“In…an environment that holds the baby well enough, the baby is able to make personal development. The result is a continuity of existence that becomes a sense of existing, a sense of self, and eventually results in autonomy.” D.W.Winnicott (1963)
We all begin our lives inside, joined up to a life giving mother. When we are born, all of this changes, and we suddenly find ourselves disconnected in a world we have little knowledge of, or control over. Donald Winnicott (1896 – 1971) was a psychoanalyst deeply concerned with the business of how we transition from this newborn state of dis-integration and total dependency, to one of relative integration and autonomy. What he, like many thinkers, theoreticians and clinicians after him is proposing, is that our sense of security, confidence and knowledge of self are intimately tied up with our developmental experiences. We can become joined-up again, through the consistent, containing experiences of some of our earliest relationships.
Connected to the concept of joined-upness is what Winnicott called the anti-social tendency. Something which he felt could develop in anyone for whom the developmental environment was significantly disturbed, ruptured or in some other way inadequate for the psychological needs of the individual. Anti-social, or criminal behaviour, was a cry for help he felt. Fuelled by a fundamental loss of integrity, and was an attempt to find that integrity, and with it a sense of security that was lacking or absent in the family or broader society.
Whatever the mechanism is, it is clear from a survey of recent literature on early childhood adversity that those with high levels of early life mistreatment are significantly over-represented in prison populations. Perhaps for many the journey into the criminal justice system is an attempt to become more integrated in mind. For many, prison itself can provide this integration through the psychological containment and security it provides by default, and may even lead some to unconsciously seek repeated returns to the containment and safety felt while incarcerated.
Contrast this with the configuration of services outside of the secure estate that can be so disintegrated as to feel both unmanageable and familiarly disturbing to those seeking integration…
Housing: Turn up at the blue building, but only between this time and this time.
The Mental Health Service: Green building, second on the left, take your place at the back of the queue and we will get to you when we can.
Substance Misuse Service: Red building, down the road, turn right, and then first on your left, down some stairs and you’re there. Remember to bring a drug diary.
Social work: Yellow building. But you might need a referral from someone else before we can give you directions.
Education: I think it’s that big brown building on the edge of town. Yes, the one with financial and administrative hurdles all around it.
It’s a multi-coloured swap-shop out there.
For those who have been fortunate enough to have had integrated, connected and containing experiences in their early years, then the negotiation of a fragmented and non-communicating set of care and support services may be relatively straightforward, but of course it is far less common that such an individual would ever find themselves needing to.
Joined-up services may well turn out to be more economic, more theoretically coherent, and more effective, but most importantly they may provide some of the coherency, continuity and connection needed by us all, and particularly those who so often have had an absence of it in their early lives. When working in the areas of trauma, neglect and adversity, services are always at risk of reflecting the complicated and disconnected interpersonal histories of the clients they are typically in relation to, and in doing so may even come to exacerbate the very difficulties they aim to relieve.
But by focusing on joining up this outside world, and by creating a common care and prevention service, we may help over time to develop a joined-up world inside the minds of those within the criminal justice system who have so often suffered the psychological consequences of disintegration. We may even, as Winnicott describes, come to facilitate a continuity of existence.
Dr. Adam Burley, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Community Justice Scotland Board member
Our Talking Justice blog series brings together reflections from across our society. We are committed to changing the conversation about justice, increasing understanding and support for what will make Scotland better for all of us. To that end, we have have created a resource that maps out the Scottish justice system. This has been developed into an interactive digital tool: Navigating Scotland’s Justice System.