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The Language of Touch

4:32 PM

One of the things I didn't get a chance to do is to be there for my younger brother and sister, as I should have. Now my sister has a child of her own and is studying to become a nurse. This is something she really wants. She just recently participated in a competition with 14 other students, placing fourth on the written exam and second in the practicals. The most difficult part of the competition for her involved the medications and types of injections, since they aren't told which meds they will be tested on. I had a bright idea- maybe I could help my sister study by corresponding with her about these things. If we both have the same book to study from, we could quiz one another on definitions, types of meds, drug interactions, etc. Our mother ordered the book - one for my sister and one for me. She received hers. Mine arrives...but no, doing something to foster family ties, something positive, is counter to prison policy.

Instead of the book, a guard gives me a notice that says I cannot have the book because the contents of the book are contrary to regulations, so I got the guard to escort me up the hallway to the mailroom window. When I asked Ms. Groom why I couldn't receive the book, she said she had flipped through it and "couldn't understand it," and she asked some other people and they said I couldn't have it. I asked for names, but all she would say is that she "asked around." This is how they determine what we're allowed: If Ms. Groom doesn't understand it, she will ask around. Maybe she polls random shoppers at the local grocery store, or discusses it with her choir at church.

As I thought about all of this walking back to the pod, I became angrier with each step. I miss out on 16 years of my sister's life and when I find a way I can possibly help her, I'm thwarted by a mailroom clerk who can't understand it. I have not hugged my mother in over a decade because some desk jockey asked around
and the consensus is that my mom can't visit me. The DOC touts reform and rehabilitation, but when it comes down to it, rehabilitation is bad for business.

Very seldom do I get angry. By the time I calmed myself down I had made my mind up about a couple of things. First, I'm going to have that book. Come hell or high water, I am determined. Second, things are going to change. Last time I made my mind up about something like this I helped the National Prison Project shut Unit 32 down. Anger can be a positive thing when channeled in the correct way.

So what does any of this have to do with the language of touch? Nothing and everything. I have done a bit of studying about touch and the lack of it, and thinking about not being able to hug my mom helped me redirect my thoughts. Imagine seven or eight years where the only physical contact you had with other people is when you're being placed in restraints. This is extreme sensory deprivation, but this is overlooked in our Western culture where advances in technology cause us to use our distance senses -sight and hearing- more, and our proximity senses -touch, taste, smell- less. We are distancing ourselves literally and metaphorically.

I am very glad that my nephew is being raised in a home where he is hugged, cuddled, comforted, tickled and not deprived of touch. Touch stimulates nerve connections in our brain, especially during infancy but also throughout a person's life. A plethora of nerve connections is the hallmark of intelligence, creativity, and behavioral plasticity. Studies also link a lack of touch during childhood with violent and antisocial behaviors. This makes sense when you consider that research in the teaching of reading indicates that not only is verbal facility -the ability to use words- not our primary mode of communication, but children who do not crawl, and touch, and handle things, almost invariably have difficulty with language.

A New York pediatrician named Henry Dwight Chapin published a report in the early 20th century about orphanages in ten different cities. Ninety-nine percent of infants did not survive the year of their admission, and those who survived were severely retarded. Why? What caused this? They called it merasmus, a general wasting-away. Further research revealed that orphanages with more attendants had higher survival rates for infants. Wherever babies were held and played with more, they were more likely to survive.

How can it be that we overlook the usefulness of touch with adults? Headaches, somatic pains, digestive/ eliminative dysfunctions, heart conditions, apathies, depressions, obesities, loss of appetite, emotional tensions, physical stresses... all could at least be made easier to deal with if touch therapy was factored in. Touching and being touched literally change brain chemistry -soothing, uplifting, relaxing. In both babies and adults, touch has been shown to develop and organize sleep/ wake cycles. Consider how many people suffer from problems that are sleep associated. But we've been brainwashed into thinking that touch must lead to sex.

We all long to share and communicate our thoughts and feelings. Some thoughts and feelings are so deep that words cannot express them, and sharing with others cannot be satisfied solely on the verbal level. Yet, we are so terrified of touch that we have forgotten its language. But why does touch terrify us? There is power in touch; when we touch, I am vulnerable unlike at any other time. The ability to do harm with touch will always exist as long as there is a power differential between individuals, sexes, races, and classes. We've feared it so deeply that we legislate laws, cultural mores, taboos and conventions to control it.

