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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Relationships at work in the prison system.

The presentation draws on work done in a women's prison with the original brief to 'improve relationships'. The project that was developed used attachment theory to inform its rationale, recognising that prisoners are likely to have disordered patterns of attachment, which make forming stable adult relationships very difficult and that these disordered relationships can be toxic in nature and have a damaging impact on staff (Kurtz, (2005), Ayegbusi (2009)). Staff were inconsistent in the way in which they interacted with prisoners, some taking a softer, parental approach, others a more harsh and authoritarian stance. The different positions in relating to prisoners were seen as reflecting the two (sometimes conflicting) aspects of the primary task - custody/control and care and this presents an ethical dilemma for prison staff. This dilemma is evident across the judicial system but is without resolution. We worked with an hypothesis that the culture of the establishment, predominantly a dependency culture, served to maintain prisoners and staff in patterns of behaviour that preserved the status quo, and maintained the relatively high reoffending rates at the expense of any transformational change (homeostasis). There were several salient features that supported this premise, i.e. constant movement (prisoners and staff), poor communication and instability of senior management. The prison itself served as an 'always available' space to which some women inevitably returned and the way in which relationships operated reinforced this. Prison was mirroring the experience of the prisoners' lives by modelling and reinforcing insecure attachment We thought that systemically this was unconsciously colluded with, such that a blind eye was turned to the multiple issues faced by the women's establishment since these rarely rose to the more publically challenging crisis of men's prisons.There was a strong desire, expressed by the Governor of the prison, to facilitate a culture change where staff would i) adopt a more ethically consistent and professional approach to the way in which they treat prisoners, ii) achieve a consistent balance between control and care and iii) move away from position of prisoners' dependency on staff for support. The Governor expressed a desire for the ethical dilemma - 'care vs. control' to be considered thoughtfully by staff throughout the prison, rather than responding in a reactive manner. Our intervention was designed to promote an 'attachment aware' service (Jeffcote & Travers, 2004) and encourage/develop a capacity for 'robust containment' where differences and disputes could be safely engaged with.The intervention involved three phases of work in the prison and was aimed at staff, with the expectation that there would be a positive impact on prisoners indirectly. We were mindful throughout of the ethical contradictions in the conflicting aspects of the primary task. Ethical deliberation is crucial in a system where professionals exercise power and authority over others and who are authorised to use force or coercion against them. One definition of ethical practice is to recognise the needs and desires of others (Singer 1995). In criminal justice such ethical considerations are relevant to policy decisions such as the balance between rehabilitation or control of prisoners and to management decisions about how establishments are organised and run. This project ended prematurely when a new leadership was appointed and a plethora of staff changes rendered the work unsustainable. The project team experienced sudden dismissal, not dissimilar to that which was observed at different levels of the prison system. The paper will explore the ethical dilemmas faced by the criminal justice system, particularly as it relates to custody of women and will consider whether an attachment aware service might be a proper framework for an ethically coherent system. References Ayegbusi, A. (2009) The Nurse-Patient Relationship with Offenders: Containing the Unthinkable. In Ayegbusi, A. and Clarke-Moore, J. 'Therapeutic Relationships with Offenders: The Psychodynamics of Forensic Mental Health Nursing'. London: Jessica Kingsley.Jeffcoat, N. and Travers R. (2004) Thinking about the Needs of Women in Secure Settings. In Jeffcoat, N and Watson, T. 'Working Therapeutically with Women in Secure Settings'. London: Jessica Kingsley.Kurtz, A. (2005) The needs of staff who care for people with a diagnosis of personality disorder who are considered a risk to others. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology 16(2): 399-422.Singer, P. (1995) quoted in Banks C. (2013) 'Criminal Justice Ethics'. London: Sage.