Author, Expert & Speaker

I remember meeting my first state-raised inmate. It was on the yard, walking the track at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California. State-raised refers to a person who has spent more time incarcerated than not.

Anthony was twenty-six years old, small in stature, socially awkward, and eager for recognition. He joined me walking the track one day—walking the track was a good time to talk in relative privacy—and he seized the opportunity. Like so many state-raised, he was young enough to be my son, an age difference that often broke down barriers. I had paternal feelings toward these men and gave them respect, a humane gift that they craved and were badly short of.

During our walks, Anthony talked about how he had become state-raised. His background was startling: he never knew his father; his mother taught him to survive by shoplifting food and clothing; and when his mother did make money, it was as a sex worker. Anthony knew too many details; he emoted a sadness that had no bottom.

At age seven, Anthony and his mother were discovered in a department store where they had hidden overnight for shelter and to dress themselves in layers of new clothes off the racks. Their usual routine of shoplifting was foiled by a security guard who spotted them before the store opened the next morning. That was the start of Anthony’s life script of juvenile halls, emotionally distant foster parents, and resorting to the world of crime to survive. Survival skills left no room for getting in touch with mental pain.

Others’ stories about being state-raised were all too common. The accounts had a pattern of abuse and dysfunction that included parents’ and grandparents’ drug addiction, physical and sexual abuse, and nonenrollment in school—circumstances that culminated in childhood stress that led to the similar survival path, without choice, taken by Anthony. These children, now men, had little or no positive psychological attachments to their parents; they had the opposite: extremely negative role models, parental postpartem contempt for the children, chronic self-esteem busters that included humiliation and shame, inadequate nutrition, little emphasis on education, and poor or sometimes no housing. For the state-raised, these factors ultimately crescendo into aberrant criminal activities geared to survival, resulting in being put on the track of the prison-bound train.

The Social Justice and Public Health Problems Within

A recent New York Times article by Audra D. S. Burch highlights the story of Rob Sullivan, a forty-three-year-old formerly incarcerated person. By age six, incidents in Rob’s horribly dysfunctional family were “charred in his memory,” driven by his father’s physical abuse of his mother, the influence of alcohol and drugs on his parents, and the culture and crime surrounding his early childhood. Rob’s story is told in the video link within the article. His quotes about his upbringing brought back memories of my yard walks with Anthony: “Chaotic—there is no other way to describe my childhood . . . I always felt alone.”

Birch’s article includes insights from authorities on the link between childhood abuse and neglect that clarify the ugly phenomenon that is now a severe social justice issue—not a criminal justice issue: “‘Childhood trauma is a huge factor within the criminal justice system,’ said Christopher Wildeman, a sociologist at Cornell University and co-director of the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect [NDACAN]. ‘It is among the most important things that shapes addictive and criminal behavior in adulthood.’”

It’s shameful that our country has the volume of child abuse requiring a national database to keep track of the ruthlessness adults perpetrate against children. Statistics concerning child maltreatment are startling. How many Anthonys and Robs—how many unnamed girls and boys—are behind these figures? How many were derailed into the criminal justice system by an inherited, macabre birthright?

I have looked at the statistics and arrived at these data points that empirically support the critical public health problem:

  • All states plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico are included in the statistical sample.
  • The child population of the reporting sample is 372,984,000.
  • The reports show 9,730,133 cases of child maltreatment with positive findings.
  • The overall percentage of positive disposition rate is 26 percent.

The data brought out by this detailed study are compelling. There is hard evidence of a pernicious cultural decay that finds no cure within the criminal justice system. In these instances, my thesis is that the criminal justice system exacerbates the underlying public health issues, sweeping salvageable people under the rug of dark silence.

In May 2012, a paper was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health and adopted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health. The paper, entitled “Childhood and Adult Trauma Experiences of Incarcerated Persons and Their Relationship to Adult Behavioral Health Problems and Treatment,” has significant findings. Here is a sampling:

  • Rates of childhood and adult trauma are high among incarcerated persons. In addition to criminality, childhood trauma is associated with the risk for emotional disorders (e.g., depression and anxiety) and co-morbid conditions such as alcohol and drug abuse and antisocial behaviors in adulthood.
  • Experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse (referred to as “trauma”) during childhood is known to have predictable immediate and distal impacts on personality development. Rates of childhood and adult trauma are notably elevated among incarcerated men.
  • In the United States, 1 in 6 state male inmates reported being physically or sexually abused before age 18, and many more witnessed interpersonal violence.
  • Over half of male inmates (56%) reported experiencing childhood physical trauma. By contrast, sexual trauma in childhood is less common (less than 10%) than physical trauma among incarcerated men.
  • Trauma, both experienced and witnessed, often continues into adulthood.
  • Given the sheer numbers of incarcerated men and the strength of these associations, targeted intervention is critical.

There is no absence of evidence to argue absence of facts. Studies and resulting data points show strong evidence that children who experience all forms of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction are known to experience predictable immediate and future impacts on their personality development. Other reports give us more statistics:

  • The National Center for Victims of Crime notes that “self-report studies show that 20% of adult females recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident.”
  • Darkness to Light reports that “approximately 30% of children who are sexually abused are abused by family members . . . [and] about 90% of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abusers.”
  • Physical abuse cases include injuries such as bruises, welts, burns, abrasions, lacerations, wounds, cuts, bone and skull fractures, and other evidence of physical injury that are not necessarily reported to agencies that record such occurrences.
  • The National Institute of Justice finds that “those who had been abused or neglected as children were more likely to be arrested as juveniles (27 percent versus 17 percent), adults (42 percent versus 33 percent), and for a violent crime (18 percent versus 14 percent).”
  • The National Institute of Justice report continues, “Both black and white abused and neglected children were more likely to be arrested than comparison children.”

Take the Quiz

Two medical doctors, Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda, developed a scoring system for what they called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, also known as the ACE Study. The score is based on the answers to ten questions that assess cumulative childhood stress in three categories: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. The higher the score, up to ten positive responses to the survey, the higher the risk of negative outcomes for the individual.

Dr. Anda is quoted in Audra Burch’s New York Times article with reference to an ACE risk score of four where serious social concerns begin to surface: “This clearly showed children’s adverse experiences are a public health problem . . . What we now know is that childhood adversity and stress can chemically change the way our brains work.”

The ACE survey is available for anyone to take. Click here to access the quiz. I scored one; how did you do? Please note, it’s my intention to expose you to the questions on the quiz and not to project or infer anything from anyone’s results. The test is not a crystal ball—it measures one type of risk factor, not all.

Summation of Sorts

This post identifies the intersection between social justice, public health, and the criminal justice system. The prison reform map is vast and cumulative. The issues transcend into areas we don’t necessarily connect. Within the cause and effect of criminal conduct are preprison/criminal justice remedies that need to be recognized and acted upon.

Social reform is the key to changing this country’s lock-her-up mentality. I discuss a related aspect of this topic in the context of women’s issues in my recent post Sexualized Conduct Toward Females Can Lead to Their Incarceration.

Action Needed

What needs to happen, at a root level of the problem, include the following:

  • Our society must learn to prevent adverse childhood experiences. The starting point is talking about their existence and ensuring mental health professionals’ intervention where the data show high levels of childhood stress and abuses.
  • We need changes in our systems—educational, criminal justice, healthcare, mental health, public health, and workplace—to sensitize and educate about the correlation between childhood abuse and its impact on people in these social systems, including the paths to incarceration.
  • We must create safety net systems within our social systems so we don’t further traumatize someone who’s already traumatized. The mandated reporter laws for professionals who suspect child abuse are a good start, but that’s only a beginning.

Your comments and observations are always welcome.

Image courtesy of 123rf


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