Prisoner Self-Help

tools for healing, changing, growing

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

China phasing out prisoner organ harvesting

Last week Chinese health officials have been quoted as saying that the use of organs from executed prisoners for transplants will be gradually phased out over the next five years.

China carries out the largest number of prisoner executions every year of any country in the world – the actual figures are not known but Amnesty International estimates that they far exceed the number of prisoners executed by all other countries put together.

Voluntary organ donations are currently scarce in China for cultural and religious reasons, and a huge number of people are waiting for transplants. Chinese officials have said that death row prisoners volunteer to give their organs but human rights groups believe that prisoners are pressurised into agreeing to this.


Escape of a woman on death row foiled

Two men, including a former prison staff member at Tennessee Prison for Women, were charged yesterday for the alleged escape plot of Christa Gail Pike, 36.

Pike was sentenced to death by electrocution in 1996, for the murder of a fellow student, Colleen Slemmer, who she suspected of trying to steal her boyfriend. She was 18 at the time of murder and 20 at the time of conviction.

Justin Heflin, 23, a correctional officer at the prison, Heflin, was arrested by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and charged with bribery, conspiracy to commit escape and facilitation to commit escape. Donald Kohut, 34, an acquaintance of the killer who frequently visited her, was arrested and charged by New Jersey State Police with bribery and conspiracy to commit escape.

Christa Gail Pike is the only woman currently on death row in Tennessee. During her time in prison she was also charged with attemted murder for strangling a fellow inmate with a shoelace in 2001.

As of December 31, 2011 there were 58 women on death row in the Us. This constitutes 1.8% of the total death row population of about 3,250. In the past 100 years, over 40 women have been executed in the U.S, including 12 since 1976.


Death Penalty Information Centre

Jail Life

From Hurt to Wholeness

by Michael Mallows

Hurt – Hate – Hope – Healing – Wholeness

Inevitably,  the elements overlap and intertwine, and no matter how hard we’ve worked, or how far we’ve come, it is always possible to relapse, which doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to start over!

Hurt is the pain we carry, like a burdensome thing, as a result (or so we tell ourselves) of our past; all the betrayals and abuse, the rejection and ridicule, the physical assaults, all psychological as well as psychic blows. And the shadow of the past might be very long indeed because it probably echoes not only our own childhood, but that of our parents and grand-parents, and beyond.

Hate is usually externalised in our contempt and disdain for others. We talk to or about the bosses or bullies who have caused us distress. We build walls against people who are different, we treat children with disrespect, we betray the partner we cheat on. Blaming them (or our past) is a smoke screen for the deeper hurt and the greatest hate – that we are out of love with who we think we are, as evidenced by the countless ways in which we treat ourselves unkindly or even dangerously! In short, when ever we treat others in ways that demean or degrade them, we reveal how we really feel about our selves! 

Hope by definition, hope is wishful thinking; if we have it already, hope is redundant! We hope for something that does not yet exist. When we focus on what’s wrong with other people, hoping they will change so that we will feel better about ourselves, we are not paying attention to our own faults and failings. This is hardly surprising if we don’t really like ourselves very much, which is evident in the way we deny and delude ourselves that the problem is caused by other people – past or present – and we are only the effect. If we have nor resolved, let alone recognised how our sense of self is riddled with feelings of inadequacy, hurt and hate, then hope is already contaminated.

Healing will only truly start when we recognise our meanness of spirit – to self and others, when we acknowledge our spiteful thoughts and gossip, when we admit our narrow minded prejudices, when we take responsibility for our vindictive acts and attitudes.And we can heal deeper wounds if, in the moment that we hurt the most, when we believe, and others agree, that we would be perfectly justified in retaliating, in seeking revenge, in hitting out with words or actions, in getting our own back by making others suffer, if, in that moment we choose not to seek vengeance or retribution.In that fleeting moment, even though we are hurting, if we go against the habit of hurting back, we have transcended the terrible weight of personal and collective history.We have chosen to act from a wellspring of love (even though we might still feel hateful), and to create a little and yet a vast space into which we and others might choose to grow.

