Bearing Witness to Trauma: Co-ownership, Envy and the Self-indulgent Need to Narrate.

I began the day reading a journal article “A qualitative study exploring vicarious trauma in prison officers” (King and Oliver, 2020). While reading the article, it became apparently that this work provides an interesting lens to begin a comparative analysis of depictions of trauma.

First and foremost I think it’s important to note that a critical analysis of Trauma Tourism does not negate acceptance of the on-set and experiences of trauma for the ‘authors’ of such publications. Simply, my critiques of Trauma Tourism and its harms, is not mutually exclusive to a lack of acceptance or identification of their lived experiences of trauma. I can, and I do, stand firm in my belief that Trauma Tourism publications are harmful, ethically problematic and serve a self-indulgent need to narrate other people’s pain, in the pursuit of increased human capital. Often deriving from a place of trauma commodification and fetishism whereby, accounts of extreme situations sell books. Books which offer the reader a trauma hit, from positions of borrowed emotion. Simultaneously, I can, and I do recognise a range of lived experiences result in different traumas. Again, a critique of Trauma Tourism isn’t to negate the trauma of others, it’s to prevent trauma perpetuation.

Quite frankly, I find it fascinating that people can call us to bear witness to their own traumatic experiences whilst producing literature within the field which propels and sustains the trauma of others. You become complicit in your own demise when you example acute unawareness in the limitations of your narrative. When your work sets out to provoke crises and you do nothing to resolve it, calls to empathy for personal trauma become somewhat redundant. When you create literature which forever suspends unknowing characters in positions of pain and despair, but you have the chance and the power and the voice, to ensure your own story gets to progress. That you get to heal and you get to be heard, that is not fair. There is no final account of our lives, my life, your life, anybody’s life. But when you steal trauma in a self-serving pursuit of human capital, you forever create a character…a character who is a real person, with a real family, who really feels that pain, and you put them in a story that never changes.

Riley was his name, self-harming was his game, which brought him more grief than anyone else. He’d had a hard life and it showed. A serial arsonist who would never be free, he was destined for a high security hospital, this creature and a half” (Samworth, 2019).

The above quote illustrates a depiction of person, whose personal trauma has been stolen for a story, which serves a purpose to build human capital for the “author”. The lack of consent and the lack of knowledge from ‘Riley’ means he’ll forever be “this creature and a half” because his power to change his character in a story he doesn’t know about is non-existent. As such, the “author” of this publication becomes the co-owner of Riley’s trauma and evidences the “author’s” authority as the interpreter over people who can no longer speak for themselves. Simply, there is nothing here to be gained from sharing the story of Riley, it is not by playing words, form a position of pitying spectatorship, that’s Riley’s trauma will be felt and understood. In reality, this quote highlights the essence of Trauma Tourism in which the “author” speaks for Riley, from a position of by-proxy, with arrogance and incomprehension.

For readers who have not read either publication, I’ll now provide an analysis of “A qualitative study exploring vicarious trauma in prison officers” (King and Oliver, 2020) and “Strangeways – A Prison Officer’s Story: Life behind bars with Britain’s most notorious criminals” (Samworth, 2019).

Aims of publication:

“The aim of the present study, therefore, was to add to the above limited existing literature on how prison officers in England and Wales experience Vicarious Trauma” (King and Oliver, 2020).

“By being so open and honest about what went on, I hope to help it do better, that’s all” (Samworth, 2019).

Notably, King and Oliver (2020) provide data capture methods, analysis of data methodology and evidence how participant consent was obtained and participants right to withdraw. Comparatively, Samworth (2019) notes: “Where necessary, names have been changed to protect the innocent- and on occasion the guilty”.  The juxtaposition of ‘open and honest’ with no participant consent or knowledge, obtaining data in a position of power and providing harmful traumatic depictions of real life, dressed as characters and ‘creatures’, exemplifies ethical and moral delusion.

 Implications from publication:

King and Oliver (2020) provide a harrowing account of the trauma experienced by prison officers. They do so in a way which distances the prison officers trauma from the prisoners traumas, although noting that the trauma experiences of prisoners can lead to personal and direct experiences of trauma for the officers. Notably, King and Oliver (2020) avoid depictions of specific and individualised prisoner trauma and still manage to explain how prison officers are harmed as a by-product of their duty. Further, King and Oliver (2020) offer solution focused narrative on how the prison service may proceed in protecting the health of their staff.

Comparatively, Samworth (2019) fails through-out the publication to address any limitations of his own narrative or perspective although notably he does attempt to offer a solutions focused agenda: “My grandad, though, always used to say, ‘Don’t bring me problems Sam – bring me solutions”. One of Samworth’s first solutions (although it isn’t clear what exactly he is aiming to solve) is ‘education in jail’ which he asserts ‘should be practical or else it’s useless’. Leading on to an assertion that current courses in prison are ‘aimed too high for most inmates who don’t give a shit about identity politics’.  

In the interest of clarify, and correction, I would firmly argue that “authors” who steal stories of trauma in self-serving pursuits for recognition and to appease trauma fetishism, are in fact the ones who ‘don’t give a shit about identity politics’. Further, the strongest critiques of this publication are coming from people who have first-hand experience of imprisonment, evidencing that we do give a shit about identity politics, especially when “authors” are suspending characters in states damage and despair in stories, without any awareness of their own identity politics. Upon review, the publication is dominated by stigmatizing and dominant political discourse, with personal identities being distorted and sensationalised in a narrative depicting a thirst to harm and punish.

A further solution offered by Samworth (2019) (again, there is no clarity on what these solutions aim to resolve) is to reduce or stop methadone in exchange for life management:

Addicts get disability living allowance, DLA, and it can equate to between £1,500 and £2,000 a month – as much as a prison officer earns! All you are doing is setting them up to fail. What addicts need more is life management”.

I hope the absolute ridiculousness of the above quote doesn’t even need addressing….. but I am happy to if its warranted…..

Limitations of publication:

King and Oliver (2020) provide a detailed section articulating the limitations of their study. Including, “the low sample size, which makes it difficult to generalise”. In contrast Samworth (2019) fails to address any limitations to his observation and analysis. I’ll address a few:

  • Ethically problematic as characters were denied the opportunity to consent, subsequently, denied the opportunity to challenge and/or withdraw
  • Neglects variety of experience – depicts politically sensitive narratives which drive political consequences from crime and justice
  • Inferiorizes the victims of trauma from an outside perspective
  • Exerts power in ability, rights and knowledge to define what does or does not compromise individual boundaries
  • Only representative of personal experience, not recognition of bias
  • Lack of awareness in the socio-political harms of producing trauma and the coercive element in transforming the reader in to sites of vicarious trauma – despite a personal recognition of how vicarious trauma has impacted the “author”.

In sum, what is clear is that the traumas experienced by prison officers as a by-product of their environments can be depicted and shared without the exploitation and theft of other people’s trauma. The use of quotation marks around the word author, is to identify that although the “author” of a publication, the traumas and experiences depicted within the publication do not belong to him, and he had no consent to “author” them.

I’ll end on a quote which demands consideration:

I want to warn against the allure of trauma envy, that is, the temptation that those of us who witness the testimony of others appropriate to ourselves an unmerited, unearned part in the story of suffering. It has been argued that vicarious trauma may have socially and ethically useful effects; but it may also be self-indulgent and ethically delusional” (Davis, 2011).

