HOW 4 FEDERALLY INCARCERATED MEN TAUGHT ME ABOUT VULNERABILITY

Note: This is a reflection piece based off of my undergraduate thesis research “The Man I am Today”: Exploring Narratives of Masculinity and Hardship in the Lives of Long Term Inmates in a Federal Correctional Facility (2006) in which transformative research was conducted in a federal prison with life sentenced male offenders. Therefore, this piece includes description of research methodologies, data, and discussion of sensitive topics such as trauma, gender, sexual assault, childhood abuse, and incarceration.

This article contains the following chapters:

– Background Information Brief

– A description of the research methods, and program used

– Information on the program participants and structure

– Detailed findings, and writing submissions

– Personal account of how 4 incarcerated men taught me about vulnerability

 

How 4 federally Incarcerated Men Taught me About Vulnerability: a personal tale of arts-based research, trauma, abuse, and transformative healing

I’ll set the scene: I was an eager fourth year university student pursuing an Honours degree in Sociology. On top of balancing a full university course load I had to balance a number of part-time jobs including on campus work as a teacher’s assistant, having time for school work, writing a thesis, and, unfortunately coping through an abusive relationship with my live-in partner. To some, this would seem like an overwhelming amount of responsibilities for a university student to have. Yet, I actually became significantly better in school my final two undergraduate years. My *not talked about* abusive relationship was at its worst, and my coping mechanism was to become SO productive in my academics and employment that I’d never have to be home.

As you can probably guess by now, my personal relationship with my mental health and trauma were incredibly messy. On one hand, I was miserable, I was resentful, fearful, and struggling deeply- and on the other hand, for the first time in my life, I was a high achieving student who my educators and peers respected. For the first time, I was able to become the student I was always so envious of. In a lot of ways, I opposed my guilt for “not leaving”, by constantly reaching for deeper success- I was not receiving the validation I wanted in my personal life, so I was overcompensating in my professional life. My work cycle basically functioned as so: high productivity, over-work yourself, burn out, self-pity, find motivation, and ignore traumas, all the way back to high productivity, and the cycle continues. So yes, my “coping mechanism” was actually not a coping mechanism in the slightest. However- it did lead me to one of the most profound experiences I’ve had to date.

THE RESEARCH BRIEF:

As part of my requirements to graduate with an honours degree, I had to write and defend a thesis before the end of the academic year. Because my passions lie within the field of critical criminology and gender, with the help of my thesis supervisor, I was able to focus my research lens on prison and masculinity. While there has been countless research done within the walls of correctional institutions, very little consideration is given to the ways in which manhood, trauma, and hegemonic masculinity influenced why they ended up in prison, their relationships with their peers, and how they negotiate their vulnerability and healing processes. This topic held particular importance for me, as I held my own experiences within adverse childhood experiences, crime, trauma, and toxic masculinity.

Therefore, to better understand these relationships both theoretically, and in my own personal world, I decided to conduct research that allowed me to answer the primary question of “how hegemonic masculinity in a men’s correctional institution shapes the ways in which long-term offenders heal from their past traumatic experiences”. In order to adequately answer that question, the research looked at everyday life and internal narratives of incarcerated men in a federal correctional institution. This data was to be collected through triangulation methods of collecting research such as; participant observation, field research, and literature/discourse analysis in the fields of sociology, criminology, and psychology were conducted. The information gathered was on trauma, adverse childhood experiences, masculinity, administration of gender, and arts-based and theoretically based research methods.

To break things down, narratives within the literature and discourse analysis consisted of, developing a thorough understanding of trauma, and experienced childhood adversity, the construction of gender, cultural theory, and of looking at how correctional institutions;

  1. promote and maintain hegemonic masculinity
  2. how hegemonic masculinity functions socially between and among inmates and frontline staff
  3. how the men’s ‘internal’ narratives about their ‘manhood’ comes to shape their own views.

THE PARTICIPANTS AND DATA COLLECTION:

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct my research along-side the highly esteemed professor, criminological researcher, artist and activist Dr. Ardath Whynacht; as I was invited to co-coordinate, and conduct research, through a transformative creative writing program alongside her in a federal men’s prison. The participants included 4 federally incarcerated men housed within the institution, all of whom were volunteers and consented to their participation in the program (so yes, the research setting was ecologically valid, meaning that all participants were observed in a setting that was natural to them, and part of their everyday routine within the institution).