Wholeness requires that we include rather than exclude other people, even if they are not as we would wish them to be. We treat them as we would like to be treated and would treat ourselves if we were filled with self-validating self-esteem. In this place, we become exemplars of the way we’d like to world to be. We stand as the possibility of love where, all too easily and all too often, we have previously been willing to hit out, to hurt, to hate, ‘just to teach them a lesson’! The lesson they learn when we pass on our hurt and hate is hopelessness in a bleak world because what we do is what we teach. And everything we do says who we think we are! If the above does not apply to you, you might anyway find it a useful frame of reference when you listen not only to what people tell you, but what they don’t say.

Michael Mallows is a psychotherapist, supervisor, trainer, consultant, author and expert on adoption. He is developer of SET (Social Effectiveness Training) and CRAFTY Listening. 

Simple Relaxation

by Masha Bennett

One of my favourite relaxation techniques is the so-called “Betty Erickson Induction”, which is really a type of self-hypnosis approach that relies on using our senses to induce relaxation. It is used by some hypnotherapists to help a client go into relaxing trance, and also overlaps with some aspects of Mindfulness.

When I worked in a women’s prison, I taught this technique to many of the girls suffering with insomnia. Clearly, a prison is not a tranquil or relaxing place and sleep problems are really common. The women found it helpful, especially as the technique incorporates noises or sounds in the environment into the process of relaxation.

So, to start off, sit or lie in a comfortable position, and begin to notice what you can see, hear and feel.

1. Say to yourself gently:

“I can see… [name any object in your field of vision]” and repeat for 5 different objects, for example:

“I can see a window”
“I can see a wall”
“I can see a lamp”
“I can see a book”
“I can see a radiator”

2. Then say to yourself:

“I can hear… [name any sound you can hear]”
and repeat for 5 different sounds, for example:

“I can hear the ticking of the clock”
“I can hear traffic outside”
“I can hear my breathing”
“I can hear a door creaking”
“I can hear the wind”

3. Then say to yourself:

“I can feel… [name any feeling or sensation you experience]”
and repeat for 5 different sensations, for example:

“I can feel tension in my shoulders”
“I can feel my feet on the floor”
“I can feel my tongue in my mouth”
“I can feel heaviness in my limbs”
“I can feel my hand on my lap”

4. Repeat the sequence, this time naming only 4 things you can SEE, 4 things you can HEAR, 4 things you can FEEL. The pictures/sounds/sensations can be the same as last time, or different – it doesn’t matter.

5. Repeat, naming 3 things you can SEE, 3 things you can HEAR, 3 things you can FEEL

6. Repeat, naming 2 things you can SEE, 2 things you can HEAR, 2 things you can FEEL

7. Repeat, naming 1 thing you can SEE, 1 thing you can HEAR, 1 thing you can FEEL

By now, if you are not asleep yet, you should feel more relaxed and with much less “chatter” in your mind. If needed, you can repeat the procedure more than once.

This technique can be used for insomnia as well as general relaxation in stressful situations, e.g. in a waiting room before an interview or meeting, during a test or an exam or when preparing for a difficult conversation. Please make sure you do NOT practise this technique whilst driving or operating any machinery, as it can quickly make some people  feel very sleepy!

Masha Bennett is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and a trainer of EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques). She has worked for a number of years within the criminal justice system, including running a drug rehabilitation programme in a women’s prison, and currently combines work in the UK National Health Service with her private therapy and training practice. Masha teaches EFT, trauma awareness and self-help tools to professionals and general public across 10 countries in Europe, Asia and Middle East. Her website is

Do I have an eating disorder?

by Deanne Jade

If you had an eating problem before going to prison, the stresses of prison life could potentially make it worse. Research suggests that female prisoners are twice as likely to have an eating disorder as women in the general population  – it has been estimated that up to 5% of women in prisons have obvious severe eating disorders, and it is suggested that up to 25% may be at risk, less severely affected or hiding their problems; in my recent visit to one prison I found that the prevalence of bulimia was 70%! There is very little information on eating disorders in male prisoners available at the moment, but it does not mean that men are not affected – they are less likely to seek help so true figures of men suffering with eating disorders are not known; it is likely that men with alcohol problems could be more prone to develop eating problems.

There are broadly speaking three types of eating disorder: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder. An eating disorder is not an illness like measles. It is not something that you either HAVE or DON’T HAVE. Most women and many men are concerned with what they eat and how they look, and many people do strange things to control their weight.

