Making Change Winter 2006, Volume 7, Number 1

"First, we have to understand what anger is," he said. "We were not born angry…. we were born into it. This is a jacket that we wear. But you can take off that jacket," he said, flipping his suitcoat off his shoulders to the applause of the crowd.

IDVAAC 2005 Forum:

Safe Return from prison depends on dealing with issues of anger and control

 

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very year, 600,000 men – 45 percent of whom are African- American – leave the prison system, and seek to reestablish themselves in their families and communities. The challenges that all involved face were the subject of IDVAAC’s July 2005 forum: “Safe Return: Issues in Addressing Domestic Violence Among Men and Their Families from the Penitentiary to the Community”.

Among the questions up for discussion: What support will wives, intimate partners and children need to successfully cope? What strategic alliances can be formed with community-based programs and battered women’s and parole programs to keep women and children safe? And how can all involved address the needs of the men seeking to reestablish themselves in a nonabusive way beyond prison walls?

A dynamic and knowledgeable group of professionals convened at the University of Minnesota campus in St. Paul last July to explore those questions and develop strategies for change. As conference attendees found out, helping those leaving the prison system identify and deal with the anger they feel is crucial to breaking the spiral of violence.

Anger must be confronted

Keynote Speaker Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was both articulate and impassioned as he spoke about his experiences both in and beyond the prison system. Convicted of triple murder and sentenced to three life terms for crimes which he has continually maintained his innocence, Carter spent over 20 years in prison before his release in 1988 after his case gained international attention and suppressed evidence was finally brought to light.

A film version of Rubin Carter's story, 1999's “The Hurricane”, stars Denzel Washington in a gripping portrayal of Carter, with Vicellous Reon Shannon as the Brooklyn teen whose chance encounter with Carter's biography set in motion the events that finally saw justice done.

His story is about anger and violence – the anger he brought to prison and struggled with throughout his years of ordeal, and the violence that being in prison not only creates but requires to survive.

His message is that anger and violence can be overcome.

Carter’s message was received enthusiastically by 300 audience members from departments of corrections, research institutes, faith-based programs and criminal justice and domestic violence programs throughout the United States.

A compelling and inspired speaker, Carter went on to stress that anger does not magically dissipate upon an inmate’s release, and that newly released prisoners and parolees face many challenges, including a strong resistance to control after years of little or no control in a hostile environment. Without support and intervention, that need for control is often taken out on those they live with.

Yet, he reminded his audience that the incarcerated must confront the anger in themselves, in prison, in order to successfully rejoin their families and communities.

“What prisoners need to understand, is that you need to deal with yourself while you are still in prison, and not wait until the prison doors are open to try to straighten yourself up. Because what you are doing is bringing prison outside of the prison and into your home. And that’s where the violence is.”

IDVAAC Steering Committee member Dr. William Oliver suggested that relationship classes be offered to men in prison to help them learn to deal with uncomfortable emotions and to learn how to “negotiate change.”

Support programs make a difference

The theme of dealing with anger, and the need for culturally aware support programs, was echoed by Men’s Panelists Pernell Brown and Warren Edwards, who spoke candidly and movingly about their own experiences in a discussion on the topic “Reentry and Domestic Violence: Issues for Men Who Have Been in Prison and/or on Parole.”

The youngest of 14 children, Brown idolized his gang member brothers and didn’t expect to live past 30. He had friends die in his arms, went to prison for attempted murder, and later, domestic assault. He told conference attendees that it wasn’t until he was introduced to the African-American Parole Program after his release that he was finally able to break the pattern.

“The program didn’t just work with me - it worked with my wife, in the simple fact that she knew who my p.o. was, and we would go to the group together, and anything we had going on, she’d tell the p.o.. he joked. But, on a more serious note, he also said he owes his life to the program.

“Today, Brown mentors other ex-offenders through the program, which is very close to his heart. “To be able to give back to the program where you come from is very rewarding. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Analyzing his childhood in Harlem, Edwards recalled that he never learned “to verbalize what I felt, so it always turned into something physical.” That didn’t change, from his years in the military, where he served time for assault, to a murder conviction, to his efforts to control his intimate partners through abuse and intimidation.

Edwards understands why violence happens, and that issues of control and shame are at the heart of the problem. “All my role models were men in control,” he recalled. “I had been controlled for 10 years in prison, so I wasn’t going to come home and let anybody control me.” Less than a year after his release, he was sent back to prison for domestic assault.

He also spoke about the people who helped turn his life around, through positive reinforcement and by calling on his better self instead of blaming and shaming. “My wife truly taught me what it was to be a man. She told me, ‘You come from kings, and you’re out here beating on queens.’ She saw the potential in me. I never heard that before.”

Edwards also recalled an older man he met at a bar who told him: “You deserve better than this.” At first he didn’t understand what he meant. Now he does.

Women: share you stories, take control

Women’s panelists Benita Presley and Joleen Jones offered insights about how women involved with men in prison or on parole often remain emotionally dependent on, and controlled by, their partners. Both women shared painful memories of years in abusive relationships and their struggles to break free.

Victim advocate and domestic violence consultant Benita Presley not only witnessed her father beat her mother, but endured decades of abuse from several partners who threatened to kill her or her family if she left. She also spoke from her experience about how her imprisoned husband used manipulation and emotional abuse to maintain control of their relationship.

“I felt this obligation to tell him everything that was going on with me so he could feel comfortable being locked up. I was sending him $1000 a month, and spending $800 on phone bills,” she recalled. “He was pimping me from the penitentiary.” At the same time, she believed strongly in her partner’s potential, and felt she could “save” him by always being there for him.

Domestic violence and anger management counselor Joleen Jones cautions that women need to take care of themselves first. According to Jones, women want so much for their men to change, that they believe it to be happening even when it’s clear that it isn’t. But it falls to the women to be strong and to demand the respect they deserve, or end the relationship. In working with women in these struggles, she has seen how talking to other women in the same situation can help.

“Women need to have empowerment. They need to have a supportive system … where they can sit with other women and get information about what’s going on so they don’t feel so alone. It’s such an important key, to let her know and see that there are alternatives.”

 

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