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Prison - Our Shadow Writ Large - and Bringing Light into the Darkness

Message Blair Gelbond

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The term "shadow" was first used by Carl G. Jung to describe the repressed or denied parts of the Self:

"The shadow is the negative side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide. [The shadow] also displays a number of good qualities such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc."

Robert Bly offers an image of: "throwing unacceptable qualities over our shoulder into a bag, which we've been dragging around behind us ever since."

Our shadows are all those parts we have split off or denied - the facets of ourselves we are afraid to show - even to ourselves. As long as they remain in this "twilight condition" we are unable accept and own them; consequently, they have no way to offer to us the gifts they secretly possess.

Generally speaking, the shadow has two major functions. First, it is a storehouse for traits that we do not wish to own. Secondly, the shadow acts as a film projector, allowing us to perceive our fears and imperfections outside of ourselves by "transferring" them onto people in the external world.

Thus, criminals tend to be seen as "them" not "us." The well-hidden penal system is where we house these outcasts. But what about the system itself? "Security" functions as a catch-all term for keeping nosy reporters, politicians, and interested persons from discovering what is going on behind the razor-wire fences. Yet, some of us have worked in this system and seen the realities for ourselves. It is not merely that prison serves to "neutralize" the downward spiral of the offender (meeting it with, so to speak, "an equal and opposite reaction," involving remorse); that in itself could be seen as a reasonable initial goal.

The reality is that the policies that perpetuate this system allow prison to be an occasion for the destruction of the human spirit. This can be clearly recognized in the "degradation ceremony." No longer involving physical punishment, these means involve evocation of shame, more accurately termed "toxic shame."

To bring this process to light we turn to Dr. James Gilligan's work, which reintroduced a key concept into the public discourse - "the institutional status-degradation ceremony." This term was originally coined by sociologists Harold Garfinkel and Erving Goffman more than forty years ago in the course of their research, which was devoted to analyzing the dynamics of psychiatric hospitals and other "total institutions." They note the similarity - from a symbolic perspective - of tribal "ceremonial rituals of degradation."

Gilligan takes us inside a typical prison to witness a scene quite reminiscent of those portrayed by Goffman:

"As Garfinkle points out, 'In our society the court and its officers have something like a fair-monopoly over such ceremonies and there they have become an occupational routine.' This occupational routine occurs regularly among prison officers in the admission process for new inmates.

"The central feature of this 'total degradation ceremony' consists of stripping the inmate so that he is naked in front of a group of officers, who then force him [or her] to bend over in the attitude of submission (described as 'presentation' when animals do it), and in addition to spread the cheeks of [their] buttocks so that [their] anal orifice is completely exposed to the group. At that point one of the officers sticks a gloved finger into the man's anus - ostensibly to determine if the man is smuggling drugs into the prison by secreting them there.

"I say 'ostensibly' after having talked with the superintendents of more than one prison and prison mental hospital in the past, that the whole admission ritual, including this part of the ceremony, is consciously and deliberately intended to terrify and humiliate the new inmate or patient, by demonstrating to him the complete and total power the prison or hospital has over him, and to intimidate him into submitting absolutely to the institution and its officers... The symbolism is obvious: it is a digital anal rape. But even before the finger is introduced into the anus, it is a public humiliation. It is a massive assault on and annihilation of manhood.

As ethnologists have long noted... rites of domination and emasculation are not restricted to the human species... [However], men will often kill or assault each other in the struggle to avoid being in a submissive position... [And they tend to] experience an almost bottomless sense of degradation - when they do submit - to the point where effectively, the self has died.

"Garfinkle argues that 'the structural conditions of the status-degradation ceremony correspond to the structural conditions of shame.' But what is the purpose of exposing someone to the maximum possible amount of shame? Garfinkel suggests that such ceremonies serve to affect the ritual destruction of the person denounced. This is our culture's initiation ceremony into the civilization of the damned... the society of dead souls. [Through the] ritual destruction of personality or manhood - the inmate... becomes a non-person or a dead soul."

Gilligan goes on to make an extraordinarily important observation:

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I work as a psychotherapist with an emphasis on transformational learning - a blend of psychoanalytic and transpersonal approaches, and am the author of Self Actualization and Unselfish Love and co-author of Families Helping Families: Living with (more...)

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