A perspective on long term imprisonment.
I am not qualified to give you specific statistics of the psychological or sociological impact of institutionalisation on a person, but I am more than qualified to illustrate to you the impact that institutionalisation has on a woman serving a long term sentence in prison. I cannot speak for other women: institutionalisation is not the same for every woman. I can only relate my own experience. I have found that institutionalisation is often overlooked by the system. I am worried about how I can ever leave the system that I have come to rely upon.
When I was sent to jail I was more than willing to pay the cost for the crime and continue to do so, I was immersed in a routine that rarely changed and therefore was easily adapted to. The days blend into one another and before long I realized that I had done a few years. If it was this easy, I thought, then surely I would cope with a decade or so-and I did. Twelve years later I no longer see days and days, they are all one long process and the system's routine allows me to do this with ease. The routine allowed me to become mind numbed enough not to care how long I had done and how long I had left to do.
Recently I had an argument with another inmate who told me my co-accused had done twelve years. I disputed that it could have been so long and so did my own calculations. Sure enough, twelve years had passed without me taking much notice. In some ways I think that this is a good thing. If I had taken as much notice of the time as some women do then I believe that I would be mad. But when I started thinking about how I had lost my sense of passing of time, I realized that my progression through the system had really been very slow indeed. It was then that I truly realized that all efforts by the system to push me through had been sabotaged-by me.
The last four attempts by sentence management to send me to a low and open facility had failed because of me. I had come up with some excuse or another and eventually broke the rules within the jail in order to stay where I was. I had to admit that I was institutionalised and began to work my way back through my memories to see what had happened to make me want to stay in jail. I cannot remember when it first began, the process for me was gradual and while I knew it happened to other people I thought it would never happen to me.
I rely upon the system for all my needs, both physical and mental. They tell me where to work, what to wear, what I can eat and, within the scope of the programs run within the system, they can tell me what I may think. My decision-making abilities have been removed and this, along with the strict routine, led me to become almost robotic in my behaviour.
There are other aspects of my life that have become institutionalised. In a conversation with another women I realized that we no longer knew what size of clothing we wore, or our shoe size. I do not know what our currency looks like or how to use new telephones. I have forgotten what it is like to go shopping. Not knowing about these things is as normal for me as it is for you to go down to the shop and buy the Sunday paper.
The most devastating realization for me was that I no longer know my place within my family. I am well aware of my position is within my 'family' in jail but I have no idea of where I sit with my real family. For twelve years my life has been in here and theirs has been outside. My family and I are worlds apart. I find it difficult to have visits and phone calls from my parents because I don't know what life is like out there and they have limited knowledge of life in here. I have lost the respect of my sisters, not because of my crime, nor because of the great length of time I have still have to spend in jail, but because they don't understand why I have done things to remain in prison. Trying to explain why I want to stay is almost impossible. My parents and sister don't understand, although my parents do try.
There are many other incidents that I could relate to you but it would be more beneficial to tell you the effects of spending a great length of time in jail. The routine (while it may be comforting) was the foundation of my institutionalisation, along with the dismantling of my decision making ability. This mentality is becoming a concern now to the system, and of great concern to me. I rely on the system so much now that I do not want to leave a place of incarceration. This is surprising and overwhelming.
The main question that arises is: 'What can we do for you?' I find this amusing in light of the fact that I don't know anymore. I am sure that the system does not want me to have this mentality, nor did it plan that I develop it. But this is a natural process for any who must spend considerable lengths of time in jail.
If women such as myself are to become 'productive members of society' again, changes must be made to help them cope with the outside world. I cannot blame the system for my institutionalisation. There is no other alternative but jailing. But the time to discuss the problem has arrived, and I will continue to raise it until the system makes significant changes to ensure that effective precautions are taken against institutionalisation.
Women are not afforded the opportunity to move from centre to centre as their classification is lowered. Women can go to a farm or to the Helena Jones Community Correctional facility or to Warwick, but there are few opportunities for women to work their way through the system. It is more logical to break up their prolonged reliance on one place. It would certainly help alleviate institutionalisation.
The reinstatement of the Boonah Outlook program for all women would assist in keeping the decision making ability active in women and further build a sense of self which is quickly lost in this current system.
I do not dispute that I should pay for my crime. However I do dispute a system whose job it is to 'correct' my offending behaviour but which replaces this with behaviour which is even more offensive, without trying to develop a program or policy which will decrease my risk of being institutionalised or of returning to secure custody.
The system has recently deemed me a low risk to the community and while this pleases me--because it means that I have conformed--I can't help but wonder if this is because I am so heavily reliant upon the system that I could not function out there by myself. I identify myself, not as an individual anymore but by my place in the system--and it is very hard to see myself differently.
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|Date:||May 1, 2002|
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