Violence - a curable disease
This paper summarises the views of WAVE member, Bob Johnson, a psychiatrist at Parkhurst
maximum security prison on the Isle of Wight in England. It was a paper
presented to the 1996 Annual Conference of the UK's "Alternative to
Violence Project" (AVP), and subsequently summarised in the AVP Newsletter.
Bob Johnson took AVP's Annual Gathering through how he brought an end to
violence on 'C' Wing of Parkhurst maximum security prison during his spell
there as a psychiatrist.
His treatment is based on acceptance that "A mature adult is lovable,
social and non-violent"; and "Theories that violence is inherent are
wrong... violence is a curable sickness, a learned behaviour, caused by
emotional maltreatment in childhood... I never met a violent criminal who
had not been taught, and experienced, violence."
The statistics speak for themselves: Before Bob's arrival in July 1991, the
16 violent prisoners on 'C' wing were "controlled" with tranquillising
drugs - treating the symptoms, not causes. By the time of his departure in
1996, he had reduced tranquilliser use from an average 220 gm to 10 gm per
inmate, and violent assaults on 'C' Wing fell from 6 per annum to zero. In
1994 the prisoners reported to the visiting Inspector of Prisons that no
alarm bells had rung in the unit for two years (20 alarms would have been
normal). One prisoner said "This is a wing we are proud of. We enjoy being
civilised human beings."
Bob is firm in the view that any adult showing terror, rage or violence is
at that moment operating infant-logic and infant-strategies in an adult
context, and that, deep inside, they would rather not behave this way,
since basically such strategies do not work, i.e. do not allow the
perpetrators to achieve what they want: "Where your mind won't let you do
what you want, this is a Personality Disorder... the remedy is to 'grow up'
- not an easy remedy to dispense, but quite essential."
Trauma in childhood - physical, emotional or sexual - can 'freeze' the
individual at that age - commonly 3 to 8 years - and produce the reaction
"If that is what reality is like I don't want to know any more." This is
dystraining - from that moment the mind is closed. Any mention of the
trauma evokes terror, further paralysing thinking, and all means
(especially 'mindless' violence) will be used to prevent 'exposure'.
Bob took us through the steps to achieve his remarkable results. Extreme
caution is required (this is not to be attempted by the enthusiastic
layman!). These are personality building blocks, emotional foundation
stones, to be changed and brought up to date in adulthood. Nothing good
will be achieved without first creating an intensely supportive
non-threatening socially encouraging context - in which the individual
SAFELY re-examines the way his personality was put together, replacing it
with a more realistic, up-to-date adult version:
"At first the individual vigorously does not want to know. This is how
matters were left in childhood, and will remain, especially in difficult
cases, unless prodigiously different and more benign social influences can
be brought to bear, and believed in. The task is to persuade the individual
to think the last thing he wants to think - i.e. that the trauma, and its
terror, can safely be confronted and thereby perceived to be out of date,
over, and never to return. Only the individual can make this
transformation, and will not do so if stressed, threatened or patronised in
the least degree. The objective is to identify, and establish a sound
relationship with the adult aspects, so that you and the rest of the group
can work together to diminish the dreaded echoes of terror that still flood
through the victim's mind, warning him or her so loudly of instant
destruction, which you and I now know to be long out of date.
"The beauty of this approach is that it does not depend on accepting belief
in a particular set of values or religious creeds - except that humans are
sociable animals. It opens for violent offenders the possibility that they
too can become civilised, sociable, responsible citizens, which is what
they want to do, deep down, which they certainly would have done had they
had half a chance to achieve it during their childhood training."
Bob says violence is always 1) unhealthy; 2) infantile in origin; and 3)
100% caused by fear, invariably hidden but "crushingly simple when
revealed". He showed us videos of his work with a violent prisoner "Lenny".
We saw - as much by the expressions and changes in Lenny's face as by his
words - how a six-foot three-and-a-half inch murderer was terrified of his
5 foot 2 inch mother. We also saw the changes as Bob brought Lenny to
recognise his own violent behaviour, and fear of his mother, as irrational
and self-defeating, and gave him the courage to face her (now aged 85) and
renounce violence. The parent need not be alive for this catharsis to
Bob's address inspired us to realise that violence is not an essential part
of human behaviour, and that through intelligent application of the right
solutions by committed people and groups, violence can be replaced with
alternative, acceptable behaviour.
Bob is himself a former AVP student who took the Basic workshop in Wigan 5
years ago. He found the objectives clear but the picture of violence
presented not so clear. To him, violence is now quite understandable. He
recommended everyone interested in the subject to read "Violence: Our
deadly epidemic and its causes" (ISBN 0399 13979 6), by James Gilligan.
Unlike Gilligan, however, Bob is convinced all forms of violence can be
cured, given sufficient resources.
Perhaps the first challenge facing us is to find effective, acceptable ways
of spreading the good news of the experience of people such as Bob and
James Gilligan to society in general. The habitual response of "punishment"
of violent criminals, without taking steps to cure the behaviour, is both
unnecessary and a luxury we cannot afford - especially in an era where
technology allows the acting out of violent tendencies to have more massive
consequences than ever before. It is both sad and salutary that Bob had to
work in Parkhurst in an environment of near-hostility from the prison
authorities. He was drafted there in the first place because a psychiatrist
is needed to administer tranquillisers. When he challenged the
categorisation of violent prisoners as "evil" (and incurable), and
suggested they are "emotionally sick" (thus curable) Bob says research
grants were cut off, staff transferred, prisoners with whom he was having
success moved to other prisons and finally, prisoners were refused
permission to join the programme. He resigned in frustration.
The task now is to break down barriers to progress, while accepting that
the people erecting them are behaving with as much validity in their
universe as the violent criminal is in his.
If you would like to help progress to have Bob Johnson's ideas implemented
more widely in our prisons and in society, please write or e-mail to:
Worldwide Alternatives to Violence
61 Friends Road
Croydon CR0 1ED
(Tel: (44) 181-688-3773; Fax: (44) 181-688-6135; e-mail: [currently being
Tel No (Home):........................
Tel No (Work):........................
Return to Main Page