WHORE TO MADONNA AND BACK: THE CHALLENGE OF BEING A FEMALE THERAPIST IN A MALE PRISON. Jacinta Pollard and Laura Sorbello Caraniche Pty Ltd, Vic

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1 WHORE TO MADONNA AND BACK: THE CHALLENGE OF BEING A FEMALE THERAPIST IN A MALE PRISON Jacinta Pollard and Laura Sorbello Caraniche Pty Ltd, Vic Paper presented at the Women in Corrections: Staff and Clients Conference convened by the Australian Institute of Criminology in conjunction with the Department for Correctional Services SA and held in Adelaide, 31 October 1 November 2000

2 Abstract Female therapists 1 working within male prisons encounter a range of stereotypes, attitudes and expectations significantly different from those faced by men working within the same setting. By establishing therapeutic contact in environments in which relationships are often seen as suspect, dangerous or inappropriate, all therapists challenge prison culture and prison norms. In such an environment the behaviour, appearance, sexuality and professionalism of female therapists is often brought into question. This paper aims to explore the particular challenges faced by female therapists working within male prisons through qualitative data obtained from Caraniche therapists currently employed in the Victorian correctional system. Guidelines for understanding and managing relationships with prisoners, prison officers and the prison system will be presented which can assist female therapists to strengthen their therapeutic role and maintain their professionalism. 1 The terms "therapist" and "counsellor" are used interchangeably. 2

3 The number of women working within the prison system has increased dramatically over the past decade. The prison system, particularly the male system, is beginning to shift away from the perception that female staff working within male prisons are an unnecessary security risk to recognising the benefits that arise from employing women in male correctional settings. The presence of female staff in male prisons "softens" the prison environment, reduces aggression and provides a better mirror of the general community (Shawver & Dickover, 1986; Horne, 1985). Nonetheless, the majority of female staff, particularly those working as therapists or counsellors, will encounter a range of stereotypes, attitudes and beliefs that impede their ability to work in the correctional environment and need to be understood if they are to be handled professionally. This paper is an attempt to capture the experiences and challenges faced by myself and other Caraniche staff in working as female therapists within male prisons in Victoria. In discussing these experiences, we are attempting to assist other women working within the male prison setting to understand some of the dynamics that impact upon our work and that often seem beyond our control. Most importantly, this paper is attempting to normalise these experiences and encourage women to discuss them with peers or in supervision. A Psychology of Prisons Prisons are entrusted with keeping those individuals that society, via the courts, determines have forfeited their right to live in the community. The community becomes invested in separating itself from these offenders, not only through incarceration, but also by declaring them as very different from most community members. One only has to read media reports of criminal trials to come across descriptors such as "dangerous", "violent" "evil" "threatening" "out of control" "crazed" being applied to all manner of offenders to underline their differentness and the need to punish them. So constructed, the role of prisons is to contain the bad of society, keeping it separate so that it does not harm the rest of us. By labelling certain individuals within society as "bad" and focussing on their perceived difference we are protected from acknowledging the "bad" within each of us and can feel more comfortable with punishing them. Within the prison setting there are 2 distinct groups of people, the "bad" and their "keepers". The prisoners, once labelled and rejected from society, and with few other opportunities, often become invested in their identity as criminals. " At first they are young, usually in their teens. Some, when they go in, still have an innocence about them; they still have the possibilities of youth. Sometimes you get the sense that they are playing at being criminals. But when they come out of jail they aren't playing anymore. They have taken on the identity of a criminal, with regular spells in prison part of the conditions of the job." David Glynn, The Age 6/10/00 Prison officers are the group of people charged with the role of minding the "bad" and protecting the community. They do not have the benefit of walls and razor wire to protect them, hence their only way to protect themselves from the "bad" is to focus on the prisoners difference and to see the prisoners as deserving of whatever they get. This also protects them from the fact that as part of their jobs they have to conduct urinalysis, strip searches and lock the prisoners up which they would find particularly difficult if they identified too closely with the prisoners. 3