Borrowed Voices. Stolen Stories; The Commodification and Fetishism of Trauma.

For many of you, this piece will be an extension of closely followed dismay on my part, to some very unethical and immoral publications. Publications which, by and large have set out to, put simply, profit from misery, pain and in some cases even death. Much of what I have read speaks to a lack of integrity, compassion and basic kindness. The lack of these things coupled with the environments in which these traumas unfold, should evoke great ethical and probably legal concerns regarding patient confidentiality, the prison service workforce and exploitation of those imprisoned, to name but a few. 

There has been a mixture of support, shock and out-right dismissal at my concept of trauma tourism (See previous blogs: Trauma Tourism and The Metaphorical Blindfold), but on a personal level, some of the literature I have read has been so grotesque that I have gone to sleep and woken up with migraine. For me, there is trauma in reading about trauma. Aside from headaches and feelings of complete despair, there has been a small collective effort in recognising the harms of such work. Calls to begin to conceptualise Trauma Tourism within academic literature have been present but currently there are a few things which lead me to believe that my blog is currently the best place for this work to unravel

1.            I’m not actually an academic and have a full time job, a child and a master’s degree to complete, so timing to focus solely on building this work is lacking. I also am mindful of my own position tinkering on the edges of academia though undergrad and postgrad study with the knowledge of how difficult it is for the people who often appear in trauma stories to navigate into academic space. As with power to steal trauma stories, academia plays a role in excluding marginalised groups from knowledge production. Ultimately, and simultaneously working alongside trauma tourism to sustain the voicelessness and invisibly of certain groups. This blog isn’t about academia but the point needs to be addressed. 

2.            I don’t want this work and the developments in understanding the harms of Trauma Tourism to be inaccessible. In fact, I want as many people as possible to read it, digest it, reflect on it and ultimately, be a part of a collective to eradicate it. 

3.            I am really influenced and inspired by the work of Shadd Maruna, specifically his recognition of desistance as a social movement, led by people with lived experience themselves. On this note, I really believe that it is those that continue to be exploited through these Trauma Tourism publications who will really come together as a collective to envision and lead a safer and kinder way forward. This will be done through accessible resource, lived experienced leadership, collective knowledge building and resistance to the harmful practice of Trauma Tourism. 

I’m not going to use this space to give airplay to specific publications, but after reading a certain book this week, a few things of happened, which I’ll address in no particular order. My thinking and conceptualising this has been a million miles an hour this week and I’m speaking this out to mind maps and theory probably at an unhealthy rate. So bear with me. Initially, numerous comments came to me as means on endorsement that, broadly speaking “prisoners and prisoners families like/enjoy the book”. There is so much I can say about this but I’m just going to speak to the most relevant. (Just for context for any new readers, I am a former prisoner myself and the publication being discusses is a prison officers narrative of life as a prison officer). 

So, where to begin…. First I guess is the obvious and simple identification that just because something is likable and/or enjoyable, that doesn’t mean that is isn’t harmful. I think that this point is actually well evidenced by the author, who by all accounts depicts people and prison as harmful individuals but gets kicks out watching them in crisis without medical assistance. Just because something is enjoyable, it does not mean it is not harmful. 

Just to elaborate slightly on the above point about harm… when I say that Trauma Tourism is harmful, that harm really needs to be considered against a socio-political backdrop. Some of you may read this and think “how is reading a book harmful”? Interesting, a comment on twitter which endorsed this publication as ‘likeable’ also stating that if they had read a publication which depicted their own family’s trauma, they would be ‘devastated’. With this in mind, we begin to see how something that is ‘likable’, is only that, when it is not personal. When you or your family member are not the borrowed voice, or the stolen story. As soon as we begin to realise that in this instance, anybody in prison could be the selected character, our thinking tends to shift. The harm goes so much wider than personal devastation and disgust. 

I used an analogy recently to try to articulate the harms of Trauma Tourism, I don’t think I’ve quite captured the magnitude yet but this is what I am working on. Most of you will have a brief understanding of the concept of policing by consent… in honestly my knowledge around the concept is minimal but policing by consent briefly operationalises through public faith and trust that the police will protect us and keep us safe from harm. Policing by consent is reinforced and legitimised through media and news depictions of ‘violent thugs’ and sensationalist propaganda. How many times have you watched crime watch and thought you’d be safer with those people in prison? Importantly, recognition must be paid here to the defund the police position propelled by the George Floyd murder and subsequent Black Lives Matter movement. Which aligns with my previous argument that it is the lived experience collective movement which influences and leads change. 

Anyway, a very brief articulation of policing by consent brings us back to Trauma Tourism and it harms. No, reading a book isn’t harmful. Endorsing and purchasing the trauma of those in prison for entertainment is. Trauma Tourism publication is a function to perpetuate punishment. So, in the same way that policing by consent operationalises through public engagement and endorsement, Trauma Tourism acceptance and endorsement is legitimising punishment by consent. We keep reading it, and for as long as we keep reading it, we are putting a price on trauma.

It’s the good old concept of supply and demand. Trauma has been commodified, through fetishism of ‘true crime’ and voyeuristic tendencies which bring pleasure from other people’s distress. Moving away from a prison system position, more broadly we can see how Trauma Tourism is legitimised socially through films like The Greatest Showman (which I love by the way), and the ‘odd ones’ performing at the circus. We see the drastic consequences of Trauma Tourism through the suicide of Caroline Flack. Our need for trauma or ‘reality’ entertainment, is why we keep on getting it. Would Caroline’s suicide of happened if she was not hounded by the media…probably not. Would the media of hounded Caroline if we weren’t consuming the tabloid press…..probably not. To quote Cluley and Dunne (2012):

“Contemporary studies show us, though, that ethically concerned consumers rarely act on their concerns – instead they act as if they were unenlightened about the negative effects of their consumption”.

If you are ethically concerned about the exploitation of marginalised and voiceless groups, who lack power and agency, it should be a personal and social responsibility to resist trauma commodification, call out voyeurism and reduce the consumer demand of other people’s trauma. 

To the Authors’, Brene Brown talks about brave leadership and calls for the removal of armour. Whether your armour be, ignorance, arrogance or fear. Remove the armour, there is bravery in the unarmoured self, willing to accept, learn and change. There is no integrity, no authenticity and no leadership in commodifying trauma to appease voyeurism. 

Those borrowed voices, 

Those stolen stories, 

Those broken bodies, 

They are not yours. 

Women and Prison – lived experience from both sides of the door

I have never written a blog with a guest, although pondered and discussed the idea many times with peers. Least of all did I expect that my first guest blog would be with a former female prisoner officer, who just a few months ago, was locking the cell doors of criminalised women. Zoe and I ‘met’ on twitter, whilst she was still a serving prison officer. We instantly got on, found the same things funny, share a very entertaining experience of having our ex’s names tattooed on us!! And, Zoe and I are the definition of unmotivated fitness freaks!!! Often prioritising tea and biscuits over our spin and step classes! 

Zoe, have you even ever been to one of those step classes you signed up for….?

