Community Health Spirituality Therapy Urban

Neurodiversity in G-Block

My uncle is closely involved with the charity Being Alongside. I’ve been to a few of their conferences primarily to show support for him, but they are always interesting. Being Alongside, a Christian organisation, approach mental illness as a condition to be aided by compassionate intervention. Unlike the generation of countercultural thinkers, they don’t concern themselves with the connection between the spiritualised state and psychological problems. The countercultural position is that mental health problems manifest in equivalence to the difference between consonance and dissonance in music. In normal states of mind the volume is low, even imperceptible. At higher volumes spiritual states of mind can be equated to consonance and mental illness to dissonance.

Jonathan Aitken looking at us slightly askance.

This latest talk featured The Reverend Jonathan Aitken (prison chaplain) and Neil Fraser (Custody Manager) of HMP Pentonville. Aitken is a celebrated poster-boy for Christianity. An MP in John Major’s government he suffered disgrace in a law suit against The Guardian in which he committed perjury, and ended up spending seven months at Her Majesty’s pleasure. He was made bankrupt and was divorced to boot. His downfall and subsequent conversion to Christianity was greeted in some quarters with cynicism, but the church loves a repentant sinner, and, I dunno, he seems like a good egg.

Aitken talked about his experiences of being (briefly) the most vilified individual in the UK and about how he carved himself a niche at Belmarsh writing and reading letters for his fellow inmates. An opening act he was keen to set up his colleague at Pentonville Neil Fraser who has been instrumental in the initiative to set up and run an ADHD and Autism “Neurodiversity wing” in G-block.

Neil Fraser discussing life in G block.

This continuum between the prison and clinic is interesting for a number of reasons. One knows from reading Foucault’s “Madness and Civilisation” that all manner of people were confined in the original asylums with genuinely mentally ill people being in the minority:

“From the creation of the Hôpital Général, from the opening, in Germany and in England, of the first houses of correction, and until the end of the eighteenth century, the age of reason confined. It confined the debauched, spendthrift fathers, prodigal sons, blasphemers, men who ‘see to undo themselves,’ libertines… One-tenth of all the arrests made in Paris for the Hôpital Général concern ‘the insane,’ ‘demented’ men, individuals of ‘wandering mind,’ and ‘persons who have become completely mad.’ Between these and the others, no sign of a differentiation.”

Fraser, who is described by Aitken as a very tough correctional officer, could perhaps be viewed in the same light as the earliest asylum doctors who, as Foucault elaborates, worked their miraculous therapy by policing ethical behaviour amongst their charges:

“In the time of Pinel and Tuke, this power had nothing extraordinary about it; it was explained and demonstrated in the efficacity, simply of moral behaviour…

I pointed out to Fraser that it was an extremely stressful position they had found themselves in and asked him whether they had received any therapeutic training or support. To my surprise he opened up and explained very movingly that, starved of funds, he and his colleagues have received practically no help at all. The profession is apparently dogged with staff barely coping with the pressure.

The results on the intervention in the Neurodiversity wing have been really startling. Simple measures like knocking on cell doors and waiting a minute outside (by which approach prisoners on the spectrum are not overwhelmed by an incoming herd of officers) or the use of a support dog called Dobby (the weekly appearance of whom is a highlight) have contributed to a radically different atmosphere. Prisoners interviewed in an internally-circulated video which has apparently gone viral in the service finds them sincerely expressing gratitude. Outcomes on release seem set to be more positive.