4 Prisoners acting out the role of the bad and prison officers invested in seeing the prisoners as very different from ordinary people forms the basis of the "Us versus Them" culture that is a feature of all traditional prisons. In Victorian prisons, the officers have a blue uniform (in the private prisons its black) and the prisoners wear a green uniform. With the uniform comes a set of behaviours, attitudes and beliefs that members of each side adopt and each side is mutually distrusting and suspicious of the other. It is the prisoners role to act out, intimidate, threaten, standover and break the rules or "rort" and it is the officers role to catch them out, to control them and to punish them. Survival in prison depends upon belonging to one camp or the other and to declare your loyalties. Both sides despise members of their own ranks who are disloyal and both officers and prisoners will call perceived traitors "dogs". Interestingly, if you take any prison officer or any prisoner out of the prison context they can usually see beyond the us and them, but within the group setting they remain loyal to their uniform. In this context, operates a third group of people "the civvies" or civilian staff such as nurses, teachers, chaplains and counsellors. The civilian staff are neither "Us" nor "Them", however, most civilian staff rightly view themselves as part of the prison staff team. Amongst civilian staff, therapists are in a unique position. In order to do their job they need to form a therapeutic relationship with individual prisoners, but in order to function within the prison they also need to be aligned with the prison officers. This leaves the therapist with the challenge of being connected with both sides whilst not belonging to either. The therapist who identifies too closely to the prisoners will soon be viewed as a security risk and if not removed, will be impeded in their work and the therapist who identifies too closely with the prison officers will not be trusted by the prisoners and hence cannot provide therapy. Many of the dilemmas faced by prison therapists stem from the delicate neutral territory they attempt to inhabit. One of the most common and yet most challenging dilemmas is when information revealed in the course of therapy may impact upon the security of the prison. Client confidentiality is a key tenet of therapy and in community setting is usually considered sacred, however, therapists in prison are as responsible for prison security as prison staff and must pass such information on regardless of the impact on the therapeutic relationship. Female Staff in Male Prisons The female therapist in a male prison is doubly damned. She not only walks the fine line between officers and prisoners, but as a woman is also "other" to both of them and becomes the subject of male fantasies, attitudes and beliefs. Most of these reflect the attitudes towards women in the general community, but they are heightened and exaggerated in the prison environment. 2 Despite increasing numbers of women working in the male prison system, female staff are still comparatively rare and simply because they are different, naturally attract the attention of both officers and prisoners. Most female staff will be able to describe the discomfort of walking across a prison wing or through a yard and being able to feel all eyes upon her. In the early stages of her employment, the new and unknown female therapist is an object, a blank screen onto which the prisoners and officers will project their own attitudes and fantasies. Whilst often they have little to do with the woman herself, they may be influenced by her physical appearance, age, race, height, weight or dress. These fantasies arise from the men's past experiences with other women both inside and outside the correctional setting, including mothers, wives, sisters, daughters or girlfriends. Some of the most common images 2 These also apply to female prison officers and other female staff working within the male prison environment. 4