The creative writing / poetry program was held weekly in the minimum-security unit of the prison. While there, I was a participant observer in the program (meaning, all assignments given to the men, were also self-given to Ardath and I). Additionally, while participating in the program myself, I was able to take notes discretely as to not disrupt the general flow of sharing, as quiet writing and reflective journaling was part of the groups ritual. This aided my analysis immensely as I was able to draw on numerous discussions, key themes, emotions, and truly navigate through the vulnerability in the mens writing. However, this ritual meant more to me than just “data”, I was building a genuine connection with the human beings I was sitting beside.

SOME RESEARCH FINDINGS:

One thing that I very quickly became aware of through spending time in a Federal Correctional Facility is the overwhelming reality that not one, but all of the men I had the pleasure of spending time with were victims of childhood abuse. Some were victims of emotional abuse, some physical, and some sexual; some were victims of all three- and each of them received no support growing up, and no tools to deal with these hardships. These moments of abuse, these very real moments of vulnerability, have immense impact on how these men shaped their internal narratives of ‘manhood’ and identity.

Many of the incarcerated men wrote about suffering from emotional abuse, haunted by memories of being told that they were worthless, and being told to ‘man up’ when they showed moments of vulnerability. The men wrote about having been both physically and emotionally bullied in school for having incarcerated parents, or for being ‘different’ from the rest of the boys on the playground. In fact, some of the very people who bullied them as children show share space with them within the confines of the prison. Additionally, some of the men wrote about memories of domestic abuse in which their fathers would severely abuse their mothers, and/or them. These reoccurring moments of violence often stemmed from one, or both parents’ suffering from substance abuse and addiction- creating even more barriers for the children growing up within these households.

Starting out with the research process was difficult, there were numerous concerns surrounding whether the men would feel comfortable speaking with me and choosing to share intimate details of their lives. Due to pre-existing expectations surrounding masculinity and vulnerability within the prison environment, I worried that they would feel incapable of communicating some of their emotions, especially in the presence of their peers. However, by the third week of visiting the prison, the [at times] closed off atmosphere of the poetry classroom seemed to drift away. The ‘homework’ both myself, Ardath, and the men were assigned for this week’s poetry class was to write a childhood memory from the perspectives of themselves as young children. Then, we instructed the men to re-write the assignment from their current adult perspective. There were no specifications on what the men had to write about other than a childhood memory- therefore, I was not emotionally prepared for the stories that would follow.

As one example, a man who was generally closed off to speaking about his experiences as a child came to ‘class’ that evening with several handwritten pages in his note book. He patiently waited for all his fellow peers, myself included, to share the work they had written. When it was his turn to read, he claimed that he had written about childhood moments where he felt like his life was the most out of control. He started his piece off by talking about how he had absent parents, as his father was often gone to sea for work, and his mother had a severe dependency on alcoholic substances. Because of these dynamics, he often experienced fighting and situations of domestic abuse between his parents. At times, he also became the victim of severe physical abuse- creating conflicting emotions for his father; as he was consistently struggling with the deep terror he felt for his father, and the admiration.

The memories he had of his father quickly ended when his father became lost at sea- leaving himself and his mother to care for themselves. With the despair brought on by the loss of his father, his mother became less and less present in his childhood- as alcohol consumed much of her time. So much so, that she would ignore his cries for help, while he was continuously sexually abused by his babysitter. His grandmother was the only adult in his life that made him feel safe and loved- however she later was placed in an asylum (adding to the large list of people he had lost in his life). He mentions that not long after this had occurred, his mother passed away in a house fire. He goes on to describe his life as a “living hell”, a life, and a past, that he has been unable to escape from.

The writing, and story that this man shared in the poetry class, as well as the rest of the mens stories, incorporated so many components of experienced childhood trauma, and neglect, and it was incredibly apparent based on collective discussion that the lack of support and trauma informed practices, he ended up acting in violent ways to compensate for the truly vulnerable emotions he was feeling and unable to express. Additionally, he was unable to begin a process of healing from his trauma, as his traumatic passed was never discussed in neither a personal, or institutional setting.