Anyway, as a former female prisoner who has been blogging about my experiences of criminal justice for a number of years, Zoe’s integrity, compassion and empathy touched me. I know Zoe left the prison service to pursuit an avenue in which she could have more of an impact in supporting women involved within criminal justice. I think the prison service have lost  an asset within the women’s estate however I am sure Zoe will go on to do wonderful things where ever she is. Zoe summaries her career below: 

As I clicked send on the application, I really had no idea what I was applying for, the prison officer role is not a job I had been spoken to about at school, actually I did an online test and it came up that I should be a car parking attendant, not sure I’m cut out for being in the rain all day.

My only experience of a prison officer was a man who lived 2 doors down from me as a child, he was huge had to be around 6ft 5 and seemed as hard as nails. I however at 5ft 1 and a bit decided to apply, maybe I was having a day where I truly thought I was wonder woman.

So after various role plays and maths tests I went off to college for 6 weeks, my initial training basically this started to teach me the policy’s, nothing else about working with women in custody but I passed and on my last day the CM came around and spoke to us all, asked the other poelts where they were heading back to, sharing stories of “when she had worked there” then she got to me “women’s estate……good luck miss you will need it.” Thanks Babs! 

  My first week in was a shock, a few things I think of that now make me smile as I was so new and had no idea, standing against the wall and waiting for a lady to walk past with her garden sheers, and calling for all staff assistance when a lady had sadly used harming herself as a coping technique but was not in anyway a threat. I’m sure the staff team were thinking “oh god who have we been sent” But I was determined, I wanted to be a governor!

After 2 years I became a SO on a therapeutic community and started working with an amazing team, alongside that I started working in the prisons BTI team, life changing moments for me in my career. I started to see what needed to change for women in prison to ensure not only did they feel safe but that they accessed all the help and support they could so never would they have to return, never would their children or grandchildren be separated from them. I learnt that women needed to be treated differently to men and instead of asking ‘what’s wrong with them? I asked what’s happened to them? I became trauma informed! Game changer, now I found my strength as an officer, I’m not great with the physical side of things, I was a talker, well that’s what all my teachers in primary school said. Well Ms R, it’s come in handy now! 

I was given some amazing training by some amazing external support I had an amazing team in our call centre looking office that backed me, stood by me and cried with me when things became overwhelming, when things were good and when I felt alone, they reminded me I was not alone. 

 Then as the time went on, the job became harder, the system became harder. I wanted to be kind and compassionate but it’s hard in a place that, I’m society’s view is meant to punish, humiliate and degraded. All the things that most women had experienced throughout their lives before custody. Women are sent to prison and forgotten, their families and children are forgotten. I cried driving home and soon I became anxious driving in, I needed to leave. I needed to be able to help in a different way, in a way that I could be a voice for women in custody without fear of being frowned upon. 

 I handed in my notice, without another job…. madness I know but I didn’t want to be in the prison service just because I needed a wage, that’s where staff become stagnant. I wanted to feel like me again, something I had started to lose. My colleagues and the women worked hard to try and get me to change my mind, but I knew I needed to leave. I knew this was not goodbye just see you soon. 

 A few weeks before I left, I was offered an amazing role, when I spoke to the women about it they were supportive, saying they knew I would make a difference. I believed them too, I knew that they had taught me everything I held as precious, the women had taught me everything that no amount of time at college or any policy could every teach me.

So here I am, no longer in the uniform, no longer justifying to difficult staff, why I am trauma informed. I’m working in a job where they have embraced my beliefs and know that outside my working hours I will be at rally’s and court appeals fighting for not only women but their children to treated with the respect and kindness they deserve, not having to prove they deserve it, not having to composed and hold their trauma in just in case they lose their enhanced which could result in visits with their loved ones being taken.

 My journey was only 5 years but it has been the years of growth that I will always be thankful for. The women I worked with and my amazing team I will always be thankful for”.

After reading Zoe’s blog I asked her where she was going to publish it and she said she didn’t know, so I offered to publish it on my page and asked Zoe if we could use her piece as a basis for an interview type blog….and yes, this is a real interview dynamic not ‘An interview with Zoe on a winter afternoon’, in which Zoe isn’t even present or in the knowledge of….

Why did you apply for a prison officer role?

In all honestly I applied as the wage looked good, well better than I was on and it was local, it’s sold to be a role where you can dramatically help others, where you are part of helping empower others.

Why do you think the CM wished you luck once you had told her you were going to work in the women’s estate?

There was next to nothing on my initial training regarding working with women, actually all I was shown was how to search a woman, that took around 10 minutes of the 6 week course, everyone is trained at cat b procedures. Now I think she recognised they were sending staff to work with complex women who had complex trauma and were just hoping for the best after no training. There is training for staff working with young people, but not women. It’s something that still aggravates me now.

What perceptions did you have of women in prison in your early days, and how have these developed and changed now? 

I believed the women must of done horrendous things to be in custody, things that society would only deem a custodial sentence as appropriate, they must be selfish mothers, sisters and daughters. My perceptions were so wrong, I was so wrong, they have now changed from every angle, I remember hearing that there were 7 women in prisons in the UK for unpaid tv license, well unpaid fines of unpaid tv license, and thinking, god that was me when the kids were small and I had to decide on paying the tv license or putting electric on my key!

You mentioned as time went on in your career you found it hard to display kindness and compassion, can you explain a little more about that? 

I found it hard because in settings like prisons there is already a huge divide between staff and residents, the staff open doors, we decide when people can eat, when they can talk to their children, the control staff have over the women’s lives is huge, but it’s there between staff too, cliches, the ones who thrive off the power and have no problem reminding the women of that. The ones who do the job and don’t care “if they are women or men, they are just prisoners

I once attended a trauma informed workshop within a female prison and this was delivered by a HMPPS colleague. Not many people in my learning group new I was a former prisoner. One of the first tasks on the training day was to ‘describe the women in our care’ and I’ll never forget the answers from a prison officer in her 50’s who unashamedly denounced women in her care as manipulative, liars and attention seekers. You spoke briefly of being trauma informed and I wondered what difficulties you experiences in trying to embed trauma awareness and responsiveness within the prison you worked in? 

I was called a care bear, mocked and ridiculed, colleagues would say to me “so and so is crying, you go, you care, you”re fluffy” uniformed staff didn’t want to come on my training, one even told me he would rather nail his penis to the desk than spend time having to “fuss about the women”

It really broke me at times, I became to dread the training delivery side. I am so passionate about trauma responsive care and was proud of my work, it placed me in the final 6 nominations as prison officer of the year, I attended a beautiful event, I felt proud of myself, a young single mum who had not achieved more than being a mum (that’s also amazing don’t get me wrong) ,but I told no one at work, I couldn’t face the ridicule.

You speak so passionately about what the women in prison taught you. The very dominate discourse of imprisoned women is that of a weak, vulnerable and helpless stature. Do you think these descriptions accurately reflect the women who you worked with? 

The women I worked with are among the strongest, resilient, grounded and compassionate people I have met, when I felt low about the trauma work being knocked back and shot down, they would talk about their lives and it would reignite me, because if I wasn’t heard they definitely wouldn’t be. Society silences women. Women in prison, are silenced and locked away. I needed to continue for them.

