Prisons: where families, alienation and cults meet up

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-10-29-27This is a blog-post of two halves. Guest blogger, David Shubert, joins up with yours truly, Nick Child.

David’s ideas on prisons chimed in with mine on connecting up coercive patterns aka Undue Influence. But then I realised I’d have to explain myself somewhat. Let us know if this works for you.

A: Introduction by Nick Child

David Shubert writes a kind of blog on his Facebook page: Bring Back Chianne. He makes constructive use of the spare time he has by writing about why. He encourages everyone to share his writing and his page.

I was very taken by one post – the one below where he talks about prisons. He uses it as a metaphor for his own story. He agreed to a reblog. Then I realised it was going to be a bit convoluted to explain what my take on it was. Anyway, here goes. Let’s see if anyone else follows my convolutions:

Parental Child Abduction and Alienation

David’s experience of coercion and Alienation is through his family story of parental child abduction and alienation of his children in 2007 from the USA where he lives to Australia. Abduction is the quick and criminal way to achieve the same outcome as the slower more obscured way to severe parental alienation. That’s when one parent turns a child against the other safe and loving parent for no good reason. Severe parental alienation can have exactly the same outcome as abduction – that is, zero relationship between children and the other once-loved and loving parent. Abducted children still have to be turned against the parent they’ve been taken from – that’s the alienation bit. Read more of David’s family story under <About>  on his Facebook page.

The very same alienation is also perpetrated on mind-controlled destructive cult members when they are systematically coerced to reject their families and friends.

You can follow up on the enduring and complex issue of how the international crime of Abduction turns into a lifelong tragedy. Visit: Watch Victims of Another War (35 mins) to learn from three adults looking back on the details of their international Abduction and the ensuing Alienation – including how it was done and kept going, and the short and long-term harm to them.

Undue Influence

But my interest lies in another aspect of the range of coercive control patterns. These are collectively known as Undue Influence. See All of them, including cults and parental alienation, feature the harmful coercive persuasion that typifies Undue Influence. David’s article below describes the institution of prison to highlight some ways in which it operates like a harmful alienating mind-control cult.

Of course, prisons are not like cults in other ways. They are valid, socially justified institutions. They have positive purposes for society. Their inmates are mostly being prepared to leave prison. Prisons have many major external controls over their functioning. A harmful cult leadership takes the greatest pains to avoid any external controls whatsoever.


My interest in this cross-over about family Undue Influence and institutional Undue Influence is because I see huge value in linking the many similarities in the range of patterns. These range from cults, extremist terrorism, and trafficking, through to domestic abuse and parental alienation. See: Learning about a common enemy.

In all the Undue Influence patterns the coercive leader or parent or group who drive the severely emotionally abusive and harmful relationship usually feature some serious personality disorders. There is (in recent English legislation) a law against controlling and coercive behaviour in intimate relationships. In some countries parental alienation is a crime. But the disturbed coercive emotional abuse of Undue Influence in cults and in families is mostly not yet a crime that would stand up in court. Cults put a lot of work into ensuring wider society doesn’t bother about or interrupt their coercive ways.

Intervention to protect or rescue the victims – as David describes over many years – may also be forever unforthcoming. In parental alienation in separated families we are talking about children (or young adults) being harmed. Mostly professionals of all kinds are ignorant of parental alienation. Where professionals do know about it, family courts and mandated skilled assessment and help – if not eventually reversing residence to the other parent – may be successful interventions.

In the long term parental alienation is a waiting game that requires almost identical, subtle ways to help your (now adult) loved one regain their rapport with you, their authentic personality, and maybe their decision to leave and return to normal. For cults, Steve Hassan describes this as a Strategic Interactive Approach. See for more.

Theoretically then we can foresee when a cult-leader or a personality-disordered alienating parent will face the consequences that other perpetrators of seriously harmful crime and abuse do now. So they too may be convicted and sent to prison, joining a population who have often also suffered abuse in their own early lives and who have personality disorders too.

Rehabilitation in the future

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-10-28-39So David’s thinking about prisons reminds us that – at least in countries without the death penalty – prison inmates are still human beings even if they have disorders. Their life and rehabilitation will depend on (among many other things) their relationships with their family and loved ones. Even where there was abuse, finding ways to understand if not repair safe contact and relationships would be good for everyone.

