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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Engaging the Task The Institution-in-Experience

Familiarity often causes the same things to be liked and disliked and thus it sometimes happens that the customs, behaviour, ceremonies and ways of life approved at one period of time grow to be looked down on, and those which were once looked down on come to be approved. So we can see clearly enough that usage is more effective than reason in introducing new things among us and wiping out the old. (Castiglione, 1528, in an introduction to 'The Book of the Courtier') Recently, a prison officer told me he did not want to get in bed with a child molester. This is a sentiment most probably shared by all of us here, but not necessarily at the forefront of our daily consciousness. Why was it for him? What did he mean?I was told this during an interview that was part of a research project I am currently undertaking in collaboration with the public corrections enterprise. In a climate of increased privatisation and competition, the public system is having to move itself from a monopoly position in dealing with offenders, to a totally revised corporate position. Now the system must prove - to the Commissioner's office - that through economic efficiencies and improved outcomes, it is a viable player in the field of containing and dealing with criminal offence.One can only begin to imagine what such a change brings cuts to staffing and finding a 'competitive edge' are two examples. In the language of the system, one thing this means is that the 'incidents' which might cause disruption, which require massive staff input when they erupt into riots or major disturbances, and which draw negative public interest in the system must be minimised. To do this, attention must be given early to initial causes of incidents so that small problems do not escalate into unmanageable anger and frustration. Most importantly, an attitudinal change toward offenders is occurring. The old policy of, 'lock 'em up and don't talk to them', no longer holds. Certainly not as the official line, and, despite many misgivings over the past 5 years, most staff have come to see that a more humane approach has many payoffs in the conduct of a now more liveable institution.To return to the officer I started with, however, it is often a 'big ask' of relatively untrained staff that they take on the new approach through taking up a new case management role with prisoners. But this is where the organisation is headed. Many Correctional Officers are now required to manage a prisoner through his sentence, regularly meeting with him to assess his needs - both offense related and institutionally and personally related - and to suggest programs for him to do whilst in prison, or to monitor his programs whilst on community based orders. (It should be noted that most community corrections staff have traditionally had far more education and training in the case management and counselling role.) Hence the feeling, expressed by this officer. He felt that he didn't want to be one who had to get close to sex offenders. It is hard to take on board the advice of St. Paul - to love the offender and revile the offence - especially when you've had no real professional training, you operate in a system where trust is very hard won and is fragile in the extreme, and you have small children of your own.The point I want to make here, is that the staff within the system, over the past few years, have been required to take on massive change. The major task that they have to do looks to be quite different. How it is operationalised at every level - from the commissioners office, through general managers (govenors), to security officers and case mangers (warders) down to the offender (crims), means that people have to look differently to the way they do things; the way they think about their work; the way they deal with the emotional experiences that are stirred in them; and, the way they know themselves in role. 'You have to know the line that you can't let them cross in you', and, ' you've got to get into their mind without them getting into yours' was the way two officers put it. This is a complex task.