Your blog is very careful in indicating your experiences and witnessing of women’s trauma without reciting their own personal stories. You know my own interest and passion is around how and what we give voice to and how we do that safely and with vision to affect system change. Why do you talk about you own experiences whilst carefully not sharing the stories of the women that you met? 

The women are part of my narrative, it would be easy to include them, god I could write a whole book, probably several, but that’s their story to share, that’s their trauma, their families and at time’s sadly it’s their shame but also their hope to share, not mine.

I ensured the women I would be a voice, not their individual voice, they are strong enough to tell their story, but their collective voice, the forgotten and silenced voice, the voice of women who have been sentence and forgotten by all but their loved ones.

There is a culture outside of prison which is dominated by the ‘misery memoir’ of prisoners. I have researched this from a perspective of a former prisoner and lived experience practitioner, but I am interested in your observations of why people leaving professional roles within prisons go on to articulate the stories of the people they used to bang up. What do you think about this, and why it happens? 

I don’t believe that anyone sets out to shame and humiliate others by talking about what they see as “their experiences” I think it’s lack of education surrounding trauma and shame, I think it’s a desire to help but lack of willingness to see that this is what society craves, they crave the drama, they crave the desire to hear about others being worse off than them to make themselves feel better. I hope over time this changes but I’m not sure it will be in our life time sadly, society needs to change, these women have loved ones, they will be back as our neighbours, our work colleagues ones day, I think learning that a high number of women have been victims of unreported crimes is something I try to educate people on.

Zoe after completing her questions then decided to interview me!!! Haha! Thanks love… 

What was your view on women in custody before you went to prison?

I talk about this often and I will never ever forget this. Leaving court on a Friday night in November. It was pitch black, raining and I was put onto the sweat van in high heels, a tailored suit and mascara running all down my face. I remember howling on that bus in absolute fear. All I kept thinking was how the fuck have I ended up here, I’m going to prison. I am nothing like women that go to prison. How am I going to do this for 2 years? I can’t do it. My first few days on the induction wing I quickly became aware that these women were all women I shared experiences with, many of the offences committed were in situations of extreme poverty, drug dependency and ill mental health. Many were young mothers who had made a single mistake which ultimately cost them their freedom and ability to be mothers. I absolutely hated prison. But my fears and my perception that I didn’t fit the prisoner identity was well and truly gone within the first few days of being there. 

You were lucky enough to have a supportive family and made some good friends in prison, but what was your overall experience of staff in relation to them not only being trauma informed but trauma responsive?

When I was in prison from 2011 – 2013 I didn’t hear the words trauma informed or trauma responsive. I think female officers who could see themselves as my own mother, or young officers who were mothers themselves, offered me support and almost looked after me because they recognised that not all ‘criminals’ are bad people, and not all bad people are ‘criminals’. But in terms of gender specific support, trauma informed care our trauma responsive care. There was none of that. I was strip searched on my period with a tampon in. The shame of standing in the cold room after being at work all day and walking for miles sweating, and taking my clothes on in a tiny room with an officer holding my knickers is something I’ll never get over.

Do you at any time now still face negative reactions from people within the justice system due to you having lived experience? 

Yes. Not so much on a personal level but systemically, I still believe people with lived experience are from included into informing policy and strategy and making up a diverse workforce, through identification of their capability and skill as opposed to a tick box exercise. For me, that is negativity because it highlights an absence of a competent workforce who can really impact and influence systems change. 

What would you say to the ex-staff who publish books if you speak to them and be heard?

Stealing other people’s trauma without consent from a position of power, is abuse of power, does not align with HMPPS code of conduct nor professional standards. It is harmful and does nothing to hold those in power to account or to inspire change. We know that prisoners are more often than not victims of crime also, it would not be so accepted if victims of crime support professionals lifted and sold those stories. People need to educate themselves around oppression, inequalities and how the use of stigma is a socio-political tool to sustain exclusion. Deep reflective practice is required to identify how we all are, as practitioners complicit in causing harm and then making amendments to practice to ensure our practice is as harmless as possible. It is our responsibility to learn how we oppress. It isn’t the responsibility of the oppressed to teach us, but sadly that is always the case. We see that in the Black lives matter movement, the fight for women’s rights and within the LBTQ movement. 

Michaela Booth – Former Prisoner and Criminology Graduate

Zoe Thomas – Former prison officer

The metaphorical blindfold

I was reading an article today for my MA studies and a sentence in a journal struck me:

the manifest function on allowing the victim of a firing squad to be blindfolded is to make the occasion less stressful for him, but it may also serve as a latent function for reducing the stress of the executioner” (Milgram, S. 1965). 

The context of this sentence was suggesting that the proximity in which harm is inflicted and the extent of that harm, is impacted by how close the inflictor of harm comes to their victim and how much the inflictor of harm can disassociate or deflect their harm. 

What interests me is the concept of the blindfold, and how this can be used as a means to lessen the effects of an execution to both the executed and the executioner. I bet many of you are reading this and thinking what is she going on about, and for those who know me a bit more, I bet you know I am soon going to be talking about the use of labels, their impact and consequences. Bringing into focus the metaphorical blindfold, of which many people use to ignore the harm in their actions, and words. 

Lots of research has already identified the harmful consequences of labels, in fact the MoJ have themselves identified the harmful consequences of labels, and they still depict stigmatising and harmful language within many of their publications. Further, and of great popularity, trauma tourism is becoming ever more popular within self-published books, often having to go through no ethics processes to negate harmful practice or to ensure fully informed consent is given to authors to effectively sell other people’s real life traumas as stories for profit. 

The metaphorical blindfold is real. 

In the example used to set the scene for this blog, the blindfold in an execution is a real one. Put over the eyes of the victim whilst simultaneously providing the executioner space to kill without seeing the pain, terror and fear in the eyes of another person. The blindfold has two functions, one is to relieve the stress of the victim, who will not see exactly when he will be executed. The second function is to provide the executioner with a reduction in stress as a result of not seeing the victim’s eyes. 

I wanted to use this space and citation to further explore how metaphorical blindfolds are used in trauma tourism publication, and the continued use of a damage based framework which continues to depict criminalised women as vulnerable, weak and in need of saving. Labels which, actually support and sustain our oppression and serve to exacerbate the inequalities that so many of us already experience. 

Let’s start with the obvious, when people write about criminalised people, those people nor the authors have a physical blindfold which stops them from seeing the harm they may cause through their discourse and narrative. Further, many people will have undergone a robust and vigorous ethics panel for approval of their research and future publication. This process is a process in which you can discuss aspects of any potential harm in research and writing, and to evidence ways in which you will mitigate harm and what procedures will be in place for research participants to seek support should they need it. However, as indicated self-published trauma tourism stories told from mouths of people who haven’t swallowed them, follows no such process. The absence of process to mitigate harm is a metaphorical blindfold in and of itself. Simply, you cannot plan to mitigate harm if you don’t have a process to even identify potential harm in the first place. So, in these instances the metaphorical blindfold as a means to offer the victim and the executioner protection, is only a self-serving form of protection for the author who persists in his stolen literature for self-attribution with no consideration to any potential harm they may cause.

