#guytalk at a correctional institution

March 10, 2022

Once a week, sex offenders gather at Skogome Prison to talk about violence, escape behaviour and what it’s like to be a man, using the #guytalk-concept. The meetings have been taking place since autumn 2017, and a year and a half ago we went there to find out more.

Skogome anstalt is located about fifteen minutes from Gothenburg Central Station. It is the 15th of May 2019. Before the corona pandemic, but after #metoo and all the conversations about sexual assault that surfaced in the fall of 2017. My colleague Henrik Teljfors and I have travelled to Gothenburg to meet Per, who is incarcerated at the prison.

About six months earlier, we received an email from Rebecca. She began the email with “I work in the Swedish Prison and Probation Service, at Skogome Prison for sex offenders. At the moment we have a gang among the inmates who uses your conversation material.” Rebecca was referring to the conversation guides we had developed for the #guytalk concept and then an email exchange back and forth followed. We were soon connected with Per, the inmate who initiated the whole thing, and we decided to pay a visit.

So here we are at the sex crimes unit at Skogome. We will meet some of the men who have been meeting once a week for a year and a half to talk about violence, escapism, relationships and norms, based on Make Equal’s #guytalk concept. This as a step in the process of breaking destructive patterns and taking responsibility for past actions.

When we arrive at Skogome and have gone through all the security checks, we meet up with Per who shows us around the department. As we walk around, many people come up to us, greet us and are curious about us. The buildings feel rather worn and give a cold impression, but despite this we occasionally have to remind ourselves of where we are. The inmates each have a small room, some common areas and the opportunity to go outside for fresh air. We are shown to a secluded room with armchairs and some printed discussion guides that have been left behind.

– This is where we sit and talk, says Per.

– Det är här vi sitter och pratar, berättar Per.

On a whiteboard right at the exit, it is written when the next meeting takes place and what the theme of the week is. After the tour, we sit down in a smaller room where Anders and Simon also join us. They’ve all been around for a while now.

#guytalk became “killfika” (another word for coffe break in swedish)

– It all started in the autumn of 2017, says Per and continues, “we had problems with a bad atmosphere and bad attitudes in the department when our manager asked us what we could do about it. I had just read an article in Göteborgsposten about #guytalk and talked to some of the staff. Is that something we could arrange here?

Per and some of the other inmates were given access to a room, the staff provided them with printed discussion guides and started the meetings, a little hesitantly at first. Interest soon grew and they had to split the group into two. Instead of guy talk dinners, the meetings were arranged as “eftermiddagsfika” (another word for coffebreak in swedish). “Killfika” (another word for coffe breaks in swedish) at Skogomeanstalten had been born!

“I haven’t said this to anyone else, I’ve been waiting 30 years to talk about this”

– The first feeling was “how open it is” so it was easy to be open myself. It became an oasis in this macho culture. Pretty soon, people started sharing traumatic and difficult things from their childhood. We were not prepared for that. I imagine it’s harder to have these kinds of conversations in the workplace, but here in the prison there’s a vulnerability that allows the valve to open for many. I haven’t said this to anyone else, I’ve been waiting 30 years to talk about this,” says Anders, who has been attending the meetings since September 2018.

One of the themes of the #guytalk concept is about escape routes. It highlights how many people, especially men, tend to run away from their emotions when they feel bad and instead resort to escape behaviours in the form of alcohol, drugs or addiction to, for example, exercise or porn.

– When we arrived at the theme of escape routes, everything was ticked off.v We recognised each other in exactly everything,” says Simon.

Per continues:

– We didn’t end up here by accident. Neither of us had been good at talking to other men before.n But now I’ve realised that talking to another man about difficult issues won’t kill me.

The treatment programme

People convicted of sexual offences are offered a treatment programme developed by the Swedish Prison and Probation Service – the aim is to prevent them from reoffending. The people we meet at Skogome tell us that they all chose to join the voluntary programme but that their #guytalk served a different purpose.

– Being in the treatment programme is tough because you have to take responsibility for and confront the shit you’ve done. For my own personal part, guy talk feels like a way to vent it. Then you can take what you’ve started to reflect on to the treatment and the psychologist, says Simon.

A staff member breaks in.

– They have done this only for themselves.

– One guy talked about his childhood, about abuse he had experienced. That whole meeting came to be about him and his experiences. It became his time and his opportunity to share because the rest of us directly felt he needed it. For him, it became very clear once he started telling us: ‘If I had talked about and handled this from the beginning, I might not have been sitting here’, quotes Anders.

All three agree that the talks have been easier than they initially thought. They also say that they quickly noticed a change in the whole department. That the jargon between the men has changed. At the same time, some things have been more challenging than others to talk about. Simon gives examples:

– It’s hard to put into words what you’ve done and what you’ve done to others. I’ve been so afraid myself of the monster inside me – who exists at the same time as another me. It has been important to talk about the darkness inside me. So important to start putting into words and understanding things.

Henrik in conversation with Anders, Simon and Per

– All the things I haven’t talked about or dealt with are the reasons I’ve done what I’ve done and ended up here. So I understood that I don´t have a choice. It has made it much easier when I can put it into words. When I get panic attacks, I can say it, and ask for help. And then it feels so good to be greeted where I am,” concludes Anders.

– The first time I shared my innermost secret, I was so afraid they would hit me. Instead, I got a big hug. It was so strange but I was received with love. I’ve kept that secret from myself all my life, because I thought I’d be met with hatred,” says Per.

