adolf Hitler’s success in dealing with Germany’s horrendously high levels of inflation and unemployment. On being offered to join what he considered to be the “dashing and zestful” SS, he didn’t hesitate to leave the bank where he worked. He explains how German people believed there was a conspiracy amongst the Jewish people against them. They represented an existential threat, as did the forces of the Soviet Union. “Between those two fights, one openly on the front line and the other against the Jews on the home front, we considered there was absolutely no difference, we exterminated nothing but enemies”.

These kind of insights into the workings of the minds of the people who made up the Nazi killing machine is invaluable even if it doesn’t excuse in any way at all what Gröning did. Reading my grandfather’s letters from the Eastern Front I was similarly struck by the genuine sense of threat the Bolsheviks posed to the Germany of the 1930’s and 40’s. So big it justified the invasion of Russia. As island people it is harder for us in the UK to understand the territorial vulnerability of having nine different – potentially hostile – countries nestling up to ones borders. I am not excusing, just trying to comprehend, as always, the motivations and intentions behind the deeds. The first prisoner I ever worked with, a bank robber in Long Bay Jail, Sydney taught me the most valuable lesson I learnt for working with criminals. “Angela, in the 12 years I have been in prison I have never met a single person who committed their crime out of evil intent…” I’m going to leave you with that thought for now as it took me many years of challenging it before I could agree with it. Back to Gröning.

Everyone involved in Nazi war crimes obviously has to take responsibility for what happened. But is a 4-year sentence in prison the right way for this 94-year-old? Is 4 years justice for the crime of being “an accessory to the murder of 300,00 people”? “It’s a ridiculous proportion” according to Michael Wolffsohn, author of Eternal Guilt?. Surely we need different measures for such cases? Prisons are designed to act as centers of deterrence, rehabilitation (in theory at least) and punishment. Deterrence? This man is not going to re-offend! Rehabilitation? This man is already re-habilitated. Punishment? Yes, his actions seventy years ago more than deserve it. But as Eva Mozes Kor, the 81 year old Holocaust survivor, asks: “What is the purpose for what we are doing?… Putting them in jail does not do anything to help the victims feel better or heal their pain… I would like someone to demonstrate to me how exactly that helps me or other survivors. I didn’t say they should get away with it, but the attention is given to the perpetrators and not the survivors, and that to me is what is wrong.”images-1

Well I’m with her totally. Even by trying to do what they think is expected of them, the German Judiciary is going down the same, strangely illogical path I feel our Criminal Justice System does time and again. We love punishment but Gröning has admitted his guilt, apologized for his wrong doing, he has asked for forgiveness and he has been putting atonement and restitution into practice by speaking out to students in person, or by Skype even, about what happened. All the desired outcomes of punishment have already been achieved! So as with Restorative Justice, why not come up with something that will restore rather than punish? As Eva suggests, “give him 4 years, if he lives that long, to lecture as a community service… Every time he lectures to a group of students, he will testify about it and will relive those experiences. I don’t think it is an easy thing for him to deal with. In jail he doesn’t have to talk about it – he can just rot away. But I am really interested in him telling young Germans, ‘It happened. I was there. There was nothing good about the Nazi regime. It brought tragedy to millions of innocent human beings, to the Germans, and even to the perpetrators.’ That is the lesson – we have to prevent it from happening again. That would benefit Germany and the rest of the world.”

So I wonder, is this really Justice? Or is Gröning paying the price for the German Judiciary’s failure to bring about real justice at the time it was really due?

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