The avoidance of ethics and identification of harm also allows trauma tourism to be published away from the realms of literature which is scrutinised and peer reviewed. This allows space where authors consider their work as unhamrful, when it is not. It just navigates out of the spaces where the harm would otherwise be identified and mitigated for. More than likely, reducing the airplay of our version of events told by them! 

More often than not trauma tourism publications are created without true knowledge and consent, often from professionals, in positions of power. The narrative stories of people they depict in their writings have no choice in their narrative because it’s being narrated by somebody else. They have no choice in whether they want their trauma in a storybook, because often a name change for anonymity is enough to influence publishers that that constitutes enough protection, regardless of how reading someone else’s depiction of your own personal trauma may affect you. What is also evident is that the popularisation of trauma tourism is often produced for entertainment but dressed up as informative innovation. What is clear is the regurgitation of people’s traumas through other people’s narratives does little to change the environments where those traumas exist. So, when you continue to support and share and write about the trauma of others, through your own words in a misunderstood theory of how change works, then you are intentionally blindfolding yourself through ignorance. You are blindfolding yourself as the executioner who is inflicting harm on those very people whose stories you have stolen, in a misguided attempt to bring about change. Trauma tourism publication does not offer a blindfold to the people whose stories are stolen and readable.  It is only executioners of trauma tourism who really benefit from the blindfold. 

Trauma tourism – but I’m holding those in power to account!!

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”.

Not because I am vulnerable

For those of you who don’t know me, or haven’t been following the blog or story for long, I’ll begin with a brief introduction to contextualise this reflective piece.

“Hi, I’m Michaela, 1st class criminology graduate, mum, work in user involvement across the prison estate, activist, resister, lived experience researcher and a former prisoner”.

I didn’t need to end that short introductory paragraph by dropping in I’m a former prisoner, but I chose to, and the reason should become clear as your read on. Now, before you read on, I want to just take you back to that word ‘chose’ because, choosing, when, where and how I share my lived experience, is and always will be, entirely at my own discretion. However, that doesn’t mean that other people won’t take my experiences and appropriate them, alter them, diminish them or dramatize them for reasons often outside of my control.

As an undergrad studying Criminology and as a former prisoner with years of lived experience, both personal from my own imprisonment and experiences of being a child deprived of her own mother due to state sanction, my position as a student was somewhat different to my peers. This reflection isn’t to throw stones, it isn’t to push individual blame onto anybody and it isn’t any criticism of my experience as a student, anyone who knows me knows that the last three years of my life in higher ed, has been the making me. However, seldom do we hear the stories of working class experience in university life, and rarer still do we hear and unpick the experiences of criminalised women studying, what came to be three years of their own oppression, disadvantage and the harms inflicted on them through structural and systemic violence.

We don’t hear these stories for many reasons, for me personally I held a strong fear of discriminatory treatment whenever a situation arose which caused any upset. Just to be clear here, I am not saying that I actually faced discrimination. I am saying that at times, the fear of discriminatory treatment did impact on my actions and words. I knew I had academic ability from early on in the degree, I knew I had the motivation and dedication to succeed, what I didn’t have, and never have had, in trust in a system to treat me fairly. I had to be better, I had to work harder, I had to read more, stay up later and start earlier. I had every essay draft read, I had every tutorial I could, I asked for reading lists and more resources, I used every grading grid and always aimed for a first. I was never happy with anything less than being the best, and that is something to do with the internal consequences of oppression, social exclusion and criminalisation. My good friends who are women with similar life experiences to mine, call this the ‘bigger, better, stronger, faster’ by-product of lives. We have internalised, often to our detriment that our practice, our thinking, our voices, our work, has to be bigger, better, stronger, faster….because history tells us, we’re replaceable, we’re added value but we aren’t valuable. We’re called vulnerable and we see people sympathise over us with their capes on, categorising us under their ‘widening participation’ umbrella, already indicative of the disadvantage we try so fiercely to overcome, resist and eradicate.

Moving on, I have the utmost respect for my tutors who have helped me over the three years and my days of writing without purpose just to slag something off are gone, so I am going to try to capture a reflection of some experiences with respect. And, I must also note that while I am going to critique some of these experiences and peoples actions toward me, they were not actions through malice. That said, actions not through malice but due to a lapse in thinking, a lack of knowledge and not foreseeing the consequences, often end up with people like me going to prison, so that’s one to think about isn’t it. (just a side note here if any of my lectures read this from third year, none of these happened in my final year and all the staff involved are elsewhere).

Through various aspects of my degree, we had external visitors come in who worked in different criminal justice fields, magistrates, solicitors, prison officers and the like. In fact, we have a semester dedicated to external visitors on a weekly basis to talk to us about applying theory to practice and what working lives looked like in the criminal justice sector. I has attended roughly 4 sessions during this specific module and listened to and engaged with 4 external speakers. On week 5 I entered the seminar room at around 9.15am with my coffee and sat down at a table with my friends. There were roughly 30 students in the room. After I sat down, the lecturer said “Oh Michaela can I just have a word with you outside before this begins”. I thought that was weird as I have no idea why they would want to talk to me. Anyway I said of course, and followed them outside the classroom. They proceeded to inform me that “Today we have a prison officer coming in, and I know your personal views and experiences mean a lot to you but don’t take it out them”……

I was absolutely astounded…. ‘Don’t take it out on them’. Let’s just be very clear here, I never gave any indication that I would ever take anything out on anyone, I had never engaged in anything other than academic discussion and debate, appropriate to the topic, and I have never given any indication that I had any damaging or harmful views or thoughts on individual prison officers, especially ones I would be happy or willing to air in front of a whole class. In addition, I had never personally told this person anything about my personal views or lived experience. Ever. So, what happened here? There was no conversation or concern and private chat around “this guest will talk about prisons and life working with prisoners etc so if you feel uncomfortable let’s have a chat or feel free to leave” etc. It was simply a well worded warning to not challenge the guest on anything. Exactly what I went, and paid to go to University to do.

No one else was warned into silence. Only me. I wasn’t warned into silence because of my vulnerability was I? So, the ones who are happy to depict as us vulnerable, as damaged, who talk of our lack of education, our oppression, and lack of opportunity. In that instance, recognised I wasn’t vulnerable, excluded me from debate and took away my right and opportunity to have a voice. Not because I was vulnerable, but because at that point in time, I was probably the most powerful student in the room to engage in discussion. I was shut down, because that person knew I had been prison. And that was the only reason. So, a place at uni under their widening participation agenda, does not mean equality of treatment or equality of opportunity and only goes to highlight that no matter where we are, we continue to face the societal consequences of criminalisation. Even from people who understand and teach the desistance literature. As I have said before, there is massive difference in understanding oppression, and feeling oppression.

Anyway, to put the cherry on the cake, the external guest to put it nicely, could have done with one or two challenges, when they reeled off a 20 minute speech on women in prison, and had only ever worked in male prisons! LOL.

We celebrate survival

Today has been hard, I’ve ignored calls from friends. Called back and cried. I’ve tried to make sense of my feelings and to remind myself that this too shall pass. I am currently sat on my bed with the world shut out by the curtains, accompanied only by the Cadbury Dairy Milk at my side.