People with an unhappy relationship with food do not necessarily fit neatly into the three main categories of eating disorder. Some people have features of all these problems and some people start with one disorder and then evolve into the other.

The Three Dimensions Of Eating Problems

Whether or not you have an eating disorder depends upon how you are functioning in three significant dimensions.


  • How are you THINKING about food, eating, your weight and your body?
  • Do you obsess about everything you eat or what you weigh?
  • Do you have bad thoughts about yourself as a result of your eating habits?
  • Do you compare yourself constantly to other people?
  • Do you have a lot of very strict rules about what you should or should not be eating?


  • How do you feel about your eating habits?
  • Is there a lot of guilt, anxiety and fear?
  • Do you feel fat even though others say you are okay?
  • Do you hate yourself for what you put in your mouth?
  • Are you scared of eating normally?
  • Do you feel helpless around food?
  • Are you depressed and anxious a lot of the time?


  • How do you behave with food?
  • Do you eat normally in front of others and binge in secret?
  • Vomit or use laxatives?
  • Are you always either on or off a diet?
  • Do you gorge certain foods or exercise excessively to control your weight?
  • Do you keep on eating when you have had enough or starve because you are afraid that you would never be able to stop eating once you had started?
  • Do you jump on the scales whenever opportunity arises?
  • Are you always on or off a diet?
  • Do you take slimming pills?
  • Do you feel that your behaviour is not normal – even perhaps dangerous to your health?

Where behaviour is concerned, many people lose sight of what is normal. They are so used to doing these things, they don’t remember what it was like to enjoy food and look forward to eating. Some people who behave dangerously with food are in denial about how serious their problems really are. But some people who have a serious eating disorder think they have no right to seek help because they aren’t “bad enough”.

What Kind of Eating Problem Do I Have?

If you…

  • Overeat in secret, either all or some of the time
  • Feel that your eating isn’t normal
  • Feel guilty about what you have eaten and feel like a bad person
  • Are constantly trying to lose weight or prevent yourself from gaining weight and ultimately failing
  • Think and anguish about food all the time
  • Feel out of control around certain kinds of food or any food.

…you are probably suffering from BINGE EATING/COMPULSIVE EATING

If in addition to the above you are…

  • Normal weight or slightly overweight and you vomit, or take laxatives to get rid of unwanted calories whether you have binged or not

…you are probably suffering from BULIMIA

If you are…

  • Normal weight or underweight and feel fat or are terrified of weight gain
  • Very fearful of eating
  • Hearing a voice telling you to keep eating less
  • Vomiting or taking laxatives after normal meals, snacks or any binge

…you are probably suffering from a form of ANOREXIA.

Eating disorders are extremely distressing and can be damaging to heath, and anorexia can be life threatening. If you recognise yourself in the above descriptions, please seek support. Expert psychological help in relation to eating disorders may be hard to access while in prison, but do speak to a member of staff you can trust who may be able to investigate what’s available for you.

Sources of information and support

National Centre for Eating Disorders

Beat – the leading UK eating disorders charity offering informaiton resources and support

First Steps Derbyshire – UK charty which has a prison outreach project

Deanne Jade is a psychologist and one of the first eating disorder specialists in the UK; she has over 30 years of experience as therapist and trains practitioners in working with issues such as binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia, and obesity. She is the Director of the National Centre for Eating Disorders

The Writing Ritual

by Andy Hunt

Writing thoughts and feelings about trauma or crises for as little as 15 minutes a day for as few as four or five days has been shown to be correlated with:

  • Improved mental and physical health of prisoners, students, people in nursing homes, rape victims, arthritis patients,  and new mothers.
  • An increase in T-cells (immune system functioning)
  • Increasing the likelihood and rapidity of getting a new job for people who have been laid off 
  • Far fewer visits to the student health center for college students
  • Improved exam results
  • Reduced anxiety and depression

How to do the writing ritual

Write honestly and openly about your deepest feelings and thoughts about the situation you are in or went through. Try to make sure you keep these writings private (though of course in prison it may be difficult or impossible to do so) or you may find yourself unconsciously censoring what you write and diluting the effects of the writing . Consider destroying what you wrote after it is complete, again for the same reason.