There are also now those who even claim that specific modern (mandated and) sustained attachment-based therapy can promise to change and cure their personality disorders (Dan Brown. See this clear summary report of Dan’s training). And a Philosophy Bites interview with Hannah Pickard, therapist and philosopher, about Responsibility and personality disorder is a brilliantly clear path through the messy arena of blame, justice, punishment and helping (15 mins).

If you don’t know David’s own story of suffering long-term abduction of his children, the subtle relevance of prisons to his incarcerated relationship may not be obvious. His description of prison and the way it distances relationships, like a cult does, is so obvious. But the point is rarely made. For most helping professionals, prison is an end-point, a disposal of those bad folk who won’t or can’t use more therapeutic help. Often the approach and thinking used by professionals is a modern kind of demonisation that encourages this handy belief in evaporating the people we don’t like (Alon & Omer 2006). Demonisation goes well with the unreal notion that you can remove a perpetrator from circulation and then forget him or her forever.

So I hope my introduction here paints enough background on the canvas for David’s blog to open up a rich backstage scenario where families, cults and alienation cross over. David begins with a positive statement of how we would like to see all family relationships.

B: Self-Induced Alienation by David Shubert

When we think about the rights of parents and children to have a meaningful and loving relationship, we envision people who are doing everything in their power to ensure this happens. All over the world, children are born to parents who love and adore the very blessings that have been placed in their lives. It is a right that all people should have regardless of their individual status in life.

However, there is a segment of society that is often excluded from this very basic of rights and have a self-induced form of alienation. These are the people who have been forgotten, many times by the very ones who love them the most. These are the men and women who have committed crimes and are sentenced to spend time in a local, state or federal detention centers.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-10-23-21Most of us never give a second thought about them because, quite frankly they are serving their punishments for the misdeeds which they committed. We tend to marginalize their very existence and forget that they were once part of our society. That they too, have experienced love perhaps, even marriage and still further, have children.

When these people are caught committing a crime and are sentenced to a term of imprisonment, they are giving up more than what people ever consider. Most times, we think that they are just losing their freedom and ability to interact with mainstream society. This is where they belong. The fact is, they’re giving up much more than this.

As they walk through the very gates of the place for which they will call home, they are subject to the rules of the house. This means that they will not be allowed anything unless, it is first approved by the caretakers of the facility. They are limited in their contact with any visitors that may choose to see them, their phone calls are monitored and any mail that is received will be carefully inspected prior to being able to read it.

Prison life is not a place that any person wishes to go and the reason is not simply due to the loss of their individual freedoms. Instead, it is the loss of physical contact with the ones that are left behind. This includes, husbands or wives left waiting for months and even years before they are reunited. It also, means that they are losing out on the time that should have been spent with their children.

This is time that a parent and children will never get back and all of the fond memories will be lost, save for the moments that are spent visiting behind a glass wall. It is heart breaking not just for the incarcerated parent but, also for the child themselves. Children naturally want to hug their parent, to hold them, to spend meaningful time with them and for these things they can’t.

It is not the fault of the child that this separation has placed a wall between them. Instead, it is because the parent did something to cause this. This parent has robbed his or her child of the right to be a son or daughter to someone that loves them. It is the parent who took this right away from their child and no one else is to blame.

In the end, we can only hope that, in time these children are able to gain back some semblance of memories that were lost and hopefully forge new ones. However, it is ultimately the choice of these convicted parents on how this will happen and whether the needs of their children are placed above all else upon their release.

In the meantime, children of incarcerated families will continue to suffer.

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

One comment

  1. I actually have two clients sitting in a UT Jail on false allegations of sexually abusing their children. Both just so happen to be mothers. And in both cases, as soon as the women were incarcerated, the father’s ditch the children onto someone else. And in one case, the children have recanted their side of the story but the courts will not listen. And in the other story, the child has now gone on to accuse his uncle and aunt of abusing him as well as a school custodian. These mothers should not be in jail. But the system is so broken and when you cannot afford an attorney, you get railroaded under duress and this is where they end up. This has caused unimaginable damages to the children and the parents who sit in jail incarcerated falsely and who’s future lives are destroyed due to these charges.


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