Adults have limited touch to 3 areas: the handshake and other similar symbolic gestures; sexual intercourse; hostility and anger, where anger protects us from other emotions that might burst out. The handshake is a ritualized caress; a reconnecting, but a buffer. Sexual intimacy is really our only area of open intimacy, and there we can speak as only touch can, of who we are and how we feel. We fill that one allowable intimacy with all our needs to touch. No wonder our culture is obsessed with sex and plagued with problems and frustrations about it. The sexual revolution is misunderstood, in that it is about more than new attitudes towards sex. It's about relearning a language we've lost through disuse.

Ever wonder about the appeal of contact sports -those we participate in and those we watch? Ever shake your head at parents who lose control when physically disciplining children? Baffled by physical violence and antisocial behavior? There are many children who only receive physical intimacy when they misbehave. Also, expression of strong hostility keeps other feelings from being revealed. As with sex, all sorts of completely inappropriate feelings are thrust into this outlet for emotions. We should not be freed from, but freed for emotions. One thing that sets humans apart from the animal kingdom is our capacity for the depth and complexity of emotions we experience.

We need the power of touch more now than ever before, especially in our Western culture. So take this lesson from me, and please don't take touch for granted. I hope to see therapeutic touch used more in dealing with troubled youth, and maybe it will make inroads into prison in the near future.

Read On 3 comments

Prison Sex?

10:26 AM

I have now spent half of my life as a prisoner of MDOC, so I've been around long enough to see- or hear- a lot of things. Some are funny. Some sad. Some you wouldn't believe. However, I never cease to be amazed.

How many of you have heard the classic "Don't drop the soap!" associated with prisoners? I've never found it amusing. Here's the reality: Most prisoners are members of a gang. All gangs I've been around have a rule against homosexual acts among their male members. So rape by gang members in Mississippi is a rarity, and any gang member involved ends up "smashed" (beaten very badly).

Rape does happen, though. Most cases that get reported are more along the lines of new prisoners being manipulated into the act. One full-grown adult male raping another would be a bloody and difficult thing. I know this sounds odd, but the majority of you have never been in a fight or fought for a long period of time. One minute isn't easy. Two minutes is pushing the limit for the average person.Three or more? It will seem like the longest time in your life.

My friend, Ant, had a blunt way of questioning those who claimed to have been raped...
Ant: So, you got raped?
Them: Yeah.
Ant: Did they knock you out?
Them: No.
Ant: They tied you down?
Them: No.
Ant: It was more than one, and they held you down?
Them: No.
Ant: Did you fight back?
Them: see, what happened was...
Ant: Man, you ain't got raped!

From what I understand, there is a gang of gay guys at EMCF in Meridian who operate like an actual gang. EMCF is an odd place, however, seeing as how it houses prisoners whom the State deems in need of treatment for mental illness. Don't get me wrong, there is quite a bit of undercover homosexuality that goes on amongst guys who would never admit to their acts. And for those who can manage it, sex does happen between staff and prisoners. Always a risky proposition for whatever staff member is involved.

Over the course of the coming months we may see how Commissioner Epps' decision to stop conjugal visits will affect the rate of violence and rape inside Mississippi's prisons, if he doesn't change his mind. There's something you can do, though, especially if you are a resident of Mississippi. Right now Senate Bill 2735 is on the table. Check it out. This bill is being pushed by Kelly Muscolino, President of Mississippi Advocates for Prisoners (M.A.P.). The bill is an attempt to keep conjugal visits for Mississippi prisoners and their spouses. You can contact Mrs. Muscolino at for more info on how to get in touch with the proper representatives to vote for this bill.

I have ordered some of the bills being discussed and will soon be writing about them. Hopefully, I will be able to offer a prisoner's view on them. In my experience, prison sex usually involves the courts, legislators, and MDOC officials screwing us over. Maybe I will be able to share some good news with you all.

Read On 1 comments

About Me

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Steven Farris is a prisoner who has been incarcerated since a month after his 16th birthday in 1998. Currently serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole, he is seeking to educate the public about the true nature of prison and the widespread and negative effects of the prison industrial complex. Steven has worked with both the National Prison Project of the ACLU, as well as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in furthering this effort.

You can contact him directly at:
Steven Farris #R5580
P.O. Box 1889
Woodville, MS 39669-1889

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