Write for a relatively short time, say 15 minutes. This writing is often draining or emotionally difficult. Limiting the time makes it both a bit more tolerable and more likely that you will do it. Write for only four or five days. This time limit seemed to work very well in the experiments that were done. They are not carved in granite, however, and if you find you need more time, you can take it. One of the points of this limit of a few days is again to contain the experience so it doesn’t take over your life.

Try to find both a private time and place to write, ideally when you are less likely be interrupted (though again this may be challenging in prison setting). Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or getting it right. Just write. During the writing days, try to use the same time each day or evening to write. It’s not crucial, but it can sometime give your unconscious mind some structure and preparation time if it knows exactly when the writing will take place. This can also help contain the emotions and intrusive thinking that may occur.

Ignore these guidelines if you discover something else works better for you. Everyone is unique.


Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, James Pennebaker, NY: Guilford, 1990.

The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being, eds. Stephen J. Lepore and Joshua M. Smyth, APA: Washington, DC, 2002.

Bill O’Hanlon, M.S., Possibilities, 551 Cordova Rd., #715 Santa Fe, NM –,

Andy Hunt is a therapist, advanced practitioner and trainer of EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) and master practitioner and trainer of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming). His website is

Prisoners and Psychological Trauma

by Masha Bennett

Psychological trauma occurs when a person experiences a traumatic event, which usually involves a threat (or perceived threat) of death or serious injury to themselves or others. The common emotions the individual may feel in these circumstances involve fear, helplessness, shock or horror.

Traumatic experiences could include: road traffic accident, natural disaster, rape, assault, robbery, childhood abuse, combat situations, domestic violence, terrorist attack, torture, diagnosis of a terminal illness, traumatic bereavement and others.

Some people can feel traumatised following events that do not directly threaten life but are nevertheless shocking and deeply upsetting, for example, being made redundant, finding out that their partner is having an affair, having their home re-possessed, losing a beloved pet, being bullied, humiliated, criticised or blamed. Whist these events may not satisfy the “official criteria” for trauma, it is important to acknowledge that they could have a profound and lasting effect on our lives and that sometimes we may need help to deal with these “mini-traumas” – especially if we experience a number of these in our lifetime.

In the context of criminal justice, being arrested, charged, put on trial, incarcerated are potentially traumatic experiences that could exacerbate any existing trauma-related condition. Prisoner’s family members can be left traumatised directly or indirectly. Many prison staff are affected by incidents such as suicide attempts, assaults and other events that are not an uncommon part of prison life.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is diagnosed if the person who has experienced the traumatic event, continues to suffer the following symptoms after a month or longer after the event:

(a) Intrusive thoughts, flashbacks or nightmares, where the traumatic event is re-experienced; sometimes re-enacting the traumatic situation.

(b) Avoidance of people, situations or things that might bring on their intrusive symptoms (this may include self-medicating with alcohol or drugs in order to numb the feelings)

(c) Hyperarousal – physiological signs of increased emotional arousal, hypervigilance (constantly looking out for danger), increased anxiety or irritability,  increased startle response.

An article by Claudia Baker, PTSD and Criminal Behaviour, quotes figures from research (presumably conducted in the US), indicating that among incarcerated populations PTSD has been found in approximately 48% of females and 30% of male prisoners, which does not surprise me (in fact I am guessing that these figures may be under-estimated). On the other hand, a review of literature by UK psychologists Goff et al.  in 2007 quotes figures of between 4 and 21% PTSD in prison population –  which to me seems to be an unrealistically low estimate, though the authors do acknowledge that women are disproportionately affected.

If my own experience of working with prisoners and hearing their life stories is represetnative, a very significant proportion of them have suffered not just a single traumatic event, but multiple, often chronic trauma, typically going back to childhood, and whilst it is important to acknowledge that traumatic experiences in themselves would not necessarily lead all sufferers to break the law, Claudia Baker’s article gives some examples of circumstances when trauma can be directly or indirectly linked to a criminal offence.

Effective treatment for trauma and post-traumatic stress is rarely available in prisons, and incarceration itself will often exacerbate the distressing symptoms. Current research evidence favours treatments such as CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing), and evidence is also building up supporting the use of approaches such as EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), creative therapies (art, music, sandplay, writing, drama therapy), body-oriented psychotherapies (e.g. Sensorimotor therapy, Somatic Experiencing) and certain forms of hypnotherapy. In my clinical experience, each individual is unique and requires a unique approach, with no single technique or therapy being a solution for all.

Masha Bennett is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and a trainer of EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques). She has worked for a number of years within the criminal justice system, including running a drug rehabilitation programme in a women’s prison, and currently combines work in the UK National Health Service with her private therapy and training practice. Masha teaches EFT, trauma awareness and self-help tools to professionals and general public across 10 countries in Europe, Asia and Middle East. Her website is

Some sources of information and support

UK Trauma Group

Combat Stress (UK)

The Long Boat Home – directory of UK therapists offering reduced-cost treatment to ex-servicemen and women

National Center for PTSD (US)

Iraq Vets Stress Project (US)

David Baldwin’s Trauma Pages

Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture

Gift From Within – International organisations for victims of trauma and victimisation

Women’s Day Behind Bars

by Masha Bennett

On the international Women’s Day 8th March, I have been reading some sobering facts and statistics about women in prisons. A few years ago I managed a drug rehabilitation unit at Her Majesty’s Prison Styal in Cheshire, and the repeated mention of this prison in the press was especially poignant for me.

  • Incidents of self-harm among women prisoners are increasing – 10,446 cases in England during 2009, rising to 12,663 in 2010. Analysis by Women in Prison estimates that the figure is likely to rise above 13,000 – more than 35 a day.
  •  There are 4,100 women in prison (5% of all inmates in England and Wales), yet they account for almost half of all self-harm incidents.
  • The average literacy and numeracy level among women in prison is comparable to a young child at secondary school. Only 39% have any qualifications at all, compared to 82% of the general population.
  • 70% of women prisoners have two or more diagnosed mental health issues.
  • The average cost of a woman’s prison place is £43,000 per year, compared with an intensive community order that costs £10,000-£15,000 and delivers significantly lower reoffending rates.
  • Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons and a former chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, following his recent visit to HM Prison Styal said that the plight of women inside Keller Unit (which accommodates the most vulnerable prisoners) “more shocking and distressing than anything I have yet seen on an inspection”.
  • 37% of all women sent to prison say that they have attempted suicide at some time during their life
  • 66% of women prisoners are mothers, and approximately 17,700 children are separated from their mothers each year through imprisonment
  • Foreign national women  form 1/7th  of the prison population in England and Wales are disproportionately frequently sentenced to prison sentences for non-violent, non-sexual and non-robbery offences – 15% of foreign nationals are serving sentences for serious crimes compared to 41% of UK nationals, with the remainder imprisoned for less serious offences for which non-custodial sentences could be more appropriate
  • 66% of sentenced women in prison say there were either drug dependent or drinking to hazardous levels before custody
  • One in four women in prison has spent time in local authority care as child
  • The Chief Inspector of Prisons’ report following his visit to Styal states: ” The deaths of six women at Styal prison between 2002 and 2003 led to the commissioning of the review of vulnerable women in prison by Baroness Corston. Published in 2007, it recommended a drastic reduction in the use of women’s imprisonment. It was therefore disappointing to find too many cases of women, some of whom are clearly mentally ill, serving very short prison sentences which served little purpose except to further disrupt sometimes already chaotic lives.”

The Guardian article from which I borrowed some of the above information, detals some truly harrowing examples of the level of distress and mental health issues that many of women prisoners are experiencing.

The charity Women in Prison believes the majority of women should be dealt with in the community in programmes specifically designed to meet their needs. Imprisonment should be used only in cases where women pose a threat to public safety. Prisons, for these women, should be small local units in urban areas offering a range of services including in-reach by community health, housing and social services and enhanced opportunities for keeping in touch with family and other support.

Masha Bennett is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and a trainer of EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques). She has worked for a number of years within the criminal justice system, including running a drug rehabilitation programme in a women’s prison, and currently combines work in the UK National Health Service with her private therapy and training practice. Masha teaches EFT, trauma awareness and self-help tools to professionals and general public across 10 countries in Europe, Asia and Middle East. Her websites are and


Women Prisoners – Facts & Figures

Women’s Prisons in desperate need of reform, says former governor. The Guardian, 11 February 2012

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