Hand Through Wall
by Thomas A. Lachiusa, Ph.D., LICSW
Over a period of 17 years at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Massachusetts, I have collected comments from violent offenders in my hostility reduction group.
Participant comments and personal reflections are presented here in free verse format. After reading them, you will have a glimpse of what working to change the thinking of violent men can be like. The struggle to control violent behavior is as old as humanity itself. As you will see, it’s a process of moral development.
Hostility reduction programs can lower violent behavior in the facility, and, eventually, in the community. One violent person without treatment can create a significant number of victims in his or her lifetime. Individuals who become pro-violent thinkers need opportunities to process their experience, get new perspectives, and practice new behaviors. Hostility reduction groups focus on helping participants share the struggle and move in the direction of decisions that eliminate thinking errors that promote violence.
The following commentaries and reflections should give some insight into this group experience.
In [a] state prison, a can of soda tipped into a guy’s cell from a cell above
The inmate who lived in the lower cell responded with an out-of-control rage
His anger must have gotten really worked up, and he kept insulting the inmate who
accidentally dropped the soda,demanding very loudly he clean it up.
Later the inmate who dropped the soda dealt with the complainer
With the help of two friends, a metal shank was jabbed into the inmate’s eye
To kill him
The trigger was a dropped soda
That brought on a rage of anger and a verbal reaction
That could not be tolerated in such a hostile prison environment
Where a life is less important than a cultural belief about public respect.
This violent person understands right and wrong at the pre-conventional level of moral development (Kohlberg, 1973), infused with a distorted view of what justice is. The moral belief is that winning the conflicts is the only proof they need to verify that they were correct. People who lose conflicts are losers, and losers can only be correct if they win. The price of winning is something you have to pay, so you can be correct and earn respect. A person may have to die; a family may have to continue without a member; a person’s future may have to change direction.
When I was in the military my friend killed his wife
He was overseas for six months and his wife was hiding an affair with a captain
This kind of thing happens and ends, but in this case it continued after he returned
My friend was really stressed out at work,
One day at work he said, I know something is wrong, I have to go home early
When he got there the captain jumped out the window and ran away
My friend shot his wife in the stomach with a shotgun
After this outburst, she died; he is eligible for the death penalty,and their children were put in state care.
The captain got five years’ time in a military brig.
It is not uncommon to hear inmates state that if people knew the consequences of their actions, it would be a deterrent. In the above situation, if the woman had told her lover that the husband would kill her for cheating, would he really have believed it? Could the husband control his emotions to a level that he could foresee his children growing up without parents? The greater the pain that people feel, the less they care about the results of their actions. This inmate’s conventional level of moral development (Kohlberg, 1973) is further developed than that of his murderous friend. He thinks people should obey the law, because outside forces will hold them accountable. The children in this example lose both parents, and in a functional family, this would not happen. It is an outcome that conflicts with the storyteller’s view of what is right and wrong.
Next is a reflection of a man who had the ability to think beyond his own emotional experience and tolerate a level of personal frustration, only because he put it in perspective.
Minding my business
My roommate is 32 years old
He was upset with me because I did not wake him in time for his class
So angry, that he threatened to fight me so I would not get my parole release.
My first thought was to pull him out of his bunk and beat him up
My second thought was if he gets out of his bunk I will kick his ass
My next thought was I am not going to miss the chance to be with my children in three weeks because of this guy
I put in a request to move him to another cell
He isn’t worth the risk
His problem Isn’t my
Interventions inmates share with each other are ideas they have heard before but have not put into action and practiced over time. The above comments show the way this individual kept readjusting his self-talk until he got it right. He was able to find a non-violent solution and meet his personal goal. Some inmates are so stuck in a mindset of violent solutions that their default setting seems to be pro-violent. Only a powerful thought can counter this pull. Inmates who heard his story determined that his action was being a snitch, because he told an officer about the threat. Inmate culture is not helpful in terms of avoiding violence. The story teller was acting at the post-conventional level (Kohlberg, 1973). His perspective that being with his children is the right thing allowed him to break the social contract of dealing with problems by fighting inmates who are taking advantage of a situation.
In the first eight-week group he would make some comments,
but was guarded and only disclosed at the last class of the cycle that he was having some child custody problems.
He shared how he feels unable to choose between two choices,and neither is in his best interest. He feels that the unresolved anger of his ex-wife is the difficulty
in his ability to have regular if any contact
with the son he has not seen in three years.
