prison cell

 

By Sherrin Fitzer

Imagine being told that for the rest of your life you could not touch another human being.

Well, maybe under very specific and restricted circumstances. Yet others could touch you—in a not so loving way, whenever they wanted, whether you wanted the touch or not.

This is what prisoners are subjected to everyday in our country. Prisoners are not supposed to touch each other. No, not even a hug if your roommate is crying because she was just informed her child died. Not if someone just lost their mother or father or found out their clemency was denied. If someone sees it you could be charged with sexual misconduct.

If you are one of the lucky prisoners who receive regular visits, you can have a hug and a kiss at the beginning and end of each visit; I have seen people holding hands during visits. If children visit and the visit is not behind glass, prisoners are allowed to touch and hold them throughout the visit.

Now, I must be honest. They risk penalties if caught, but prisoners do hug each other. Women have relationships and even manage to have sex—although this is verboten and not something often spoken of.

The normal types of touch that prisoners are subjected to are pat searches, strip searches and being handcuffed and placed in shackles. Staff is not supposed to touch prisoners either. I cannot help it; I violate this rule. If I have just told a woman that her child drowned in a bathtub, I am hugging her. If I am saying goodbye to someone who I have known for the last 12 years, I am hugging them.

Gender figures into this: I am a woman hugging female prisoners.

I could not do this with male prisoners; it would be much more scrutinized and suspect. Similarly male staff at a female prison does not touch women because of the suspicion of sexual misconduct.

I have not worked in a male prison for some years, but I imagine that touch happens less often. Men in our society are not encouraged to touch one another. You know, unless it is that patented man hug that culminates with a slap or two on the back.

I want to clarify that I am talking about prisoners who are in general population. If we bring in the issue of those in solitary confinement this restriction on touch only gets worse.

“Lack of social interaction, lack of sunlight, lack of exercise, lack of visual stimulation and lack of human touch have all been associated with negative health effects.” ~ Huda Akil, co-director of the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute at the University of Michigan.

There are programs in prison that allow some form of touch: Cosmetology and Nail Technology programs, hospice programs and simply even going to getting a hair cut.

This is one of the reasons that I love the service dog program so much.

The prisoners get to pet and hug the dogs. This is true mostly for their trainers. The trainers do, however, bring the dogs to the Mental Health Unit and Drug Treatment Unit on a regular basis. I have met women who have not touched a dog in 20 years. I have trouble even imaging this; it breaks my heart.

People expect prisoners to reenter society and become “normal, productive, contributing citizens.” Perhaps prisons need to be in less dehumanizing environments. Maybe then prisoners can reenter society more physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy.

 

Photo: Aapo Haapanen/flickr

Editor: Alicia Wozniak

 

 

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Sherrin Fitzer

Sherrin Fitzer works at a large women’s prison in the Midwest (a place she never would have expected to be, yet it is exactly where she is supposed to be). She has been involved in teaching incarcerated prisoners since 1991. In addition to helping incarcerated women with their children, she facilitates a theatre troupe and meditation classes. She believes in the importance of the arts in prisons and tries to implement this as much as possible. Sophia—seen in the picture—is often her editor and generally a quite harsh one.
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