Nina Glockner, artist, Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Vienna, Austria
Ulrike Möntmann, artist, Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Vienna, Austria
Corinna Obrist, psychologist and psychotherapist, Head of the Women’s Section, Vienna Favoriten Prison, Vienna, Austria
Shird-Dieter Schindler, psychiatrist, Director, Sociomedical Center Baumgartner Höhe, Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Vienna, Austria
At the third Accomplices’ Meeting in psychiatry and psychology the experts were again psychologist and psychotherapist Corinna Obrist, who works in the women’s section at the Vienna Favoriten Prison*, and psychiatrist Shird-Dieter Schindler.
WOMEN AND MEN IN PRISON: A COMPARISON
At the start of the meeting Corinna Obrist looked back at her many years of experience in the women’s section of the prison and concluded that many of her goals had been achieved. She regards it as a matter of prime importance to convey to young colleagues at the prison how important commitment and solidarity among women is in a male-dominated society. In spite of the conditions of imprisonment and the implicitly powerful position of the therapists, in this way it has been possible to develop a community marked by solidarity and mutual understanding which, among other things, can help to reduce and guard against frustration: “The women who work with women are very committed to what they are doing and they are very interested in understanding gender-specific phenomena. And injustice is also an issue for them. It makes the work easier when one sees oneself as going beyond the conformist machinery of psychotherapy, as engaging with something far more important, namely, injustice. It is also about complicity with the inmates and the knowledge that common ground, implicitly, exists for in the final analysis we are all women.”
Despite certain adverse conditions, like the consequences of reorganization, the women’s section remains autonomous and by comparison there is far more work in therapy being done than in the men’s section. Corinna Obrist explained this with men’s tendency to fraternize faster than women, to establish subcultures, and in this way to work against the therapeutic structures of living in groups. By contrast women are often “more fragile” and thus more open to a therapeutic approach.
As a thought experiment Ulrike Möntmann asked the experts what they thought the situation would be like if there were far more women prisoners than men.
Corinna Obrist said that prisons are characterized by a culture of dominance and dictates of the majority. Moreover, the judiciary is male-dominated, as can also be seen in the prison guards. If men were the minority group in prison, they might be a little more cautious and circumspect in their behavior, but by and large the influence of our male-dominated societies would remain; that even when they are in the minority they still take more liberties. In their community the women might express themselves a bit more. However, the dominant culture is still one determined and supported by men and within it women are, so to speak, followers and facilitators, sometimes rebels and sustainers.”
EUROPE’S SHORTAGE OF PSYCHIATRISTS
That there is a shortage of qualified psychiatrists in Europe was mentioned in connection with the implementation of Austria’s new law regulating the working times of medical practitioners. The situation in prisons is particularly bad; Corinna Obrist said that in Vienna’s Prison Favoriten there is only one psychiatrist who looks at critical cases once a month: “this has the consequence that many inmates are immediately turned away because the prison personnel does not feel confident in dealing with them and reacts with apprehension, unease, and avoidance strategies.”
Possible reasons for this shortage of psychiatrists are the very long period of training and education, on average around 15 years, and salaries that are lower than other doctors’ yet work with patients “who are not the most straightforward ones”. Moreover, the role of a psychiatrist in a prison, said Obrist, is associated with risks, and their prognoses of the potential risk an offender poses could likely have grave consequences.
This was confirmed by Shird Schindler: “In the past there were studies that came to the conclusion that psychiatrists were no better than ordinary citizens at predicting a patient’s development. In the meantime the instruments have been improved and overhauled so that at least statistically the predictions are better than a layperson’s.”
CONFLICTING SOCIAL VALUES: FUNCTIONALITY AS THE GOAL OF THERAPY?
The impact of neoliberalism on the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry in this context is also considerable: education and training, practice and goals of therapy are all affected by budget cuts and conflicting social values: “There is this neoliberal concept of humans that they should pull themselves together, just get on with their work and shut up. Thus groups of professionals in the ‘soft’ sciences like psychiatrists and psychologists degenerate into a means of conformism. That is the gist of what is taught in education and training”, said Corinna Obrist. The analysis of social interrelations and trends — “that something is established whereby there are winners and losers, the why and the wherefore” — that is not part of the curriculum.
Corinna Obrist identifies an extremely high readiness in general to conform and to exploit, and sees this at work also in the psychologists in her prison: “Women train other women in order that they fit in well into the dominant culture. When is someone healthy, how much does it take for a cure, an alleviation, an improvement to be recognizable?”
Ulrike Möntmann questioned the socially accepted criteria of a successful therapy and suspects that a relative improvement in the state of a patient is insufficient, and instead a person’s functionality is the standard criterion. In view of the immense budget cuts in the area of addiction treatment in Ulrike Möntmann’s view there is a clear connection between the problematic of drugs “which represents one of society’s marginal groups” and a systematic attempt “to render marginal groups invisible in the inner cities”.
Schindler confirmed that the austerity measures introduced because of the financial crisis particularly targeted those sections of society without a lobby; that is, the marginal groups. The changed conditions make it far more difficult for high-quality work and maintaining a functioning program becomes more and more dependent on the initiative and commitment of the colleagues: “Many valuable initiatives are now being blocked; the situation is getting very tight. That it is quality work, which is very time consuming, that actually brings people a good step forward is apparently very difficult to get across.”
Transcription and text: Nina Glockner
Translation: Gloria Custance & Isaac Custance
*Vienna-Favoriten Prison “has a mandate to treat prisoners who have committed an offence in connection with the consumption of drugs or other intoxicating substances and have been sentenced to imprisonment by a criminal court (§ 22 Austrian Penal Code). In addition, prisoners in other penal institutions can apply for a transfer to this prison to be treated for addiction (§ 68a Penal Procedure Code).” For further information visit the prison’s official website (in German).