The Wǒ Men podcast is a bi-weekly discussion of life in China hosted by Yajun Zhang and Jingjing Zhang. Previous episodes of the Wǒ Men podcast can be found here, and you can find Wǒ Men on iTunes here.
Like hundreds of millions of Chinese students, Yang Yi took the opportunity to study abroad and explored her future in New Zealand years ago. However, rather than choosing a career which may provide more lucrative financial returns, such as law, economics or finance, she decided to take a bumpier but rewarding road to “make the world a better place” by becoming a prison psychologist in New Zealand.
As an Asian female psychologist who just graduated from college, she had no idea what was waiting for her in prison in a foreign country. She was whistled at and intimidated by inmates. She was also questioned and challenged. However, she managed to overcome all the fears and difficulties and eventually win the trust of the inmates who later benefited from her sessions.
In this episode, Yang Yi discusses her extraordinary experiences and why she continues to be an idealist.
Have thoughts or feedback to share? Want to join the discussion? Write to Yajun and Jingjing at [email protected].
Below is an article written by Yang Yi about her experiences:
Prisons, where convicts are incarcerated, were my gateway to the world. Through the long corridor of their concrete greyness, I met the lives of the less fortunate: those with eyes filled with indignation and deceit and with an occasional grin flickering across their lips. Unwearyingly, I worked with them to light a spark of hope and plant a seed of kindness. Slowly but surely they learnt to trust a little more; in return I learnt to love a lot more.
I left China at 17 to pursue my dream career in forensic psychology. I wanted to know why we could be so barbarous and cruel when consumed with anger and greed. I wondered whether the dark side of life could be better understood and reformed by the force of goodness. In order to fully explore this concept, I walked steadfastly into the ‘villains’ own fortress and had my very first job delivering psychological interventions by way of groups in prisons.
Prisons are always located in desolate places, covered in prickly razor wire, security doors and grill grid bars. I still remember my first solo trip to a male prison. I felt the air become cooler as I approached the parking lot, despite the sun being warm and bright. I walked towards the gate and presented my identification to a guard. Then I heard the gate close and lock behind me. I followed another guard through a long passage with many more doors closing and locking as I progressed.
Once inside the compound, the guard left me to navigate myself. The compounds were numbered. I was to go to those prisoners I was to interview. I always knew when I was close to the gate of a compound because I could hear whistles and the calling of ‘Hey, miss’. Wherever I went there were creepy gazes, bleak stares and arms flapping through the gaps of the iron bars. I kept a poker face, careful not to react. I was conscious of my appearance and buttoned my shirt all the way to the top.
Most male inmates I interviewed were muscular with tattoos all over their bodies. There is not much to do in prison, so they work out a lot. Many of them have had traumatic backgrounds: either their parents had abandoned them, or they had grown up with drugs and violence. They were rejected by their family and later by society. I remember feeling overwhelmed and utterly drained after my interviews, as I had travelled back in time to observe their past and to comprehend their suffering. I asked them about their childhood and their conviction histories that were bursting with hatred, betrayal and despair.
Two weeks later, I had formed a group. I recruited drug dealers, murderers, repetitive drunk drivers, thieves and violent offenders. I made sure they were of a similar age otherwise an experienced offender may use the program as an opportunity to recruit. I also tried to match their offending histories so they could not take advantage of the workshop to teach others how to become better criminals by exchanging tips and tactics. All of them wanted to attend the program so they could secure early parole. I knew I had to work hard and hoped for them never to return to prison.
Although most of them had small insights into their own lives, they had little awareness of their own behaviours and emotions. However they had many justifications for their offending, such as ‘I did it for my family’ and ‘I am not a drug dealer, I am a business man’. I had to encourage them to unravel their self-fulfilling prophesies and analyse the discrepancies between their actions and beliefs. I thought I had so much to teach.
To my surprise, they taught me so much more. One of the mistakes I made at an early stage of my career was to unconsciously hold biases towards them. During one session the participants were sharing their experiences of high-risk situations … those situations that would trigger them to reoffend, such as feeling angry, needing money, going out with mates in the middle of the night, etc., and strategies to avoid those situations. Some would be frustrated and challenge me: ‘What if I don’t know what else to do? Have you ever experienced a high-risk situation? What would you do with it?’ I responded along the lines of: ‘I don’t need high-risk situations. I do not offend’. The underlining message was: ‘My life is the right one. You are the ones who need to change, not me.’ This was not true. To provide them with a safe environment where they could explore new options and make different choices, I also needed to change.
I became more attentive to what was really happening and pondered their situations with more depth and curiosity. It is true that inmates are ultimately responsible for their own actions. But we can’t ignore the power that social influence has on them. Imagine growing up in a household with drugs, firearms and violence; it’s hard not to learn and be influenced by the wrong things. As they say: ‘If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas’.
During my training as a psychologist, people were not so welcoming of B. F. Skinner’s applied behavioural analysis that suggested that our behaviours and beliefs are shaped by what’s available to us. People resist the idea that we are easily influenced despite plenty of researchers arguing that we conform to what’s around us and pick up more social cues than we actually realise.
Once learnt, it’s hard to unlearn. Unless we intentionally pick up other cues, build new connections and experiment with different options, we are just on autopilot operating out of the primal area of the brain and repeating the same patterns. The inmates were trapped inside their own harmful patterns. The struggles they experience and the deep desires they have for life are very much the same as ours.
The term ‘prison break’ refers to inmates escaping the prison, as well as to the popular American television serial drama created by Paul Scheuring. But for me, it means to break out of the prison of prejudice. At the end of the day, aren’t we all flawed? We are all restricted by what we think we know, and we are all blinded by our own perception of the world. Imagine if we all become more aware; we would notice more opportunities rather than fixating on problems and we would spend more time and energy on things that grow us rather than drain us. The hope is that through deliberate and considered efforts, we become a little wiser than we were yesterday.
Yang Yi (Jade Yang) is a psychologist with a rich background working in correctional services in New Zealand and with the Defence Force in Australia. She believes in the power of social influence and is fascinated by how it manifests itself in the way we are. Yang Yi furthered her study in organizational development and has since transferred her skills to working with leaders and systems to create conditions for the emergence of ‘possibility’ rather than ‘negativity’.
Previously on the Wǒ Men Podcast:
Wǒ Men Podcast: Tackling Mental Health Issues in a “Hidden Emotion” Culture
Wǒ Men Podcast: Gu Xi, Female Coding Pioneer (Redux)
Wǒ Men Podcast: From a Chinese Military Officer to a Feminist
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