A lot of time in prison is spent thinking about getting out; it’s natural. For any trapped animal, escaping captivity is instinctive and deeply wired. Being held captive is traumatic for wild animals. A March 6, 2017, Time magazine article entitled “The Future of Zoos,” reveals that “new discoveries about the environment of animals are raising difficult questions about keeping wild things in captivity.” The author, Justin Worland, writes that “study after study has shown that many animal species are far smarter and more feeling than previously understood, giving new insights into how many suffer from anxiety and depression when they are removed from nature.”
For humans, being locked up insults the regular cadence of life psychologically at every level. The denigration impacts both psychological and physical health. The mind-body connection is overwhelmed by long periods of forced isolation from freedom. It changes you.
My first prison-cell experience is branded in my long-term memory. It was in October 2003, but it could have been yesterday. Herded to the cell, I instinctively stopped at the door of the six- by nine-foot cell. A guard swatted me on the butt to get in the cell while he chortled in my ear: welcome home buddy. The conflated mixed messages made me weak. The moment the Plexiglas door slammed and locked behind me, I had an immediate surge of energy and the need to run. Run? Crash through the reinforced glass and cinder block like some super hero? At that moment, my situation defied rationale thought.
My internal conversations went like this:
- Get a grip—now! (Mental jolt of self-awareness to a new reality)
- Find the stairs to the second floor—this can’t be all there is! (Black humor to acclimate to the new reality)
- Fight the cramped feeling—there is air in here; sit down and breathe. (See my blog about claustrophobia in prison.)
- Drift to that island in your mind, the one with a palm tree, to slow the pounding in your chest; breathe slowly—you’ll live. (The first prison panic attack is the harshest and most frightening.)
- The locked door will eventually open. (For me, inevitable truths are antidotes to emotional reactions to trauma-based experiences.)
Trauma-Informed Practices Applied to Prison Reform
In her article in the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation entitled “As the World becomes Trauma-Informed, Work to Do, Kathryn A. Becker-Blease, PhD, reports that more people are searching for trauma-informed care, and that this growing awareness is associated with a wide variety of systems including criminal justice. For this blog, I am using the term trauma-informed practices/care in the context of the trauma endured by incarcerated human beings.
Dr. Becker-Blease comes to a logical finding in her article: “Because trauma is tied to oppression, it is natural that people [and zoo animals?] respond similarly to trauma.” She also points out that trauma-informed practices within the criminal justice system can be creative with an inspiring scope. Some of the trauma-informed practices listed in Becker-Blease’s article are significant for incarcerated people and are touched upon in past blogs I’ve posted on my website.
- Cognitive behavior therapy. In There Are Crazy People in Prison, I discuss, in part, how Oregon treats the reentry of its inmates. Six months before an inmate’s release, a detailed plan that includes psychotherapy is developed to increase the chances of success. In Oregon, using mental health interventions before release reduced the state’s recidivism rate 32 percent in just five years.
- Pet therapy. In Warm and Fuzzy Prison Reform, I write about how several state prison systems have prison-trained dog programs for inmates that benefit the public and inmates in healthful and reforming ways.
- Sensory strategies. In Mother Nature Nurtures Inmates, I cite a report by the American Psychological Association (APA) entitled “Nature Imagery in Prisons Project: The Impact on Staff and Inmates in Solitary Confinement,” which validates the effect the lack of nature’s stimulation has on inmates. The APA study shows that people need nature for physical and psychological well-being.
- Comfort plans. In Attica!, I argue that plans for inmates’ basic creature comfort needs, and more, are still lacking since the 1971 uprising in New York’s notoriously overcrowded prison.
Overcrowding, poor healthcare, lousy food, racism, and poorly trained prison personnel churn within the caldrons of our prisons. Add to the brew elements of contrived inmate humiliation and shame, as well as lack of education and job training, and a single spark will blow the top off. That’s the story of Attica forty-five years ago. That’s the reality now.
Justin Worland’s Time magazine article about zoos says neurology research demonstrates that mammals possess the same brain chemicals that give human beings self-awareness. Zoo animals suffer from anxiety and depression when they are removed from nature—the same is true for humans. Trauma-informed care and interventions apply to our prison and zoo populations: both fertile areas for necessary reformation.
Comments and observations about this blog’s subject matter are always welcome.
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