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Prison Can’t Prevent Domestic Abuse. Transformative Accountability Programs Can.

Prison is a trauma-producing institution that does nothing to prevent those who have used violence from doing so again.

One of the central tenets of the movement to end intimate partner violence is accountability: the idea that people who use violence should be held responsible for their actions. For many in the movement, accountability has been linked to intervention by the criminal legal system. Some anti-violence advocates have argued that those who used violence could best — or only — be held accountable through prosecution, conviction and incarceration.

But few in the movement have paid attention to what happened after people who used violence were incarcerated. They fail to recognize that prisons offer little programming for those convicted of intimate partner violence and that what programming is offered is often unevaluated or substandard (like much of the “batterer intervention” programming offered outside of prisons). These advocates settled for a passive accountability, believing that simply sitting in a prison cell is sufficient to change behavior or decrease dangerousness.

This hope is undermined by the numerous accounts of people who have been incarcerated repeatedly for intimate partner violence and have increased their use of violence against their partners after being released. The social science data is clear that criminalization is neither decreasing nor deterring intimate partner violence. Prisons are warehouses, keeping people out of society for periods of time during which they are exposed to trauma, trauma that they bring with them back into their communities and relationships. Criminalization exacerbates the correlates of intimate partner violence, including trauma and economic distress. Prison, in and of itself, does nothing to prevent those who have used violence from doing so again, and instead, actually makes it much more likely.

Recognizing my (Floyd D. Collins) own need to confront and be accountable for the violence that brought me to prison and the lack of resources available to do this work, I created Awareness Into Domestic Abuse (AIDA) in 2014. I see myself as a recovering abuser whose ongoing transformation has led me to a point of growth, responsibility and accountability.

On October 18, 1996, I murdered Demetria Yates, my child’s mother. At the time, I used Demetria’s sleeping with a friend as justification for my action.

During the early years of my incarceration, I was not a person of integrity. I chose to engage in activities that served only one purpose: instant gratification. This could be possessing an illegal cellphone or selling contraband, such as tobacco. Whatever I chose served a purpose in the moment to fulfill an unmet need. Being in prison for murder, I had no hope of ever getting released, and my behavior and actions reflected my hopelessness. I received numerous rule violations for possessing cellphones, participating in riots, refusal to report to work, and more.

In 2013, however, I was transferred to a lower-level security prison. CTF Soledad was the first level 2 institution I ever set foot in (prior prisons were maximum and medium security). In 2013, I met a woman who challenged me to want better for myself. I enrolled in college, participated in self-help groups. I started to like myself. By 2014, a shift had taken place within my mind: Instead of blaming others for my incarceration, I began to question why I had murdered Demetria. I recognized that my choice to commit murder was a product of my own insecurities, low self-worth, jealousy, and the loss of power and control.

From that point on, I vowed to be nonviolent, respect all women, and help myself and other men become aware of their distorted belief systems. My purpose changed from self-preservation to being of service. My living amends to never hurt another human being brought me to a path of clarity and then to a calling — Awareness Into Domestic Abuse.

I created AIDA in 2014 while incarcerated at CTF Soledad. At the time, there was no such self-help programming directly related to intimate partner violence available in the prison system. Wanting to address my own character defects and distorted belief system, I began doing self-analysis and learning what I could about domestic violence.

I put together a team of five men who all had a history of domestic violence or had committed a crime involving an intimate partner. In 2014, AIDA began running self-help groups. AIDA has since expanded its curriculum from offering process groups at CTF Soledad to correspondence courses that have been requested by every institution in the California prison system. AIDA also has participants who have completed the course in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Prison, in and of itself, does nothing to prevent those who have used violence from doing so again, and instead, actually makes it much more likely.

AIDA’s curriculum is designed to get participants to look within and challenge some of the distorted beliefs that allowed them to see violence and abuse as remedies to solve their perceived problems with their partner. AIDA has shattered the once-taboo culture of men refusing to be vulnerable and share their hurt and pain. Seeing other men interested in learning what domestic abuse is and speaking about how men have perpetrated such acts is eye-opening. A majority of men who enroll in AIDA felt/thought that domestic abuse was only physically hitting a woman. They are surprised and enlightened to learn about the many other forms of abuse. As Vince Rivera, a graduate of AIDA incarcerated in California, writes, “As I spent more time in conversations regarding domestic abuse, I realized I was extremely abusive. I created terror with somebody I said I loved. AIDA has been a major factor in my way of being towards women.”

AIDA’s curriculum covers much of what many intervention programs cover: forms of abuse, the impact of abuse on victims, identifying personal triggers, developing strategies for responding to conflict and accountability. But AIDA is still a work in progress. The curriculum relies on outdated thinking about how violence occurs, focusing heavily on Lenore Walker’s cycle of violence rather than using more current concepts, like coercive control (most fully articulated by Evan Stark), or orienting around the Power and Control Wheel, a popular visual representation of physical, sexual, emotional, economic, and other forms of abuse. In part, that is because the state of California was still using the cycle of violence in its materials, which I relied upon in creating AIDA — an indication in and of itself of the problematic lack of up-to-date programming on intimate partner violence in the prison system.

Over the past year, we have talked about any number of topics, including AIDA, Collins’s past and his relationships with family, what Collins is reading and studying, Goodmark’s work with criminalized survivors of violence and her teaching.

Developing a relationship with Floyd required me (Leigh Goodmark) to live my work in a concrete way. I have written that criminalization does not decrease or deter intimate partner violence and that incarcerating people who use violence is both an inhumane and ineffective way to address that violence. But before we met, I had done little work with men who used any violence, let alone deadly violence, against their partners. Through our conversations, I have come to appreciate in a deep way that Floyd understands and can convey ideas and information with an authority and authenticity that I simply cannot have. That he has chosen to do so in his work with incarcerated men with histories of intimate partner violence is a gift to them and to the communities and families to which they will return.

The research shows that experiencing trauma is highly correlated with the perpetration of intimate partner violence. Creating effective anti-violence programming, therefore, requires that we hold two difficult ideas at the same time — that people both can use violence against their partners, and that they have experienced trauma that needs to be processed.

Some offender intervention programming embraces this concept. The Strength at Home Men’s Program, for example, works with combat veterans who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have used violence with their partners. PTSD is not an excuse for their violence, but it does help to explain why they have become violent, and processing that trauma is a key to preventing further violence.

Similarly, AIDA is working within the confines of a trauma-producing institution — the prison system — to help incarcerated men process that trauma so that they do not bring it with them back into their relationships upon release. Programs like AIDA and Success Stories — another program that originated in California’s prison system, which uses the work of feminist writers like bell hooks to help incarcerated men interrogate their use of violence against partners — understand the importance of giving men an outlet for discussing their experiences of violence while holding them accountable for that violence in a constructive way, one that enables enrolled men to hear and incorporate that learning into their lives.

We believe strongly in prison abolition. But we recognize that there is much work to be done now, while people are still incarcerated and will be released into their communities to resume their intimate relationships, often with no opportunity to confront their own trauma or examine why they resorted to violence against their partners and what they can do differently upon reentry. Developing and disseminating interventions for those people is an essential component of building healthy, nonviolent communities. Unless and until abolition is a reality, programs like AIDA enable people who have used violence to share their learning with others in ways that, we hope, will decrease intimate partner violence.

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