5 or attitudes are detailed below. They have been adapted from Etheridge, Hale & Hambrick, (1984) and divided into two categories sexual images and wholesome images, which reflect the extremes of "whore" and "madonna". Sexual Images A predominantly male environment in which the majority are in a state of forced celibacy results in an emphasis on sexuality that becomes focussed on the few women within that environment. This can be quite confronting to female staff as their sexuality is placed under the spotlight in a way that they have rarely experienced before. Once again, because these projections come from the men, some of these sexual attitudes and beliefs will be quite foreign to the woman and difficult for her to understand. They can leave her feeling uncertain and ashamed and confused as to why she would be thought of in such a way. Unfortunately, prisons usually manage the sexuality of female staff by denying it exists. When inevitably it becomes an issue, prisons tend to focus on the woman's behaviour (eg: you wear to much make up, your clothes/uniform is too tight) as the cause rather than seeing it as the product of the unnatural prison environment. This may leave the female staff member feeling isolated and unsupported by the prison and unable to discuss her experiences for fear of being blamed. A far better strategy for prisons would be to acknowledge the dynamics present in the prison environment and train their staff to recognise them and respond to them appropriately. The main sexual stereotype is the whore/tease. The woman is viewed largely as a sex object who is there for the mens' sexual fantasy. She is the subject of wolf whistles, cat calls, and lewd comments. Her professional activities are devalued as sexual. Eg "your only good for a perve" or "I'd love a bit of your counselling". The nature of the sexual stereotype will shift dependent on the woman's response to it. If she is perceived to enjoy it, it escalates, she is further devalued and she loses her professional credibility. However, if she ignores it or responds icily she is a tease, who enjoys tormenting prisoners by reminding them of what they cannot have. Often the best way of handling sexual projections is to get to know both the prisoners and the officers. Once they know you, it is much harder for them to continue projecting their fantasy. Sometimes, simply approaching someone, and introducing yourself is enough to stop their sexualised behaviour. As you become more widely known for your professional work the sexual stereotype will diminish or at least be less openly expressed. Another sexual stereotype is the Lesbian/man hater. This may be triggered by the woman's appearance, particularly if she wears androgynous clothing or has short hair and is a common stereotype when the woman is known to be single, but still rejects the advances of male prisoners or officers. It stems from an underlying belief that women should try to please men, look attractive for them, be available and be flattered by their advances. Rather than viewing the woman's rejection of their advances as an appropriate and professional response the men feel rejected and re-frame it so there is something "wrong" with the woman. Wholesome Images The more wholesome images are those of "good" women. Wholesome images view the woman as a nurturer rather than a professional. Incorporated in these wholesome images the belief that female staff are naïve, gullible and easily manipulated. In effect this means that the ideas and opinions of female staff are less informed and less important than those of male 5

6 staff and in the therapeutic context, that the suggestions of a female therapist can be ignored or discounted by the prisoner. These images are less personally and professionally destructive than the sexual images, however, they still limit the professional standing of female staff. Some of the common wholesome stereotypes are listed below. Mother - older women or more homely women can elicit a mothering stereotype in which they are supposed to be kind and caring, but not intelligent and assertive. Daughter - older prisoners and officers may treat younger female staff like daughters. They may attempt to offer guidance or protection and assume the woman is gullible and naïve. Such a stand also assumes that the woman has very little to offer as a colleague or a therapist. Friend/confidant - Prisoners may share information with you because they see you as a friend rather than as a professional at work. When they see you interacting with other prisoners/staff they may feel betrayed because they had assumed that the support that you provided them was different and "special" compared to support you provide to others. Rescuer/Helper - prisoners often feel disempowered. For many this is because they do not take responsibility for their own behaviour and rely on external motivations and controls. Prisoners may see female staff as their saviours or helpers rather than taking responsibility for their own destiny. The female therapist or officer may unconsciously play out this role, continually preventing the client from rescuing themselves. A stereotype that is neither wholesome or sexual, but is often used to describe powerful women in managerial positions is the "ballbreaker". Such women have authority and are too threatening to openly sexualise, but are also too strong to fit the nurturing stereotypes. These women have the power and authority that is usually invested in a man, and this is seen as dangerous, threatening and emasculating for both male staff and prisoners. It is important to note that these images are partly shaped by the woman, her physical characteristics and her responses to them. In particular, the longevity of these projections and whether they become entrenched attitudes about the woman will depend upon how she responds to them. Whilst some of them are quite unpleasant to experience such as the "whore" or the "tease", others can be quite gratifying such as the "rescuer". All staff within prisons need to be mindful of their responses to such stereotypes and ensure that they do not play a role in reinforcing them. As stated previously, these stereotypes usually have a life in the early stages of the woman's employment and diminish as the woman becomes better known. Any staff member who repeatedly encounters a particular attitude or stereotype needs to carefully examine the extent to which their behaviour, appearance or dress may contribute to them. Whore to Madonna in the Therapeutic Relationship The whore and madonna fantasies whilst applying to all women working within prisons are a particularly common experience for female therapists. The projections, attitudes and stereotypes held by prisoners toward women and their rebellious, anti-social behaviour are less about who the prisoner really is and more about the protective shell that develops in response to a lifetime of rejection, hurt and disappointment. Underneath that shell there is usually a very hurt individual desperate to make an attachment and to form a trusting relationship. 6

