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The Language of Touch

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.


As usual, your insight into life astounds me. Thank you for another great article,

I'm just curious about something...i know someone in the prison system that deserves very much to be there and stay there. someone that doesn't deserve anyone's touch of any kind...believe me i have felt his's the kind that stays with you forever. i know that some people that are in jail are good ppl that just took a wrong turn but i don't see how people who have taken another's life, either by literally killing them or breaking their spirit and soul so badly they will never have normal relationships or a nornormal life and will always fear touch, how does the person that caused that deserve to have what that person never will? i'm sorry to the families of ppl that are incarcerated but i find it hard to find conpassion for those ppl. i came on your blog because u r at the same place the person i am talking about is at and i have to say i came on here hoping to make sure that he was at an uncomfortable place, feeling hopeless and miserable because i spend most of my days feeling that way. he will never learn his lesson or feel any remorse for the pain he has caused others but still he will get out and carry on a normal life and i never will. i ask u to consider that to the victims of some of the inmates it helps to knw that life is bad for the inmate because thw whole point of jail is punishment for wrongs done to others! And in some cases simply the loss of freedom just isn't punishment enough!

You raise a very valid and sensitive point and we will pass your comment along to Steven. One thing he always preaches is that there must be balance in all things. Are there people incarcerated that should never be free again? Unfortunately, yes. There are so many free that shouldn't be right now, while so many -like children sentenced to serve their entire life in prison- should have a second chance. Correction, being in prison, is not only about punishment, but also rehabilitation for those who can and will change. But we must also think of those who were victimized. The person who hurt you deserves to be punished. But this is more about you now and about taking control of your life again, and that can be so very difficult. Until you take that control back, you will continue to be a victim to this person. You are better than that, and stronger. Do what you have to in order to regain that control of your life. And this might not be something you want to hear, but forgiveness is something that is more helpful for the victim than the offender. We are all human and have the potential for great good or spectacular harm. And often, we are our own worst enemy. Counseling, therapy, and contact with others who have been victimized and have suffered through what you have is the best way to take back control of your own life, dear one. Thank you for sharing with us, because we do care. Love and light to you.

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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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