Violence Harm Reduction: How Peer De-Escalation Works Inside Prisons

    In 1992, the year I learned I had HIV, a friend got me a dishwasher job at a restaurant in Olympia, Washington. One day during a smoke break, a waiter used a slur to describe a table of gay customers, saying we’d have to throw their dishes away. I knew what he meant, but I asked him anyway because I wanted to push him. He told me they all had AIDS, and I told him I had AIDS and he’d better watch his mouth or I’d beat the hell out of him.

    I thought the manager knew my status; everyone did. But when he called me in to see him, he stood on the other side of the office and leaned away from me. “You don’t look like the type to have AIDS,” he said. “Is it true?” I told him it was. He fired me, for threatening an employee.

    We didn’t call it living with HIV; we called it dying of AIDS. After Magic Johnson disclosed his status in 1991, I remember the public getting a lot more aggressive. If you had AIDS, no one wanted to touch you, but somehow they all still wanted to fight you.

    “He’s got AIDS,” said a voice in the back. The guy grabbed a pencil and started stabbing me, which was what I wanted.

    A few months later during a stint in a city jail, there were 16 of us crammed into one tank. We had about three feet of space between the row of bunks along one wall and the row of metal tables along the other. At the front was the shower, the toilet and the TV. A commercial for the National AIDS Hotline came on.

    The guy next to me used a slur to say we should line up the people who got AIDS and shoot them. I egged him on a bit, until he really went all-in, and then I said I had AIDS. He laughed and pretended to shoot me. I said I was serious. “No way,” he said, looking around. “He’s got AIDS?”

    “Oh, he’s got AIDS,” said a voice in the back, upon which the guy grabbed a pencil and started stabbing me, which of course was what I wanted. After I beat him the cops took me out to solitary, which isn’t always a nice change but was in this particular instance.

    I should have found a nonviolent way to navigate all the hate, but I didn’t know how back then. When people shot up with me I educated them about HIV transmission, but when they made a crack about AIDS I educated them about why they should keep their mouths shut.

    In prison, violence is the language everyone understands.

    By the late 2000s, I’d been in prison more than a decade and had deconstructed my old belief system. I wasn’t a teenager anymore; I wanted to participate in society, rather than live on my own, and in order to do that I had to learn how to not hurt people.

    At first, I’d resolved to abstain from violence entirely—both physical and verbal. This lasted a couple of days, until someone came at me in my cell. I realized that if nonviolence was going to be sustainable, I had to allow for self-defense. Just because you don’t start fights anymore doesn’t mean people don’t start them with you.

    In prison, violence is the language everyone understands. It’s implied with the guards’ every move, from their pepper spray to their combat boots to the rifles they carry in the towers. But what stood out more was the violence we did to each other.

    Prisoner fights break out when you sit in the wrong place or make small talk with the wrong people. If you talk too loud, if you’re too good at a job or not good enough. It’s an endless list. Violence is imminent at all times because we’re locked in a high-stress environment where we don’t get the option of walking away. But the toxic masculinity that’s dominant here is something we propagate ourselves, out of ego and fear; most of us rarely challenge it.

    At a previous facility I was on a Violence Prevention Committee. Once a month, we’d talk to a room of 100 or so prisoners about taking responsibility and committing to nonviolence. A few people did decent work in there, but for the vast majority it didn’t really make a difference. We were giving people one-size-fits-all directives, with which they were supposed to excise all violence from their lives overnight. It was a binary model—if you got in a fight, it didn’t matter whether or not you started it.

    Over the years, I’ve learned there’s a lot of room between “Fight” and “Don’t Fight.” Group settings and abstract exercises don’t reduce violence, but one-on-one conversations often do. When you have someone’s respect—whether or not they like you—you can get through to them as a peer.

    The following are harm reduction techniques I’ve developed for talking to other prisoners when they know they have a fight coming. Nonviolence isn’t always realistic, but violence reduction usually is.



    Survey—Assess the landscape of the conflict. Do you understand the facts of the case, and where you stand in relation to it? Do you have the respect of one or both parties? First person to take care of is yourself. 

    Explore Options—Find alternatives that allow both parties to keep their integrity. Present these as choices, not ultimatums. Someone planning to kill someone else might be talked down into just giving them a beating. If you have pull with both parties, you might be able to talk to each of them individually and broker an agreement for no weapons; fists only.

    Timing—Approach someone when you can speak privately, and make sure it’s a time that suits them, not just you. Only insert yourself into a fight if you’re confident you can help; otherwise you risk increasing the physical harm, not reducing it.


    Violence Reduction Toolbox

    Body language—Don’t lean forward. Approach with open palms, not clenched fists. Mirror their level of eye contact.

    Mental prep—Breathe. Remain calm. Don’t approach with preconceived notions of the outcome.

    Communication—Roleplay what you’re going to say. Modulate tone of voice. Choose gentler words. Phrase things as questions rather than statements. Don’t interrupt. If they interrupt you, don’t react; wait until they’re done, then say, Hey, I’m gonna finish what I was saying now if that’s alright.

    Listening—Pause to hear what the other person’s saying. Keep your mind open to new information. Factor that information into your perspective and what you do next. This one is always the hardest part for everyone, but can lead to new options. The willingness to listen, in and of itself, is often enough to de-escalate a fight.



    Photograph of Stafford Creek Corrections Center via Washington State Department of Corrections

    • Jonathan covers harm reduction and re-entry. He’s incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center, where he’s a Teacher’s Assistant for re-entry workshops and trains peer educators in HIV and hepatitis C harm reduction. His writing has been published by the AppealTruthoutJewish Currents and the Seattle Journal of Social Justice. His Washington State Department of Corrections ID is #716850, and until WDOC corrects a 29-year-old paperwork error his name in Securus is “Jonathon.”

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