7 In the early stages of therapeutic contact, before a relationship has been established, the prisoner still operates from his fantasy and projection in relation to the therapist, as described previously. The therapist, particularly if young, is an object of desire and the prisoner will talk about her to his peers in a similar way to adolescents in a schoolyard. The prisoner may refer to his appointment as a "date" and make apparently lighthearted remarks that suggest the therapist is a girlfriend. The prisoners will often make jokes about "getting some" in reference to having sex with the therapist. Once a trusting therapeutic relationship is established, the prisoner's attitude and opinions of the therapist often shift dramatically. In the context of the prisoners lives, a positive therapeutic relationship is an extraordinary experience. It enables them to have a voice, examines their internal world and provides a level of trust and containment that many have not experienced since childhood, if they have experienced it at all. For many of the prisoners, the relationship provided by the female therapist is reminiscent of that with their mother. It may be an attempt to re-create a positive primary love object or to create the positive experience he did not have with his own mother. As mother, or "madonna" the female therapist becomes the all loving, all protecting saviour. She is all good. Other prisoners, will view the therapist as the "perfect girlfriend", [NB Jung's Anima - combination of madonna/whore with both loving and sexual feelings] particularly if she is the same age or younger than them. Unlike the unknown sex object, the girlfriend transference is based upon the therapeutic relationship and occurs when the therapist becomes an idealised love object and the prisoner believes he has "fallen in love". The prisoner will have a combination of sexual and loving feelings for the therapist and behave in a romantic way, attempting to bring flowers or small gifts to his sessions. Again, the therapist is seen as all good. In this phase of the therapeutic relationship an intense attachment is often established. The prisoner begins to reveal his true self and expose his vulnerabilities and substantial therapeutic work can be done. The prisoner becomes more aware of himself and of his emotions and begins to feel that he is changing. This is a precious time for the prisoner and he often attributes his change to his "therapist saviour". The therapist becomes very special to the prisoner and he wants to be equally special to her. He becomes protective of her, does not want to "share" her and is offended when other prisoners see her as a sex object, in the same way that he once did. This is exemplified by a remark overheard in the yards at Pentridge when a prisoner who was making lewd comments about a therapist was told off by another prisoner with the remark "she's not a woman, she's my therapist". At this point, the prisoner will often seek to extend the boundary of the therapeutic relationship. This may be through declaring his feelings, wanting to know more about the therapist, asking to be friends or requesting contact of a non-professional nature once he is released. From the prisoner's point of view this is understandable, he has found someone that he feels safe with and he wishes to have that in his life permanently. However, this is an important time in the therapeutic relationship for clear boundaries and objectivity on the part of the therapist. She is currently idealised in the eyes of the prisoner and through the therapeutic relationship has come to represent positive qualities such as safety and trust. It is these things the prisoner is trying to incorporate in his life, not the actual therapist. In reality, the prisoner knows very little about her as a person outside of her working role. 7

