NYC242 cover image See all stories from issue #242, May/June 2014

Anger Management 101
In prison, this course is mandatory
Najet Miah

Names have been changed.

I am 18 years old and currently serving an eight-year sentence at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in New York. Whether they killed their husbands or accidentally ran someone over with their car, the majority of these women, like me, have committed a violent crime. Therefore, as part of our sentences, we are obligated to take an anger management course.

The course is called Aggression Replacement Training or ART. My class consisted of 12 girls and we had to attend from 8 to 11 a.m., Monday through Friday for two months. Some had taken the course before but had to repeat it after getting into a violent altercation afterward. (If they don’t, they risk getting a “refusal of anger management program” note put on their record.)

Of course, none of us wanted to be there but certain inmates made this fact obvious. A couple of girls were sleeping, others were slouching; they might as well have slid off their chairs. Still others looked confused, their noses crinkled up and eyebrows practically touching.

Surprisingly, when the facilitator walked in, I saw she was an inmate just like us. She had been trained by the prison authorities to teach the class. There were no officers, which made us inmates feel more comfortable because they often act like they are superior. After introducing herself as Mary, the facilitator ran down the basics of the class that would include group participation.

Each day we would review a different technique to try when a provoking situation presented itself in our everyday lives, which is all too common in prison. They included counting backwards when a person was in a rage, walking away silently, appeasing the conflict with a positive response, and using a creative outlet like drawing, writing, singing, or cooking to help us focus on something positive rather than negative. Another was using positive affirmations to calm oneself such as: “Najet, you are calm, cool, and collected, and you will not let anyone or anything take you out of your character.”

Putting On an Act

image by YC-Art Dept

In the next phase of the course, we divided into groups and created skits where we acted out conflicts and then explored the positive and negative reactions to each of the scenarios. This really helped me because it takes patience and practice to learn alternatives to the way we express anger. It isn’t an overnight process. Each skit put us in everyday situations that we confront in this prison and at home that often lead to anger-induced violence such as fighting over the TV remote, stove, phone, or toilet paper.

During one skit, I played the role of a bunkie (prison slang for roommate) who had to wake up at 5 a.m. to get ready for work in the mess hall (dining room). I slammed open my locker and banged on the bed looking for my cosmetics and shoes, completely ignoring the fact that my bunkmate was asleep next to me. Eventually the loud clatter woke her. “What the f-ck, Najet. You do this every day. You know I’m trying to sleep and you’re always making noise. Stop being inconsiderate.”

“I don’t care if you’re sleeping. You should have said it politely and maybe I would have listened,” I replied. We started fighting and ultimately woke up the entire housing unit. We were confined to our cells for two weeks.

Then we reenacted the same skit, only this time I took a positive approach. “Bunkie, you’re right. I wasn’t thinking about you. I’ll try to make less noise from now on because I wouldn’t want you waking me up every morning.” Skits like this are examples of how almost any negative, anger-inducing situation can be turned around with the right approach.

Trading Places

We also had the opportunity to vent about struggles and personal issues that may contribute to our aggression that we normally wouldn’t share with anyone, especially not in prison. Some women spoke about sexual abuse, while others spoke about grudges they had against their parents. It helped us see that a lot of us are hurting inside and that, “hurt people hurt people.” To me, that concept is so deep and true.

That notion of having compassion for others was what I found most helpful about this course. People who may always seem angry may actually be suffering serious emotional or physical problems. Taking this more loving approach can help diminish your anger rather than allowing it to build. I also learned that we should acknowledge that our anger and its consequences have a foundation that we need to try and find and fix by reflecting on what gets us mad and then what techniques help us control the anger.