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

Cameron House

61 Friends Road

Croydon CR0 1ED




(Tel: (44) 181-688-3773; Fax: (44) 181-688-6135; e-mail: [currently being















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