I was lay in bed last night with the intention of disputing the notion of depicting prisoners as customers. I was going to reflect on my experiences as a ‘customer’ at HMP to really break down how inaccurate this depiction is. However, I refuse to articulate a regurgitated account of another misery memoir to validate an argument constructed around the publication of trauma stories, because trauma stories sustain victimisation, oppression and exclusion. Trauma stories, as evidenced, are lifted from individuals, without consent, crafted to align with publication objectives and promoted publicly with attribution and profit in human capital, directed to the author, who more often than not, gained their stories from positions of power. Doing this is an abuse of that power, selling stories which don’t belong to you in the pursuit of recognition and success, enables and sustains the voicelessness and exclusion of those who own the stories. Here one might say, “but raising awareness is helping” and to that I say “bollocks”. If you have set out to create a damaged narrative of people in a landscape where they have no choice or control, without clear intentionality of exactly how your work will help to increase the human capital of those you are stealing data from, then simply raising awareness and benefitting in the process, is a very flawed foundation to begin. It highlights a lack of awareness in how oppression works, how oppressive practice manifests in professional roles and how oppression is sustained.
I have been labelled a ‘Karen’, ‘bitter’ and ‘a troll’ for explaining the harmful consequences of the popularisation of trauma tourism publications. Needless to say, I feel an in-depth breakdown of how these practices, the supporters and authors are all contributing to and sustaining the oppression of the people they are openly proclaiming to support.
Where shall we start? This isn’t going to be an academic paper but it may be useful here to use a quote to contextualise the basis of my argument:
“In this open letter, Eve Tuck calls on communities, researchers, and educators to reconsider the long-term impact of “damage-centered” research—research that intends to document peoples’ pain and brokenness to hold those in power accountable for their oppression. This kind of research operates with a ﬂawed theory of change: it is often used to leverage reparations or resources for marginalized communities yet simultaneously reinforces and reinscribes a one-dimensional notion of these people as depleted, ruined, and hopeless”. (Tuck, 2009).
Let’s now apply this to former prison officers who leave the service and seek to become authors. Authors of publications which intend to capture people’s pain, misery and deprivation in prison, with a belief that their content will ignite change. The basis of this argument must already hold a belief that the pain, misery and deprivation experienced in prison is accidental and/or unknown. In reality, that pain, that misery and that deprivation, are well known, historic, regurgitated literature and intentional state and systemic tactics enforced in the name of punitive justice. The inflicting of shame, misery, damage and trauma on people through imprisonment, is the intentional purpose of systemically violent practice inherent in the prison system, eloquently captured by Tyler (2020):
“Much research on stigma, and social action around stigma, brackets off from consideration the ways in which stigma is purposefully crafted as a strategy of government, in ways that often deliberately seek to foment and accentuate inequalities and injustices”.
As such, documenting the pains of imprisonment with the intention of holding those in power to account, ignores the fact that those in power actually intentionally and purposefully embed and sustain pain, misery and deprivation as a form of punishment for those labelled and offenders/ex-offenders. Therefore, the texts which a formed from this basis of using damage to effect change, are actually a part of the systemic oppression which operationalises through the continued depictions of prisoners traumas and damage. Now, I appreciate that the content above may be new to people, they may not fully understand it and they may contribute to the systemic oppression subconsciously however, shutting people down, positioning them as bitter and as a troll, in absence of trying to understand and learn from those who feel the impact and consequence of other people’s harmful actions, is actually indicative of oppressive practice in action. Probably also indicative of a misogynistic positionality also, but that can wait.
I’ll take the next section to expand on the states intentional and purposeful use of stigmatising discourse which perpetuates systemically violent practice, sustaining the oppression of people in prison and people with convictions. For more on stigma as a socio-political tool for exclusion see Tyler 2020 – Stigma: The machinery of inequality.
The World Health Organisation (2002) define violence as:
“The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation”.
When the state label people ‘drug users’ ‘mentally ill’ ‘vulnerable’ ‘offenders’ ‘ex-offenders’, in reports, publications, in the media and through the pop culture of ‘reality t.v’, that is their intentional use of power, against a group/community, that results in psychological harm and deprivation. Hence, violent practice. So, the state is responsible for perpetuating the damaging rhetoric of prisoners through damage centred labelling, in turn these labels are adopted in non-government publications, contributing to the same psychological harm and deprivation of groups and communities. To bring back Tuck’s (2009) critique, damage centred narratives do little to hold those in power to account, they simply perpetuation the oppression of said groups.
You may wonder, how does the perpetuation of stigmatising and damage based narrative contribute to the psychological harm and deprivation of groups and communities? Well, offender/ex-offender labels deprive people of access to housing, to the labour market, to education. They deprive people of the quality of life afforded to people without these labels. They harm people through marginalisation, exclusion and state inflicted oppression. They harm people financially through insurance premiums, the deprive people of visas and access to the hospitality trade. The experiences of deprivation and harm are endless. But the point is, the damaged based rhetoric and consequences of stigmatising labels, are state tactics to perpetuate inequality. And if you adopt said practices through damaged based narrative and stigmatising depictions of people and their traumas, you are a part of the cog that sustains oppressions and inequality, whether you know it or not.
To that end, my issues is not and never has been directed at individual people. My issue and critique of trauma tourism in the name of holding those in power to account, is political, is systemic and will only resolve through the resistance and activism of those who face and feel the consequences of such action. Usually not the authors or trauma tourism publication. In closing, now is the time to critically reflect on the harms you may be causing through a lack of education and understanding around the socio-political landscape of inequality and oppression. Now is a good time to consider ways in which prison officer publications which use unconsented damage centred stories, is violent and harmful practice. Now is a good time to think about the power dynamics at play when prisoners can pop up in damage centred publication without choice or consent. If you don’t want to do it, you are sustaining the very experiences you aim to ‘bring to light’ in the hope for ‘change’.
Some of us will do it properly, because we live with the consequences constructed through your actions.
To quote Lorde (1980):
“It is the members of the oppressed groups who are expected to stretch out and bridge the gap between the actualities of our lives and the consciousness of our oppressor. For in order to survive, those of us for whom oppression is as American as apple pie have always had to be watchers, to become familiar with the language and manners of the oppressor, even sometimes adopting them for some illusion of protection. Whenever the need for some pretence of communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressor their mistakes”.