Yesterday I submitted my dissertation, although I had never go to the stage of planning anything to mark the occasion,  lockdown and social restrictions subsequently made that impossible. Yesterday was something I have envisioned for three years. Within an hour of submitting work which took me to some very dark places over three years, I was in bed asleep. I felt so relieved to get it over with. I woke up this morning and felt sad, the analytical characteristics which have been ingrained into my thinking have stirred up some tough recognitions.  The only praise and recognition I received yesterday was from social media. Now, don’t get me wrong, most of you I really like, and most of you have really supported me over the years, which I think you all know, I appreciate and care deeply about. But what has struck me is the realisation that this space, for people with lived experience, is lonely. It’s lonely and it’s hard.

Over three years I have worked within a discipline that studies the very systems which create and sustain oppression. Systems which misattribute success and displace failure. Systems which encourage and accept our invisibility and voicelessness. I’ve worked hard over three years to not let anger indulge me and impact on my ability to advocate and work towards equality. The subtle anger has always been there, it is the underpinning concept of my endurance.  This anger and endurance belongs only to me. I don’t know what I was expecting yesterday, or today, or this weekend, to mark one of the biggest milestones in my life. But, it certainly wasn’t tears of sadness, feelings of isolation and the need to withdraw. But this is the reality of the lives of criminalised women who give up their anonymity in the pursuit of social justice.

I once wrote about being a kid, and going to another kids who, who had one of those big American style freezers which have an ice dispenser at the front. My dad was late picking me up and I was so embarrassed of my own house and knew I’d never be inviting that kid over to my house, after that night I just didn’t talk to her any more. We were different, we had different lives and I couldn’t make friends with people like that. Now, I wonder for those kids, who follow the footsteps of their families, and their peers into university, what they did to mark their educational milestones. I wonder who supported them, guided them and helped them. I wonder who was telling them they were proud of them. I wonder if those kids wrote their dissertations without speaking a word about it within their homes. I wonder if they submitted their work and then went home to bed without talking about it to their loved ones.

The stark reality of where I come from really hit me, when I considered the biggest endurance tests of my life so far. Prison and university. Ironically, my release from prison was marked by a welcome home cake, a big surprise family meal, flowers, cards and the like. So, despite my academic success and the utilisation of my lived experiences into a meaningful career. My personal life is still in a place where we celebrate releases from prison but have no ritual for actual achievement. What we do is celebrate survival. We celebrate survival because survival is all we have ever known. So, although I am feeling quite deflated, I need to mark this occasion. Reflection is so important, and while a part of me feels hurt that this milestone is somewhat neglected at home. I need to remember that we haven’t had any practice in this. People like me rarely get here. The odds are still stacked against us.

Perhaps I am lacking clarity in thought and in my writing, what am I saying here? Not for a minute should this be taken that I wish for a different response at home. Had I have not had my life experiences, I would never have even got here. Those gave and give me purpose, drive and ambition. I guess my point is, for the marginalised, our successes are not validated through academic achievement. Our successes are validated through the school of life. Through surviving trauma and just keeping on with it.

What does ‘resting’ and ‘celebrating’ mean for us, when our celebrations are of prison release dates and abstinence birthdays? Perhaps I succumbed to middle class thinking when fantasising about celebration of completing higher ed, only to be confronted with the harsh realities of my underclass position as the council estate, school excluded, naughty girl. The girl who survives and just keeps on, because that is all she has ever known.

Is there a point to this blog, not really. I just wanted to create something that captures this feeling, as best as I can in this moment.  I was thinking about the concept of celebrating, and then I thought about what I would be celebrating, when the conclusion of my work over three years ended with a recognition of structural and societal dominance over criminalised women’s lives. The inequalities, oppression and systemic violence which often leads us to prison in the first place. This is the shit that keeps us in places of prison release dates and abstinence birthdays as validation of our success. Maybe the celebratory discourse for me is harmful, and it led to me recognising why it hasn’t happened. We just keep on, keeping on. Surviving.

Comes to you by an ex-offender

 

If you are working to influence change, understanding how and why things happen is a fundamental component of ensuring future work leads to improvements, the improvements you say you want to see.  I’ve been doing various assignments lately and the research has led to some important discoveries.  So, I’ve decided to raise some important issues in regards to the stigmatising langue ‘we’ use in pursuit of our ‘positive change’ work. Let’s be clear from the start, for as long as you continue to use stigmatising language , you will never accomplish your positive change. You may do, on a minimal scale, for individuals and for your own self-worth, but for most of you reading this, I am sure your aims are to see this change on a social and political level.

So, let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room – this blog, and this call to action, comes to you from an ex-offender and the child of drug addicts. Now, how many people have you experienced within a work environment that would completely dismiss the whole blog, as soon as they read the statement about the author? In that same thought, how many people have you encountered within a work environment, that have attempted to explain equality, diversity and inclusion to you, from their privileged status and zero experience of ever being oppressed? Similarly, have you ever heard someone at work say ‘they don’t like being called ex-offenders, buts that’s what they are’?  Or, have you ever justified your own use of stigmatising language because some people self-identify as that? If so, you have a personal and professional responsibility to learn how you are complicit in the oppression of those you stigmatise, and what you can do to stop this behaviour. You know, just how we coach and mentor those ‘offenders’ out of offending. We can mentor ourselves out of oppressing those who we pretend to fight for equality for!

I imagine that most of you reading this blog either work in, or have a keen interest in the criminal justice system. On the same note, I assume that most readers will have an idea of labelling theory, the self-fulfilling prophesy and stigma. I would also think that many of you will have idea of desistance theories and how personal identify impacts on reaching a place of desistance.

Do you also keep up-to-date with government policy, criminal justice news and current prison debate? Have you read the Female Offender Strategy, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act? Have you been to conferences where the ‘lived experience’ speaker is introduced as an ex-prisoner or read a report where ‘the lived experience’ team are thanked, rather than their names? Have you ever considered how all of these examples perpetuate exclusion?

Does your work have underpinning values of equal citizenship, of equal rights and inclusion for all?

Historically, stigma(ta) was a punitive practice of branding cattle or making the body of slaves and criminals, for means of identifying ‘the other’, a visible mark of ‘deviance’.  Today, we use labels to stigmatise, although calling someone an ‘ex-offender’ doesn’t visibly mark them, it invisibly contributes to their exclusion within society by associating them with deviance.  This of course, is not by accident.  We are wrapped up in a false idea of systems believing in rehabilitation, the very same systems that continue to stigmatise us with the langue they use in their policies, strategies and speeches.  The very same system which claims a belief in people’s ability to chance, but place requirements on some to forever disclose a past conviction. The very same system that uses the desistance evidence base to produce it’s strategies, but ignores the fundamental aspect of macro-recognition of identity change.

To make sense of this, let’s consider stigma as a political and social tool of exclusion. The language that we use to describe people impacts upon their social capital, when we identity people using stigmatising language we are limiting their social capital and increasing their risk of discrimination. On a personal level, when we use ‘ex-offender’ we are linking the ‘current’ to the ‘past’ thus not recognising a change in identify, apart from saying ‘they used to be an offender but they aren’t anymore’. Before you use the term ‘ex-offender’ do you ask if the person identifies as such? Even so, do you understand the broader social and political consequences of using the term and do you question why someone may self-identify as an ex-offender?

Stigma is a form of ‘marking’ to exclude, stigma functions through labelling, so when you use stigmatising language you are ‘marking’ someone, those marks will contribute to their exclusion… get it?