– I’ve sat and shaken, and then afterwards when you’ve got the hard stuff out, the crying comes. To get out the grief, frustration and anger over everything that has gone wrong. The questions have helped a lot. Sometimes we’ve stayed on an issue for a very long time because it felt important,” says Simon.

The aim is to prevent

“Our Swedish justice system is based on the idea of giving people a second chance”

During the conversation, I find it difficult to balance my own feelings about what we are talking about. My colleague Henrik and I are sitting in a room with convicted sex offenders but we feel for them. Instead of getting help from society to deal with their own trauma, they have exposed others. Det är ett sådant misslyckande. At the same time, we know that their victims are out there somewhere, probably still struggling to come to terms with their traumas. Their victims have no obligation to forgive their perpetrators, but our Swedish justice system is based on the idea of giving people a second chance – and that the purpose of punishment is to rehabilitate and prevent future crimes. I try to put my personal feelings aside and think that the goal must be to avoid more assaults being committed, and then we need to understand why they happen in the first place.

– The stigma and polarisation surrounding men and mental illness is a major problem. Where do you seek help? How do you talk about men and mental illness? How can we ensure that it does not lead us to harm others? There are even people in here who don’t even know about PrevenTell, says Anders (PrevenTell is a national helpline for unwanted sexuality, ed).

– This becomes a bit of a sanctuary. For us in the group, it is impossible to judge each other. We know we’ve made mistakes. Between us, we can only support each other,” Per interrupts.

Anders continues:

– At the same time, we have constantly had to remind each other to say “I” rather than “man” in order not to escape personal responsibility. We must be prepared to receive criticism and to be challenged in this too. It’s so easy to just be affirmed by others, to not dare to question but to uphold these norms that somehow underlie what we’ve done.

– I think of guy talk as something we then take out into our lives, as a way of being, of having those conversations even at the breakfast table and in all my relationships. The aim is for us to remain open and inviting – but without being borderless, of course. We have been dependent on you. Without this material, we would never have had these conversations. That you make material that is accessible and takes us forward. It helps those of us who are lost,” Per says and then concludes:

– The vast majority of men in here just want to live a good life. You want to get out of here and feel good, feel that you can be yourself. This may help you along the way.

Henrik and I say goodbye to Per, Simon, Anders and the staff who welcomed us and made guy talk possible. We leave Skogome prison and Gothenburg. For us, the meeting has made it clear how important it is to have this kind of conversation, regardless of the group of men it involves. Men who together are forced to put words to things they have done and take responsibility for it, but who also dare to see the underlying reasons for how they got to where they are. Of course, this is far from the only solution to the enormous problem of men’s violence, but we believe that there is a much greater risk of people falling back into the same old patterns, behaviours and actions if this critical self-reflection is not given space. An important step in a long process.

Jennifer, Johanna and Rebecca – three of the Skogome staff who made guy talk possible

150 meetings since 2017

By the time this text is published, another year and a half will have passed. It’s November 2020, and in celebration of International Men’s Day, we’ve compiled all the guy talks that have been organised around the country since the concept was released in 2016. Participants have included parliamentary politicians, pensioners, athletes and gamers. Conversations have been organised in workplaces, festivals, restaurants and people’s homes. But Skogome institution stands out. They estimate that about 150 meetings have taken place at the prison since Per initiated guy talk and they are undoubtedly the ones who have organised the most guy talks in Sweden. Over 60 inmates have participated.

I call Per, who has now served his sentence and has been released from prison. He says that starting a new life outside prison has been difficult, but that he has built up a small social network that helps him.

– I have a boyfriend now, for example, who knows all about my background. It’s him and some close friends I’m talking to.

I ask what Per has brought back from guy talk at Skogome.

– The main thing is that I’ve got completely new tools to put things into words. But also to listen and show others respect. I haven’t actually done anything like this now outside of prison but it’s time to get to act on it. I know a few people I’m going to suggest that we have a guy talks

“To be able to talk about what we ourselves have been victims of and what has influenced us in this direction but at the same time take responsibility for our actions”

Jag bollar också några av mina tankar kring ansvarsfrågan och allas rätt till en andra chans. Per himself has met many who do not share this view, who instead believe that people are unchangeable. When I ask him about taking responsibility for his actions, he responds quickly.

– For us, it was such an obvious assumption that everyone landed on the fact that what they did was wrong, and a willingness to never hurt anyone again. To be able to talk about what we ourselves have been victims of and what has influenced us in this direction, but at the same time to take responsibility for our actions. Without that balance, we would never have been able to hold the talks we did.

Per is happy that we are talking about guy talks at Skogome and hopes that it will both encourage those who continue with the meetings in there now and that it might give more prisons the idea to do something similar.

– Then it’s not us perpetrators who should be in the media spotlight, it’s not our place to take. But sometimes it’s good to see that perspective too.

Before we hang up, I ask if he has anything to add.

– Yes. I really want to say that the work you did was also a necessity. When you can’t or don’t know how to talk about things, you need help. For us it was absolutely crucial to get that chance from you.

Crime and punishment. Perpetrators and victims. Vulnerability and understanding. The right to a second chance. These are not easy issues to deal with. It’s sensitive and hard to take in, and that’s why it’s so important. On the evening after my visit to Skogome a year and a half ago, I wrote: “Such powerful testimonies of what happens to repressed emotions” and there is one question that has stayed with me ever since: how much damage could we avoid if we as a society managed to deal with all this earlier?

Kristina Wicksell Bukhari, Thursday 19th November 2020

Me and Henrik, Skogome, May 2019

* Per, Simon and Anders are called something else in real life.