Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Prisoners of the mind - violence will only ever corrupt society

As a new play on the history of the Maze prison opens in Belfast, psychologist Dr Rona Fields talks to Laurence White

Trouble follows some people. Dr Rona Fields follows trouble.



From the ghettoes of Los Angeles to the streets of Belfast to the Middle East and some of Africa's worst killing fields. A clinical, neurological and forensic psychologist, Dr Fields, an American, is a recognised expert on, among other things, terrorism, torture and traumatic stress.

This week she was back in Belfast to deliver a couple of |lectures on the psychology of violence and what she has uncovered during her years of research in the world's trouble spots.

The simple message, she says, is that violence doesn't work, whether it is perpetrated by the state or by terror organisations. It merely leads to the torch of violence being passed down through the generations creating more and more misery.

In the Sixties she worked in Chicago's tough South Side as part of a mental health project and then moved to Los Angeles where she came into contact with groups like the Black Panthers and Brown Berets.

She first came to Northern Ireland in 1971 when the Troubles were reaching their height. She examined some of the first men to be interned including those who had undergone hooded treatment and deep interrogation techniques.

She found that over time the incidence of measurable brain damage among this group increased. Originally she estimated about two-thirds of the sample were demonstrating some damage, but this grew as the years went on.

“I also suspect that these people will demonstrate a difference in the ageing process, will have more long-term and chronic illnesses,” she says. “It is also known that people who undergo similar treatment, men and women, are more likely to engage in domestic violence or acts of violence against their children. In their turn, the children are more prone to engage in acts of bullying among their peers.

“What I have found in other places is that people become immune to the experience of violence if they are confronted with a lot of trauma and violence.

“They no longer react as being horrified by violence or even having great sympathy for the victims of violence.

“Some people call it compassion burn-out. It is not just that. It is a kind of immunity and insensitivity which develops so that more violence is tolerated.”

Following her initial investigations in Northern Ireland, she discovered that some of the techniques used on internees here were also used on inmates at a state prison in California.

“It was called behavioural conditioning,” she says. “However, the consequences were pretty dire. Two years later one of those prisoners helped form the Symbionese Liberation Army — the group which kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.

“He was one of the prisoners who had been subjected to psychological torture and he used the same sensory deprivation techniques on Hearst and other kidnap victims. It was a form of brainwashing.

“What this proves is that what goes around, comes around.”

She has an even more dramatic example, one which is particularly relevant today given the situation in the Middle East.

In 1982 the Israeli Defence Forces in Lebanon allowed Christian Phalangist militia to go into two Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila. What followed was a massacre with at least hundreds killed.

Dr Fields says: “During my studies there I found that young adolescent boys who had been in the camp during the massacre suffered a form of guilt. They had been trained by the PLO in arms from an early age but they were glad when the PLO leaders were forced to flee and they could give up the training.

She adds: “But after the massacre they felt guilty that they had not been able to defend their camps. Several of those young men later took part in terrorist attacks at Rome and Vienna airports in which a total of 36 people died. I recognised their names. They had been recruited from the camps and this was an example of how violence goes on and on.”

But can the cycle of violence be broken? One way is for the victims to see justice done or at least get an apology for the wrongs done to them.

She points out the situation in Chile where those responsible for violence against the general population were not punished for it. A large number of people disappeared under the military regime. “The whole society in Chile was permeated with these horror memories,” she says. “There were people who could not get over their victimisation and that mentality spread throughout society.” She sees a connection with the hunger strikes which saw 10 IRA men fast to death in the Maze prison in 1981. “The purpose of the hunger strikes was to get an apology from the British government for calling the prisoners criminals. When you apologise to someone that puts the victims in a position of power. They can accept it or deny it. But it takes away the horrible residue of feeling powerless. It makes a difference to the whole society.”

Dr Fields says that an act of violence is not a singular event. “It takes over society. It is never forgotten and that is one of the things that makes inter-generational violence so common.

“Justice can help end that cycle of violence. Look at the Truth Commissions in South Africa. They were not totally successful.

“Individuals guilty of violence against ordinary people were not prosecuted or judged by the people they had offended. Some families did receive an apology but they did not feel acquitted because the judgement was rendered not by the offended family but by the system itself.

“However, the changes in the political make-up of South Africa did make a difference. Yet if you look at the crime statistics there, you will realise there are still a lot of very angry people in that country.”

In the past Dr Fields, who is in Northern Ireland to deliver her lectures as part of the build up to the staging of Martin Lynch's new play, Chronicles of Long Kesh, which opens at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, on Wednesday, has been a somewhat controversial figure in the province.

In 1973 her book Society On The Run was pulped after influential figures in Northern Ireland complained to the publishers that it would be damaging to community relations in the province.

She recalls: “I had gone into the Crumlin Road jail in Belfast to examine a couple of prisoners when I was detained and interrogated for a day. It was in-depth interrogation.

“The authorities took my briefcase which contained the manuscript for my book and that is how they knew what it contained. They wanted to remove significant parts of the book. Some copies were printed but most were shredded. I later published it in the US.”

She is hoping for a more welcoming stay this time. She |remembers carrying her own bath plug during one visit to Belfast because her landlady had removed the plug to stop her having a bath. She always seemed to end up with bronchial problems as a result of staying in drafty homes and moving about the city at night to interview people who had been released from prison.

Chronicles of Long Kesh by Martin Lynch runs at the Belfast Waterfront Studio from January 14-31. Booking 9033 4455

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz