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  • Writer's pictureKaren Law

Should you feel compassion for prisoners?

ACE-Aware Scotland held the third ACE-Aware Nation conference on 1st June 2022. The first was in September 2018 with the international invited guest speaker being Dr Nadine Burke-Harris. In 2019 Dr Gabor Maté was the international guest speaker at the second conference, again attracting over 2000 delegates. You can find videos of all the speakers and more from the first two conferences at the ACE-Aware Scotland YouTube channel.

The theme of this year's conference was Compassionate Prisons. At first glance it does not seem like an enticing topic.

Prisons are for punishment.

Victims of crime are the ones who deserve compassion, right?

Compassionate Prisons: Believing in the transformative power of compassion

1st June 2022

Suzanne Zeedyk, of Connected Baby, introduced the day explaining her vision for Scotland to become the world's first ACE-Aware Nation. She toured Scotland throughout 2017 screening the documentary Resilience. I saw Resilience at Dundee and Angus College in early 2018 and connected immediately with a few others to create Dundee and Angus ACEs Hub. We fundraised to buy our own license to screen Resilience in our area.

The international guest speaker at this third ACE-Aware Nation conference was Fritzi Horstman who was featured in The Wisdom of Trauma alongside Gabor Maté. Having watched The Wisdom of Trauma many times I had learned about the Compassionate Prison Project (CPP) and Step Inside the Circle. So, I knew that the team at ACE-Aware Scotland were going to pull together a fascinating day. I was not wrong.

Conference setting, back of audience heads with speaker in the distance, out of focus

Fritzi and her team had been in Scotland for a couple of weeks before the conference as she had been invited to visit 3 prisons to share CPP with them. Sisco had been partners in organising these visits and the first speaker of the conference was its founder Natalie Logan McLean. She picked up on the question many might have about having compassion for prisoners. She talked about opening a ‘can of worms’ but argues that ‘It’s time to nurture the can of worms.’

Following Natalie, we heard from Angela Constance, MSP, Scottish Government Minister for Drug Policy who told us more about the work the Scottish Government is doing now that they recognise that ‘criminal justice is a public health issue.’

Then Fritzi came on stage. Her first question was ‘When is the moment when we decide a person is no longer human?’

She shared several statistics with us, such as approximately 72% of US prisoners met the criteria for a mental health disorder and that up to 80% of men and women in prison have traumatic brain injuries. She told us that prisons residents are more likely to witness or be involved in violent situations, will die by suicide at a rate 3.5 times the national average, lose approximately 2 years of life for each year confined and that 60% will experience moderate to severe symptoms of PTSD, as well as moral injury.

‘It’s time to nurture the can of worms’

Apparently, the food is not as bad in Scotland as it is in America where food provided is marked not for human consumption. But in general issues are very similar between Scotland and America. Solitary confinement is a major consideration for prison residents. The mental effects are anxiety, stress, depression, hopelessness, anger, irritability and hostility. This will contribute to a recidivism rate in the US of around 65%. Prison populations can typically spend 23 hours a day in their cells. Due to the pandemic many in the general population have also experienced prolonged isolation.

Fritzi told us that Norway has a different philosophy in their justice system where the only punishment is a loss of freedom. Prisoners are still treated like human beings which aids rehabilitation, protects mental health and reduces reoffending rates.

Finally, Fritzi shared a quote on her last slide: ‘If we paid more attention to the highchair, we wouldn’t need the electric chair.’ Really hits home about the importance of Child Protection.

Blue badge with quote from James Docherty "It's everybody'd business to get it right for all our weans"
It's everybody's business...

Following a break, we heard from James Docherty of the Violence Reduction Unit, a driving force behind ACE-Aware Scotland. He believes that the ‘biggest trauma in Scotland is emotional unavailability.’ This is particularly important within the family. Proximal abandonment leaves the child feeling unsafe. We do know how even just one safe person can make a difference to a child’s brain development and mental wellbeing.

Iain Smith came up after James, joking that it's never good to

have to come on after him because he’s such a powerful speaker. But they are a dream team. Iain is a criminal defence lawyer who told us of his journey to become trauma informed. He advocates for his clients to ensure that they have a better chance of breaking the cycle. He argues for preventative justice, saying that we ‘need to build better people rather than better jails.’

Next, we heard from David Abernethy, Governor of HMP Edinburgh. His presentation was entitled Striving for Trauma Informed Prison Services: Context, Challenges and Opportunities. He had welcomed Sisco into his prison as he actively looks for collaboration to aid the recovery of the residents in his care. Many agencies and private businesses are involved in providing activities and services to residents and he continues to look for more. David recognises that ’relationships are as important as breathing’ (Adam Burley CJS).

After lunch Darren Burns came on to tell us about the Timpson Group. He is the national recruitment manager for the business which aims to have truly inclusive workplaces. They actively recruit ex offenders as they believe that ‘giving people a job after prison isn't giving them a second chance, often it’s giving them their first chance.’ He will visit prisons to recruit staff and there are many Timpson training academies within prisons so that prisoners can leave fully trained and ready to work.

Step inside the circle

Close up of blue print on fabric conference delegate bag. "Believing in the transformative power of compassion"
The transformative power of compassion

Fritzi came back on to end the day by asking us to Step Inside the Circle. Obviously, a hotel function room with rows of seating did not lend itself to us standing in a circle. So, she asked us simply to stand for the first ACE we recognised in our lives. Then we would raise our hand for the next one. A considerable proportion of delegates stood up at just the first question: Prior to your 18th birthday, did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? Or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?

Looking at the audience when she finished, Fritzi gauged that 65% of us has experienced multiple ACEs which was to be expected. There are 10 main ACEs that came out of the study created by Dr. Vincent Felitti of Kaiser Permanent and Robert Anda of the CDC. However, it is recognised that there are more. I was glad to hear Fritzi go on to mention other adverse experiences. I believe that anything a child experiences to be traumatic (and cannot confide in a trusted adult) should be considered an ACE. Relationships with safe, trusted adults will help a person to build resilience and heal from the effects of their adversity. I can count 4 official ACEs in my childhood as well as other traumas, but I can be thankful that I also had protective factors in my life.

The original ACEs study, was probably ‘the largest, most important public health study you never heard of’ at one time. It discovered ‘there was a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, as well as mental illness, doing time in prison, and work issues, such as absenteeism’ and ‘more adverse childhood experiences resulted in a higher risk of medical, mental and social problems as an adult.’

Break the cycle

Ending the day Suzanne Zeedyk thanked all the speakers and encouraged everyone to go back to their communities and share what they had learned. People have been learning more about ACEs over the last 4 years and are eager to be involved in change. The transformative power of compassion benefits us all but will be particularly important for the prison population. It is clear from this conference that most, if not all, residents enter the justice system with multiple ACEs and often end up more traumatised by the system. They get trapped in a revolving door. Those working in the system are also detrimentally affected often adding to the load.

pic of the ACE-Aware Scotland delegate badge on the lanyard, with logos of partner organisations: Tigers, Sisco and Connected Baby
delegate lanyard

There is a popular quote by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

We know why they're falling in now. So, we can break the cycle.

Get in touch if you would like help breaking the cycle in your family.

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