At his best he maintained sobriety for five years
At his worst he admitted to holding a gun in his hand
with a plan to kill his wife and then himself.
The memory of how he felt when his father died
was all that stood between his weapon and his victims.
He was eight when his father died,
In his view he didn’t deal with it,
He saw that most of his life problems
have a root in his father’s death
To do the same to his son was wrong,
that important cognition, was able to break through,
the angry feelings that would accept murdering,
to keep the choice of life as a plan to act on
that day, was an act of grace
that he could give.
As a person begins to think in terms of others, and how they are affected, controlling violence is more likely when we truly care about a person or a moral premise. When this inmate could envision the impact to the victim, he moved closer to seeing the whole picture. The goal is for the person to do the right thing because it is right, not simply because it is in his or her best interest. People can do this when they are open to processing the moral dilemma in front of them. At that point, they use a moral decision-making approach to help them face the most difficult challenges of human life. “Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control” (Steven Pinker, 2011). Promoting thinking that will support a less hostile lifestyle and zero violence against women is our primary goal. The potential for a mutually loving relationship grows from an ability to develop mutual respect and conflict resolution skills. This is a theme we brainstorm on a regular basis in groups.
Relationships require conflict to sort out the acceptable and the unacceptable the inconvenient and the destructive
what can be accepted in moderation and what can never be accepted the trust can pass from one to the other
risking trust can engage stability and build
Intimacy The place where relationships grow healing and learning exists open to our self & open to the other learning from peers learning from professionals building trust risking new behaviors trusting in the process making a commitment to do the work If you are not passionate about your commitment Then there is no intimacy
An Inmate List
Argue when you have time to solve the problem In a calm place With a clear head Without distractions After a meal Allow time to get more Information and ideas Get help when you Get stuck Make decisions that are good for The Relationship
When is a problem is solved? When the issue is resolved When the pattern of behavior is changed When the trust is intact When the future is predictable
The question, “How can a person like you help me?” surfaces in every group. Who are you to presume you know anything about why men like me are violent? Developing a therapeutic environment in a group of violent men seems to take about five weeks and addresses the informational and emotional needs of the group. In these groups, the facilitator has to be prepared for the testing and the challenges. The process of group formation can challenge your ability to care about the group members, protect them, and treat them in a fair way. The same issues of control that get played out in their personal relationships will surface.
We do not allow just anyone to challenge us only people we respect can play a part in really changing us How right is their thinking is less important than how much we think they are right about us respect needs time to develop and relationship testing experiences are fatal without the time invested for a strong tie to build
Do they have a genuine concern for our well-being? Do they help us feel needed and valuable, by them and others?Do they help us feel good about our self? Is this a person we will respond to
and follow through with what they verbalize Can they motivate us to do the work to put forth an effort to improve our self
Can we comfortably share positive and the negative about who we are decisions we make information we hide
As inmates try new behaviors and see relationships start to improve, a new door in their life has opened. They begin to see the personal faults they were hiding behind a cloak of denial while they blamed others. The process of moral development requires the debate of moral issues. For some, violence and abuse is a primary tool to assure avoidance of hurt in the future, because they do not have to stop and think. “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” according to Isaac Asimov (1951). Moral development is how we become competent to accept hurt and pain without transforming it into anger.
Asimov, I. (1951). Foundation. New York: Gnome Press.
Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined. New York: Viking, Penguin Group.
Kohlberg, L. (1973). The claim to moral adequacy of a highest stage of moral judgment. Journal of Philosophy, 70 (18): 630–646.
Wilson, D., & Klein, A. (2006). A longitudinal study of a cohort of batterers arraigned in a Massachusetts district court; 1995 to 2004. National Institute of Justice (Grant No. 2004WBGX0011) http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/215346.pdf.
In 1996 Dr. Thomas Lachiusa developed his curriculum and began facilitating groups to reduce the hostility levels of men incarcerated for domestic violence, violent crimes, and restraining order violations. He works at the Hampden County Correctional Center and promotes the reduction of violence in a residential setting. Based on his work with violent men, he has progressed to believe that family violence is the tap root of the behaviors we define as social problems. On a regular basis, he makes presentations on clinical issues and group work, and he teaches corrections and rehabilitation classes. He received his social work training at the University of Connecticut and the University of Southern California.