Now let’s consider who creates labels, if we return back to the punitive practice of stigma(ta), branding and marking of slaves, cattle and criminals, this was done to identify ‘ownership’ by those in power. Historically, people who committed crimes had the crime tattooed on their forehead, ‘thief’  – every time that person looked in the mirror they are reminded that they are a ‘thief’ and reminded that someone else had the power to mark their face with the intention of ensuring a life of exclusion.

The power to mark a person with the intention of ensuring a life of exclusion.

Stigma as a political and social tool to perpetuate exclusion, this is where we begin to see how government policy such as the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act has the power to mark a person with the intention of ensuring a life of exclusion. This again can be seen in news reports, which love a good ‘name and shame’ crime story, who have the power to mark a person with the intention of ensuring a life of exclusion.

Here may be a good opportunity to address the definition of violence

“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” (World Health Organisation)

Key in understanding how stigma is a form of violence – The intentional use of power, against a person or group, that results in psychological harm or deprivation.

The stigmatising language used in political speech, news reports, conferences, criminal justice reports and so on, can be defined as the intention use of power, against a person or group, that results in psychological harm or deprivation.

Have you ever acknowledged contributions to work by thanking the ex-offenders, have you ever identified some-one at a conference either in person or on the speakers list as an ‘ex-offender’ – have you contributed evidence to policy and strategy which uses ‘offender’ in the title? Have you ever considered that you are complicit in systemic violence again a group of people? Have you ever considered that you are abusing your power, while suggesting you work towards power balance? Have you ever considered that the langue you use to identify people is a political and social tool used to keep the oppressed ‘controlled’ and ‘in their place’?

Have you ever considered eradicating stigmatising language from your professional vocabulary and requesting others to do the same?

Mum, why do you sound so posh?

Mum, why do you sound so posh?

A resounding question every time my daughter hears me on any type of work phone call, a question that we both laugh hysterically about and often becomes quite embarrassing when she attempts her impressions of my ‘phone voice’ in front of others! A common whatsapp theme is of voice notes sent from my 12year old in my ‘phone voice’, answering my own questions to her. Similarly, I can reflect on my child self, who used to ask the exact same question to my dad – who will also laugh hysterically about this, when he reads this piece.  Moreover, a common theme for entertainment as a child with my two sisters, was mimicking this exact same ‘poshness’ that my dad presented.

Although addicted to heroin, and heavily involved in supply, to feed not only his addiction, but that of my unemployed, mentally-ill, also addicted, mothers. My dad’s presentation of ‘posh’ came not from work calls but in the form of school meetings with the headmaster, as a result of my multiple suspensions, that finally led to full exclusion in my final year of high school. The reasons for my suspension and exclusion are important here, possibly because at that stage in my life, I hadn’t mastered the art of language, aside from the ‘I fucking hate school’ sentence that was heard daily from Monday to Friday in the house we lived in.

Why did I hate school? More importantly, why did school hate me?

My childhood exposed me to what exclusion and marginalisation really mean, despite being of an age and lack of lived experience, which meant I didn’t really know and couldn’t really describe what was happening to me. That is not to say, that I haven’t internalised the consequences of such experience. Actually, I did know what was happening to me, and I knew it wasn’t fair – I just didn’t know the extent to which institutions, services and professionals work in ways to further exclude the voices and experiences of oppressed groups. And, I certainly didn’t know what Labelling Theory was, and how I would come to relate to so much of it in my adult life, as an activitist and professional within the arena user involvement and inclusion.

My childhood days were mostly spent ‘getting up to mischief’ – whose weren’t? Although, my mischief was unsupervised, it was mostly illegal and often dangerous. I wasn’t wondering off from my mums direct eye line at the park. I was drinking myself into a hospital bed with spirits I nicked from the co-op, at 13 years old. I was ‘going out’ with 20 year old blokes, as a 14 year old. I was going out on week nights to pubs, clubs and house parties and keeping in contact with my parents via phone calls was not even an option! With the exception of using the BT call back service on a phone box, when my sisters and I were stuck outside a nightclub at 3am and we needed picking up.

I have two vivid memories of being ‘excluded’ at primary school – although I didn’t know that I was being excluded – I just felt horrible and the experience felt horrible. The first one was when I was in year 5, around 10 years old. My elder sister was 12 and younger sister was 8. We were all at the same primary school, waiting to be collected at the end of the school day by our mum. She was late, so after waiting outside, watching all of the other children go home, we were cold so decided to go back into school and wait in the corridor. Other children also hadn’t been collected, so they were taken back in by two teachers. These teachers led the other children down the corridor, to the lunch hall for some after-school activities. In passing, one of them suggested that my sisters and I should follow them to the hall. The other teacher proceeded to announce ‘their fine, their mum is always late’. Instantly, this told us that we were not welcome in the hall, with the other children. Simply because, our mum was always late! Presumably, the other children were being collected by late ‘working mums’ and our exclusion was due to our late mum being addicted to heroin. This tells us that, an acceptable reason to be late to collect your children from school, is being at work. Therefore, if this is the case, we will ensure your children can purposefully spend their time waiting. If however, you a drug addict and we don’t recognise your condition as a health problem, and we don’t recognise your children as suffering, then your children can just wait in the corridor.

On their own.

Away from the teachers and other children.

The second time was in year six, a year later. A fellow year six pupil had flown to Disney Land in Florida. Upon her return to school, she gifted every year 6 kid with a Disney souvenir.

Every other year six kid.

Apart from me.

Secondary school became even more toxic, and I became even more excluded. This was due to who ‘I’ was, which fed from the perception of who my parents ‘were’. My reaction to this, as a teenager was not to educate myself around inclusion and diversity, or to question the systems and structures that perpetuated my exclusion. It was to rebel against it. Being bullied, led me to bully. Being excluded, led me to isolate. Being punished, led me to believe I was naughty. I was victimised by teachers and institutional systems, that somehow always managed to position me as the perpetrator. My response was to simply not give a shit. I stopped going to school. At times when I did attend, I had a very quick fuse, which blew at the very slightest provocation. If I was asked to go and remove my make-up, despite a few more hundred girls in the school covered in slap – I would just go home.

I remember my mum once giving me some money to go to the hairdressers and get some braids. For me, this was a big thing. I wasn’t a child that had hair-dresser appointments. The braids in my hair were tied up with coloured bobbles. When I went to school, I was called into the head of year office and told to take the braids out, because coloured bobbles were against the school rules. Take my braids out, no way. I went on to explain, with tears in my eyes, that I only had my braids done yesterday, and they will last a few weeks and I really don’t want to take them out because I like them and my mum actually gave me the money to go to the hair-dressers and get something I wanted done to my hair! They weren’t having it, and gave me a choice of removing my braids or leaving school. Of course, I just walked out and told them to fuck off. When I arrived home, after catching the bus, the school had already phoned home and informed my dad that I had been suspended for a week! Result, I thought!

