Special Disco Mention #24: Jonathan Asser


Before embarking on the life of a freelancer and spending my days in my underpants at home, smoking gitanes and listening to hunreds of thousands of deep house demos – I actually had the semblance of a 'career'. It was based in the arts, but specifically working with 'under-represented' groups – ie: anyone who isn't white, British and middle class.


Through this, I worked on all kinds of inclusion schemes – working with refugees, young offenders, homeless people, people with various disabilities etc. I saw some amazing work being done, by some really amazing people. I was in it for a decade, so I witnessed a lot of different projects – all rooted in getting peple invloved in society, in my case through the medium of active participation in the arts – but I also came into contact with many other organisations and individuals working on the much 'harder' side of the industry – the front line of drug and alcohol rehab, victim support etc.


Through all of this I have never, ever seen anything that comes even remotely close to being as effective as the work one man – Jonathan Asser – does with violent prisoners. Asser has come up with his own unique way of understanding and handling violence – with a system he has coined SVI (Shame/Violence Intervention). It's a system of understanding violent tendencies through linking them to feelings of shame and it is utterly, astoundingly effective. Asser himself, was prone to violence from a young age and it was through understanding his own impulses that he devised this system. He set up a group in Wandsworth prison, dealing only with the most violent of prisoners – those who perpetrated violence INSIDE the prison, the 'leaders' of the prison gangs, if you will. Those prisoners are, basically, left to rot by the traditional prison system – they're deemed too problematic, too troublesome to be rehabilitated and are often stuck in solitary confinement for long periods of time. Asser insisted that these were the specific individuals he wanted in his group and eventually managed to set up his group. After the most remarkable (and I mean REMARKABLE) transformations in these men, transformations which clearly came solely from their work in Assers SVI group, Wandsworth prison – in an act of utter recklessness – abandoned the scheme and stopped Asser's group. It wasn't financial reasons that were to blame because Asser undertook alot of the work on a voluntary basis. Quite why the decision was taken is a mystery, but – as at least one of the prisoners involved speculated – if you can rehabilitate prisoners so effectively, the future of the prison industry appears to become a little shaky.


A low rent documentary has been made on Asser's work – it's absolutely compelling – and a feature film called Starred Up has also been made, dramatising Asser's project. Watch the doc below and ask yourself what's going on with our system that a project that works so well could even think about being stopped. It's absolutely scandalous. Jonathan Asser, you are most deserving of this week's Special Disco Mention – a true modern day flawed hero. Out to you sir!


Starred Up is out now on general release.