8 The therapist needs to process the prisoner's attempt to extend the boundary and reinforce the professional nature of her role. This is often experienced as rejection by the prisoner who will feel intensely disappointed and angry with the therapist. The prisoner may act this out by refusing to keep appointments, becoming surly and resentful, or accusing the therapist of tricking or betraying him. The prisoner may devalue the therapeutic relationship and his therapeutic work stating that it was all lies and citing it as evidence that women cannot be trusted. Usually, prisoners do not wish to stay in this angry space for very long and it is essential to maintain the therapy so that these feelings can be processed and the prisoner can eventually understand them. It is clear that the point in therapy when the prisoner attempts to extend the boundary is also a crucial time for the therapist. It is easy to be seduced by the prisoners' idealising transference and to begin to believe that you really are all-important and the only person who can help them. The therapist who fails to understand this will blur the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship, and also disempowers the prisoner by taking all the credit for his therapeutic change. This is harmful for both the therapist and the prisoner on many levels, but particularly because when contact between a male prisoner and female therapist is too friend-like, even though non-sexual, is quickly noticed. This will usually lead to the prisoner being transferred and the woman's professionalism being questioned. It is important to note that male therapists are equally susceptible to blurring the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship in the face of an idealising transference, but this is less likely to be noticed let alone acted upon by the prison. The Prison Response The behaviour of all female staff, but particularly female therapists is closely scrutinised for evidence of inappropriateness and sexualisation. Dress, demeanor and interactions with prisoners are commonly cited as evidence of inappropriateness, but so too is the way the therapist operates professionally. Session times, session length, session location, laughing etc. may also be noted and cited as evidence of an inappropriateness. Example 1 - A therapist was concerned about a depressed prisoner who was soon to be released. She decided to increase his sessions to twice a week to provide additional support. The only times she had available were late in the afternoon. Prison staff became convinced that she had formed an inappropriate relationship. They viewed the additional sessions as her wanting to spend excessive time with the prisoner and the fact that some were late in the afternoon as an attempt to have greater privacy. These concerns were never raised with the therapist, but the subject of much debate when she left the prison service. Example 2 - In one prison the health staff operated from a building in which all the offices had large glass windows that meant there was no privacy. It was standard practice to partly obscure the glass with posters. This was never an issue until a young, attractive therapist was employed. Example 3 - A therapist's session with a particular prisoner ran well over an hour, after which the prisoner emerged from the session red faced. Prison staff were concerned that the prisoner and the therapist had sex. In reality, the prisoner had been in tears for most of his session and did not want to return to the wing until it was less obvious he had been crying. These examples demonstrate how within the prison context with its culture and exaggerated views of women, ordinary therapeutic events are readily interpreted as evidence of inappropriate relationships. Often this arises because of a lack of open communication between therapists and prison staff. It is important for all therapists, but particularly female therapists to be as transparent as possible in their interactions with prisoners. 8

9 Guidelines for Female Therapists Working in Male Prisons Given the culture of prisons and their slow rate of change, it is incumbent on all women working in prisons to be aware of the challenges they are likely to encounter working in the male prison environment. These guidelines are offered as strategies to assist in the identification and management of these issues. 1. Self-examination Women must carefully examine their own attitudes and motivation for working in correctional environments. Whenever difficulties arise it is essential to ask your self "What role am I playing in this?" 2. Discussion & peer support - linked to self examination is the need to discuss these issues with other women, either peers or supervisors. This not only increases the individual's understanding, but begins the process of normalising these issues and educating the prison system about them. 3. Work within the environment - it is important to understand the prison environment and respect the fact that you are entering an environment that has an established culture and rules. Whilst many aspects of this culture are negative and damaging, you need to work within it and work towards gradual culture change. It is important to modify your work practices to fit within the prison environment rather than arrogantly imposing your ideas and beliefs. This will isolate and eventually ostracize you. 4. Dress appropriately Anything that a woman wears sends a message as to how she feels about herself and how she is going to act towards others. Dress that is often appropriate in other workplaces may be interpreted as a signal of availability. Dress should be conservative and convey a no-nonsense image. 5. Be neutral - have positive relationships with both prisoner and officers and don't be seen as belonging to either side. You will get to know the prisoners through your work, but it is equally important to spend time getting to know the officers. Neutrality also means maintaining your professional distance and objectivity. 6. Be prepared for initial negative reactions Anything new to the correctional environment is considered a threat. This is exacerbated with the introduction of female therapists in male-dominated settings. Initial negative reactions are likely to be a reaction to what you represent. These typical reactions may take time to alter, but they are only temporary 7. Confront the stereotypes - don't be afraid to challenge stereotypes and attitudes. Be assertive and direct. Humour can be an important tool for expressing your concerns without creating offence and escalating the issue. 8. Be straight-forward and consistent Be consistent in your verbal and nonverbal interactions with males, as incongruence can be confusing and difficult to interpret. By being upfront and authentic you minimise female stereotypes. 9. Treat clients fairly and impartially The female therapist must not single out certain clients for special favours or privileges. Similarly, she must be aware of how she spends her time and who she is spending it with to prevent a reputation of partiality and favouritism. (Etheridge, et al., 1984; Martin & Jurik, 1996). 9