This was a continued pattern. Injustice of any kind through-out high school resulted in me leaving, subsequently being suspended and then returning. The cycle of injustice and suspension continued. As did the meetings with head teachers and my dad, who was always ‘welcomed’ to discussions regarding my return to school. These meetings always consisted of conversations about my wrong-doing and negative reaction, which always provided a space for their justification of my exclusion. What these meetings failed to do, was examine whether their school policy suited my needs, as a child in need of nurture and support, not punishment and exclusion. As a teen, filled with anger and frustration, I didn’t know the language to call this out, although I knew that these conversations failed to get to the root causes of my feelings and actions.

I’ll always remember those drives back to school, dad in his only suit that was too big for him, with some very weird purple tie.

Always the same suit.

Always the same tie.

The greetings in the school waiting area, beginning with a formal hand shake of my dad and the head teacher. Then being led into his office and asked to take a seat. Dad would always put on a different voice and have a completely different persona and opinion when in company of the head. That used to piss me off even more. I would stare at him as he was talking, thinking to myself ‘what the hell are you going on about? ‘and ‘why are you in a suit?’. He never wore a suit, he didn’t have a job. That suit must have been for court appearances and the obligatory back to school meeting for Michaela. Perhaps he thought that presenting this way would enhance other peoples view of ‘us’ – if we could become more like ‘them’ the chance of my school life may become less of a fuck up!? I knew we weren’t ‘like them’ and I knew that I couldn’t pretend to ‘be like them’.  I didn’t know what class inequality was, and I didn’t know what oppression was. I didn’t know we were less than working class in a meeting with a middle-class head master. And, I don’t think my dad did either. What I did know was, this man making decisions about my school life and explaining my behaviour to us, had no idea what he was talking about. He had no idea about my life at home, he had no idea about my life at school. And here he was, attempting to tell me about my own life, with my dad there, unintentionally colluding with him by his presentation in a suit, with a false perception of our lives, and a voice that didn’t belong to him.

My sisters and I still laugh about dad in that suit, and all the times he wore it to my school meetings.

Fast forward 13 years, and my own child is now doing the same thing to me. ‘Mum, why do you sound so posh?’

Rebelling against unjust systems as a teen, didn’t result in any positive changes in my life. Effing and blinding all the time and leaving situations due to lack of ability to explain things, didn’t help change things. Educating myself, learning the language of the ‘others’ and mastering the art of expression and vocabulary was what enabled me to position myself within the firing line, and remain there with confidence, in speaking up for myself and others when faced with injustice of any kind.

Anger at the victimisation of the marginalised, gave me the passion to learn how to speak. Determination to ensure I wasn’t ignored encouraged people to listen. But, people only listened after I had learnt the language. After my own instant reactions that were indicative of someone who needed help, were ignored.

What do I say to my child when she asks me, ‘mum, why do you sound so posh?’

 Well, I certainly don’t tell her that in life, we have to pretend to be someone different and present as something ‘better’. I don’t tell her that as a kid I was mistreated and reacted negatively because I lacked the skills to express what I was going through. I also don’t tell her that she will probably grow up to have a ‘phone voice’. Although, she probably will!

Kid, I ‘sound so posh’ because I grew up in silence, even when I was screaming, because that was the only sound I knew. I ‘sound so posh’ because no-one listened to me, when I spoke. I ‘sound so posh’ because it provides me with opportunities that wouldn’t come my way if I didn’t. I ‘sound so posh’ because space for ‘me’ is limited. I ‘sound so posh’ so I at least, have a sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She didn’t know about the gas card

That sacred kitchen draw.
The bills were piled in there. I say bills, I mean debt collectors demands. The provident loans.
That sacred kitchen draw.
The gas card was in safe in there. What do you know about the gas card?
I remember starting high school and making a couple of new mates in year 7. I’ll never forget when I was invited around for dinner by Bekki. I left school with her one day and went to her house. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was the first time I saw a tiled kitchen floor and not a ripped, poor fitting tile print lino. It was also the first time I ever saw a fridge freezer combo with an ice dispenser at the front. I’ll never forget that fridge.
I left Bekki’s that evening. Dad was late picking me up and I spent about half an hour using their house phone trying to find him and arrange to be collected. I was embarrassed, ashamed and jealous.
I never went to Bekki’s. I was used to going in that kitchen draw and walking up the garage to put a tenner on the gas and leccy card. In fact, I was used to being in the shower when the electric ran out and having to wait for someone to lend mum a tenner, with shampoo spilling all over my face. Bekki didn’t know about the gas card. From then, I stuck to selling fags and bits of weed I nicked from my dad on the back playground, to get some lunch money. Bekki’s house was everything I’d never have, there was no point being friends with someone who had the means to live and do way more than I ever could. I wanted to stick with people who had the gas card.
15 years later I’m leading change through lived experience.
Since the beginning of my blog some 18 months ago, I have been invited to various conferences, universities and schools to ‘share my story’. I have been contacted by various forms of media outlet to ‘share my story’. What does it actually mean for a person with lived experience to share their story? For me it means giving up my anonymity and any chance of living my life without the shadow of a conviction and prison sentence. It means fear for my family who also face the consequences of continued stigmatisation through no fault of their own. It means for ever reflecting on my parenting ability and recognising potential further risk of harm to my daughter, who will forever be cared for and viewed through the lens of a mother who went to prison. It means I enter an online space and receive abuse. It means I enter a classroom and see fear. It means I am vulnerable to judgement and face discrimination and micro aggression often.
It also means I may be seen as an ad hoc, as a political statement or the token expert by experience. I have seen, read and experienced first had the positives and negatives of leading change. It has taken me a while to adjust to a position of leadership however, I am there and finally recognise why I often feel imposter syndrome. It is because society juxtaposes leaders with people who have the gas key. I mean, how many leaders have been stood in a shower when it’s gone off at the same time as the lights, and someone is lighting a candle to dash to the kitchen draw to then walk up the garage with a tenner? Sometimes, all in change?

Experiencing societal oppression and inequality, the prison system, drug use and mental health issues has not lead to an ‘expert by experience’ and we need to reframe the way we view those with lived experience. We hear all the time about ‘managing expectation’ or ‘changing perception’ with groups we may work with. I always use my uni assignments to identify and challenge perception of the prisoner population as I think it is a point of view that is lacking in undergrad work. With this being said, I also think that for anyone who is supporting, sharing and advocating ‘lived experience’ there is a need for managing expectation and perception change within organisation structure and culture.

I wonder whether my invites to share my story have been due to a recognition of my ability to lead change or simply because I am an ex prisoner?
I have identified that there is a generic view of ex-prisoners who share their story as ‘motivational’ ‘inspirational’ ‘change-makers’ ‘brave’ …. But here we are missing all of the traits, attributes and skills that are built up by adversity and ultimately result in the ability to lead change. When we use these words as descriptors we are (maybe unconsciously, maybe not) underestimating, undermining and misrepresenting leaders with lived experience, potentially due to a power threat or an unrealistic perception of their abilities. How many organisations have ‘lived experience’ support worker roles? How many organisations have lived experience leadership roles? What message is this sending? We would love to use your story online…. Volunteer with us, apply for the support worker role…. But a leader of the organisation…. Oh no!
Are we only valued up to a certain point? Can we only make it to a certain level? Are we asking people who claim to be ‘a voice’ why we are not hearing from a lived experience leader’s voice?
We should be.
Leaders have the gas cards, and if they don’t anymore, they are lending the tenners!