Prison, Trauma and Empathy – a twisted loop

Posted: March 26, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,


I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, both because of the upcoming presidential election, and because of some bad luck I had recently with property crime. Detroit Today had a segment yesterday about criminal justice; host Steven Henderson pointed out this might be one of those rare issues on which things actually get done, as liberals’ and conservatives’ views align.  It’s like seeing a unicorn.

The BIG ISSUE with criminal justice is the purpose and the results.  Or at least, that’s what I take from the endless debates about costs and treatments and outcomes and recidivism.  We need to know what we’re putting people away TO ACHIEVE, and if we’re actually achieving our goals.

What’s the point?

Writers much smarter than me have written about what we say our goals are for prison, and what the data show our goals are.  It’s a bit like the old economic chestnut rational choice theory; we say we want one thing, but our actions show we want another.  It’s like McDonalds; we say we want healthier food, but continue to buy Big Macs. We say we want prisoners rehabilitated, but our actions show more investment in revenge, retribution and punitive action.

It does not make sense to keep doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.  That’s the definition of insanity.  We’re acting like making prison/jail scarier, bigger threats, is going to act like a consequence and stop people doing criminal things.  IT IS NOT WORKING.

If we really cared about rehabilitating prisoners, it would make sense to put our funding into the programs that are shown to reduce recidivism (that means less people go back to jail/prison).  Programs like mental health and substance abuse treatment, anger management programs and treatments based on individual needs.  We’d work to build up community based treatments and actually provide transitional planning for prisoners.  Right now, you can’t discharge on parole without an address.  However, a transient hotel or homeless shelter technically count as an address.  We’re taking people who are already down, then putting them in dangerous situations that are difficult to navigate.  If a person is recovering from alcohol/drug abuse, not having a stable housing or support system makes them more likely to relapse; if they’re on parole or probation, that counts as a violation and can land them back behind bars.

The Effect of Trauma

Much of my professional life has revolved around trauma, the etiology of it, reactions to it, and treatment to recover from it.  Mental health is finally beginning to acknowledge the fundamental impact trauma has upon us, on our behavior and our actual neurological makeup.  Trauma can be passed along between generations and manifests unexpectedly.  Huge swaths of our population are now dealing with aftereffects of trauma; some are resilient and are able to “bounce back” while others don’t have the capacity to cope.

25% of children and adolescents will experience a traumatic event by age 16.

Substance abuse? Lots of times, substances are used to cope with the overwhelming feelings accompanying trauma. In over 70% of adolescent drug users, there was a traumatic history. Once use starts, the user is at a greater risk for re-traumatization (think watching someone get shot or overdose, or being sexually assaulted at a drug house or while drunk at a party). Trauma compounds.

Over half of people in prison are there for drug offenses.  There are higher rates of incarceration in communities of color; there are higher rates of trauma in communities of color.  Same for lower SES.  Same for immigrant communities.

It’s a short leap to conclude we’re imprisoning traumatized people.

Prison = Trauma

Prison itself is a trauma.  It makes people feel helpless and struggle with decision making. You are constantly under observation, by guards and by inmates.  When you go to prison, you’ll likely see some violence or suffer violence against you; statistics are somewhat lacking, as violence is underreported both by inmates (for fear of retribution) and by correctional officials (for fear of reprimand).

Inmates are much more likely to be victims of sexual violence, both by inmates and guards.

Prison is a culture, where a blind eye is turned to violence, where independence and autonomy are forcibly removed, and where dignity is an unafforded luxury. Prison breeds paranoia, fear, distrust, anger and violence. Prison is antithetical to empathy. And yet, without empathy, there can be no remorse, no rehabilitation.

The Way Out: Trust and Change

Change has to come from a place of safety. It’s scary to admit you’re wrong, or you’ve done wrong. It’s frightening to be vulnerable, especially to be vulnerable with another person. If you don’t feel safe, you won’t be able to change anything; you’re going to be defensive, because you’re defending yourself against a threat. Old-school treatment, where a person would be confronted, belittled and humiliated, is not only ineffective, it can actually do more harm than good. Trust is the key to making changes.

Treating trauma is especially reliant on building trust.  Trauma breaks fundamental beliefs, that you are safe, that the world is a safe place, and that you can predict what will happen to you. Traumatized folks have trouble with trust, of themselves and others. After all, lots of trauma is a result of someone close to you totally betraying trust and taking advantage of vulnerability.

From safety and security, we are able to acknowledge shortcomings and failings. We are able to empathize with others when we ourselves feel validated and understood. Yet we deny this to those most in need. Rehabilitation will never come from shame, pain and distrust.

Our stubborn reliance on incarceration is destroying us.

First, trauma impedes trust and slows down development of decision making mechanisms – most people we incarcerate are trauma survivors. Second, prison re-traumatizes people while reinforcing distrust, paranoia and self-hatred. Third, those who make it through the system are unsupported and are sometimes actively impeded if they try to do the right thing.

Our prison system is designed to fail. It fails our inmates and it fails our society. It takes hurting people, hurts them more, then blames them for not improving. Why would you contribute to a society that denies your basic humanity? Why would you care about others, when you’re told and taught your own pain is not worthy of care and attention?

We need to focus more on prevention and change than punishment and revenge. If we don’t, the cycle will continue, and things will keep getting worse.

It starts with you. It starts today.


  1. […] is why people come out of prison traumatized; more trauma = less ability to cope with negative life events = […]

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