The weeks following the ‘childhood memory’ assignment, there were a lot of discussions surrounding the idea of healing from traumas. Collectively, the men discussed that by communicating past experiences of hardships at their own pace, allowed them to self-reflect and began a much-needed healing process.

Although the previous example was an experience written by a single member of the class, all of his peers felt that they had similar experiences of trauma in their own lives.  This conversation lead to a very empowering conversation around the idea of ‘choice’, and the way ‘choice’ becomes constructed. The men felt that through their socialization processes, and through their experienced traumas, they had lost their humanistic ability to think trauma free. They argue that had they not lost their ability to think within these transformative frameworks, they would not have committed the nature of the crimes in which they were convicted. They often became so blinded by the social, emotional, and economically barriers placed on them as children, that their own constructions of identity and choice became incredibly skewed.

Based on discussions we had about vulnerability, and healing, gender became a frequent topic. We often ended up discussing the ways each man viewed femininity, and masculinity, and the ways they had experienced each of those constructs. Even throughout different stories, levels of understanding and experiences, the concept of masculinity within the institution itself was something all the men agreed on. It seemed that incarcerated individuals believed that it was necessary to present a hyper masculine public facade within the institution. The men often referred to wearing a metaphorical ‘mask’ as something that is done by men to avoid revealing vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and other qualities that may undermine their hyper-masculine identities within the confines of the prison.

The concept of shame was also discussed frequently among the men in the poetry classroom. One of the participants often talked about how he wanted to share many traumatic experiences that have impacted the way he negotiated his identity. However, due to overbearing shame around his experiences and crimes, including the stigma around masculinity and vulnerability, he has continuously been unable to write or communicate about it. Additionally, another participant frequently stated he has shame around what he calls ‘sexual scars’. He often stated that unlike the institution itself, the writing program has allowed space for him to begin a process of healing and working to rid himself of the shame he has carried with him for so long. The shame, or ‘traumatic scars’ that he speaks so vividly of derives from numerous sources, he describes as;

  • feeling shame for being sexually assaulted [which derives from understandings of masculinity, dominance, and power]
  • feeling shame in his relationship with intimacy- as he often feels disassociated with intimacy due to his traumatic past.

The last thing I want to mention in terms of this program, is the importance of peer support, and finding support within homosocial environments. Male correctional facilities are often understood as a setting in which survival is dependent on adhering to incredibly strict masculine norms. Peer relations are often oriented around behaviours of hyper-masculine traits such as violence and aggression- and creates further complicates and reservations around institutional healing. However, the amount of support, positivity, and encouragement I felt within the poetry classroom was overwhelming, to say the least.

HOW 4 INCARCERATED MEN TAUGHT ME ABOUT VULNERABILITY: A FINAL REFLECTION

As I entered this academic experience, I knew that I would be learning information concerning trauma, masculinity, and prisons. What I could not prepare myself for, was how much I was going to learn about myself, my traumas, and my own processes of healing.

The whole process of conducting research in a correctional facility, and in partnership with vulnerable populations, MUST be a self-reflective one. The whole process of being a woman, being an outsider to the institution, the privileges I have experienced such as my education, all creates ethical considerations that I must acknowledge in order to ensure my research is anti-oppressive. As I previously stated, one of the primary ways that I could ensure that I was constantly practicing self-reflection throughout my research processes was to equally participate in the program in which I was expecting the men to participate.

When I say that, I am referring to the fact that I also wrote every writing assignment assigned to the men. I engaged in all reflective projects, every freestyle writing opportunity, every moment of sharing. How could I possibly urge vulnerability, and not practice it myself?

Becoming a participant in the program required me to dive into some pretty tricky emotions and experiences I was going through in my personal life outside of my ‘productive academic’ façade. For the first homework assignment, we had to write a poetic response the following poetry piece by the incredibly brilliant poet, Nayyirah Waheed:

4a87f5151fa2f3cd05c7ab3a5d4bebfb.jpg

 

I took Nayyirah’s piece home. I reflected, I re-read, I felt. I felt all of the abuse I had bottled up over the past 7 years of my life.

I began to write my response. I was vague, I was metaphorical, and I was just careful enough so that I wasn’t disclosing that the poem was related to my personal story. After all, I was reading this piece out-loud in a prison, with people who have experienced more trauma than I could ever imagine. This program was for THEM, it was not about me.

