One Sunday I accidentally found, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the New York Society for Ethical Culture (NYSEC).
This name stopped me in my tracks, as I had been revisiting, mid-Fellowship and in light of Finland’s policies, just how crucial social justice is to a healthy and flourishing society (see, the Marmot Report, The Spirit Level, and, you know, ethical approaches to societal management). I was thinking about the role of the arts and culture in promoting social inclusion, and how the arts can, for instance, connect, promote empathy, facilitate more equal access to participation, and be utilised to encourage more ethical and inclusive approaches to health and wellbeing.
I explained my Fellowship to the security guard, Alfred, using my ‘elevator pitch’. In the lobby, I was struck by how similar NYSEC’s motto is to a quote from Churchill (which makes me smile): “I like things to happen, and if they don’t, I like to make them happen.”
Supportive TeleVisiting Services
I was introduced to Dr Frank Corigliano. Dr Corigliano is the Director of Supportive TeleVisiting and a fellow clinical psychologist. Ethical NYC’s Supportive Televisiting Service began in 2011 with Albion Correctional Facility for women and soon expanded throughout New York City’s Department of Corrections system, to offer incarcerated parents the opportunity to ‘televisit’ with their children. Dr Corigliano also launched library-based televisits and offers training for other organizations that want to develop programs as well.
Dr Corigliano was happy to share his work with me there and then, and again the following week. He not only gave me a tour of the state-of-the-art videoconferencing equipment that allows live video, but also performed granting me a wish, as he would with some of the children he supports here!
A clinical psychology perspective
Dr Corigliano and I discussed our belief that the prison system – especially in the US, but as I have come to recognise, also in the UK – is the responsibility of the clinical psychology profession, of social work, of teachers and doctors and of us all, and not neatly the justice system. As a child and family psychologist, much of the work I do relates to many of the same issues facing those families whose members end up in prison; I’m talking about social issues, poverty, difficulties with executive functioning, impulse inhibition, risk-taking behaviours, maybe developmental difficulties, high exposure to and rates of addiction, little hope, and systemic disempowerment.
In the US, the terms ‘correction’ and ‘rehabilitation’ are used with seemingly no consideration for the fact that many of the youth who are imprisoned never had the fundamentals of a safe and supportive environment in the first place. I hear this lack of understanding in general conversation all the time, and it is evident in the way prisoners are treated – dehumanised – once in the system. Moreover, correction is not effective and most reoffend. Tackling this is the Getting Out Staying Out programme, which you can read a post on here.
In line with the evidence-based interventions typical to psychology services, the prison population needs and deserves comprehensive formulation and needs-assessment, incorporating the personal, social and cultural factors that lead people towards poor mental health, and to offending behaviours. As a medical historian insightfully asked me recently as we discussed this: “Is that not the same population?”
People need human connection and positive relationships to thrive.
A healthy connection with a parent may:
1.Prevent or reduce a child’s behavioural, emotional, or school problems
2.Lessen separation trauma and preserve a child’s secure attachment
3. Promote a healthier family transition after release
Televisiting provides opportunities to:
1.Reassure and comfort children during separation
2.Interact together: read, play games, & create art
3.Celebrate special moments and milestones
Also see Carnegie Hall Lullabies Project:
Dr Corigliano arranged for me to meet one of his clients, a grandmother whose three children were each imprisoned, in three separate sites, and she was taking care of her grandchildren. My mind boggled at how difficult this must be, practically, financially, emotionally. ‘Sharon’ visited NYSEC weekly to TeleVisit, but this week had also attended one of their evening courses, this week on depression, which she reported she found useful. I could see how distressing it was for the grandparents of these children to visit family members in prison. How can we expect a child might feel? And, how often can children get to Rikers or similar prisons? They are no places for children, and I imagined the journey alone is dreadful.
The following day, I found out for myself. I visited Riker’s Island with the Literacy for Incarcerated Teens programme with writer Gigi Blanchard. For me, the journey there was the most harrowing part. It is long, broken up, confusing, and gets bumpier and more desolate as you approach the island complex. My next post will be on visiting teens in Riker’s Island.
The history of Ethical Culture
The Ethical Culture Movement was founded in 1876 by Dr. Felix Adler, to work toward the advancement of social justice for all. He encouraged members to undertake and spread moral and humane actions. The Society has helped to create many and significant community institutions that promote ethical approaches to social issues. The Society for Ethical Culture is based on principles of ethics and on a non-theistic humanist philosophy.
Sundays at the Society
Ethical’s Sunday programmes gather members to learn, reflect, and grow a human community with a range of aspirations. The following Sundays, I attended two Platforms, where Leaders address around 200 members present, who join to listen, learn, sing, and eat together.
In the afternoon, the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro was screened to a full auditorium. Given my next Fellowship appointment was at Riker’s Island prison complex (and I had just watched The 13th), this film exploring James Baldwin’s acute observations on American race relations was essential viewing.