10 10. Establish the therapeutic boundary - when establishing a therapeutic relationship inform the client of the nature of your professional role and of what you can and can't do. Always describe the limits to confidentiality within the prison setting and your duty of care. Ensure the prisoner knows you will report any information that impacts upon the security, good order or management of the prison. 11. Maintain the therapeutic boundary - the nature of the therapeutic relationship is such that the boundary is easily blurred and confused. Maintain the therapeutic boundary, clarifying any areas of confusion and reminding the prisoner of your professional role when necessary. Pay attention to transference issues and understand the ways in which they operate in your therapy with the prisoners. 12. Transparency in Therapy - Try to de-mystify therapy by helping the officers understand what you are trying to achieve in your work and how you go about it. If you have done something unusual explain why to the officers (without unnecessarily breaking confidentiality) to decrease their suspicions. 13. Self care - therapists are more susceptible to blurring boundaries, losing objectivity and poor judgement when they are isolated, unsupported and run down. Surviving a therapeutic role in the prison environment requires self care. This includes having a balanced life with stimulating interests outside work, maintaining social networks, maintaining your physical health, taking holidays and when necessary seeking professional supervision and debriefing. Conclusion Female staff have an important role to play within male correctional settings. Specifically, the presence of women can bring normalcy, humanness and balance to an often hostile and aggressive setting. However, more importantly, women in male-dominated correctional environments can provide positive feminine images to males within these settings, providing men with an opportunity to observe and interact with them as professionals. In this way, the stereotypical images and attitudes may begin to disintegrate. Presenting positive images depends largely on how a woman conducts herself in the institution. There is no question that there are times when female staff engage inappropriately with male staff and male prisoners. There is also no question that the behaviour of female staff is closely scrutinized and examined for evidence of sexualised behaviour and that through this filter a whole range of interactions can be misinterpreted as inappropriate and sexual. This filter is set up by the role of prisons in society, the unique culture of prisons and the nature of male and female gender relations and creates a climate of distrust and suspicion of female staff. Within this climate, female staff can be isolated, unsupported and confused by the raft of attitudes and stereotypes they are subjected to and the feelings they have in response. Rather, than openly discussing these dynamics, prisons tend to leave the women to fend for themselves and then react by blaming her if boundaries are crossed. A far better strategy would be for the recognition of these dynamics, their open discussion and training for all staff in prisons so that they can recognise them and manage them more appropriately. In addition, agencies who place staff within the prison setting also need to train and prepare their staff for the different work environment and the challenges they are likely to face. This should include professional supervision and support and processes for bringing concerns to the attention of prison management. 10

11 References Etheridge, R., Hale, C., & Hambrick, M. (1984). Female employees in all-male correctional facilities. Federal Probation, 48(4), Martin, S. E., & Jurik, N. C. (1996). Doing Justice, Doing Gender: Women in Law & Criminal Justice Occupations. California: Sage. 11

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