The following week when I went to the prison, I sat in a circle of ‘convicted felons’, and nervously read them my piece of writing from the week before. When I finished reading my piece, the man across from me quietly asked if I could re-read it one more time.

As I read, the group sat in silence, and listened. After finishing my very shaky first attempt at EVER reading personal poetry out loud, I waited anxiously for comments. The man in front of me was the first to speak, and he said to me “Emily, you feel real pain”. How is it possible that the people in my own life very rarely picked up on the severity of the situation I was in, and a man who I met for the first time a week ago picked up on that immediately. For part of the evening, we continued to talk about abuse, relationships, and moving on.  At the end of the program, I was told kindly by the men who listened so genuinely throughout my story, that I had to leave the relationship. This was the moment that I realized I was going to gain so much more from this program than I could have even imagined.

After this eye-opening session, I began to reflect the changes I would start to make within my own life. So when an assignment came up that required us to remember a childhood memory, I recalled a vivid traumatic experience I had as a child. The memory was of my father, and I recalled it like it had happened yesterday. I wrote of fear, and confusion, and resentment- with the innocence of a young child. I then re-wrote the piece a second time, except this time I reflected on the meaning of trauma, the experiences he had that has shaped his life, and the lessons and growth that I could take away from the experience. While seemingly meaningless to most, this was a profound moment for me. For first time, I used my vulnerability, my traumas, in a productive way. After years, I started a journey of healing.

While sparing all of the details, I was able to gather enough strength to leave my abusive relationship. I was accepted to grad school and was planning a move by myself to a new city. I graduated from my undergrad, I pushed myself to experience new things. I began a complicated, at times traumatizing, but incredibly liberating journey of self-discovery.

I had to start over. I had to learn to love myself. I had to be strong. I had to be resilient. I had to vulnerable.

“So, what exactly did 4 federally incarcerated men teach me about vulnerability?”

During my time working with the men, I not only had to come face to face with many of the harsh realities of the Canadian Prison System, but I had to come face to face with myself.

In an environment in which I am supposed to associate with fear, I now had to associate with vulnerability. The critical nature of the study urged me to constantly be self-reflective, to be vulnerable, to open myself up to collective healing (because guess what, healing doesn’t have to be a lonely journey), to make room for forgiveness; especially self-forgiveness. With the help of my peers in the creative writing program, I was able to take back my life. I learned to use my anger as resilience, my doubts as motivation, and my vulnerabilities as strengths.

I have learned that male offenders serving life have incredibly high rates of adverse childhood experiences. I learned that traumatic scars, and perpetuations of gender, especially hegemonic masculinity, has become part of how many incarcerated men view their manhood, and identity. I learned that the prison is an institution that reinforces hegemonic masculinity through dehumanization and punishment of vulnerability. That programs that allow for peer-support and vulnerability work to dismantle the harmful barriers of the gender binary. I learned that healing is not linear, that your experiences matter, that there is power in your voice. I learned how to start over.

Lastly, I’m always asked what it was like talking to convicted life-sentenced offenders, and that is always a messy question. So, in our true program spirit, I will finish off this reflective piece with a self-written spoken word that highlights the lessons I took away from hanging out with 4 federally incarcerated men.

“speak words that water flowers”
I learned that we each have a story,
of love opposing the loveless
of light opposing the darkness
that art can be made out of all the broken pieces
that we push under our beds
shoved into drawers
that our worth is not shaped
by the scars on our skin,
or the cracks in our heart
by the war zone erupting
in the darkness of my mind;
it’s me
against him
against the world
that each word we cry out
deserves to be heard
not shaken in guilt,
or riddled in their words-
like the times you used to scream that
I was the problem
that healing comes in waves,
sometimes hurricanes,
that no one gets to choose
whether we sink
or swim
or come out screaming;
IT
      WASN’T
                       MY
                                 FAULT
That poetry is proof
That the most powerful words
Can come from
The senseless imperfections of a scribble
You
are
Art
Creating
Art
your experiences
your thoughts
your vulnerabilities
have the ability to
grow gardens,
roots
intertwined
with
roots
and that’s when I learned;
To speak words that water flowers

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