This is the second installment of a two-part series detailing the impact of trauma on incarcerated men’s likelihood of success at the parole board.
By John Lam
Journalism Guild Writer
I had been at a maximum-security prison for only three weeks when I saw a stabbing for the first time.
I was in my cell when I heard an alarm sounding. I looked out my window and saw two guys wrestling on the ground, stabbing each other; blood was everywhere.
I remember my cellmate nonchalantly going to the door, taking a peek and saying, “Oh there’s a stabbing,” and going back to his bunk. He sat down, eating cereal and watching “Tom and Jerry.” The stabbing continued, just outside our cell.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the scene. I remember forcing myself to watch and trying to stop shaking so that my cellmate would not notice that I was afraid. In my head, I repeated, “Get used to it. This is where you live now.” I knew expressing emotions in prison may be perceived as a weakness — and weaknesses are opportunities for exploitation.
For the first seven years of my incarceration, life seemed to have no value. On a Level IV yard, stabbings are a blood sport that breaks the tedium of being locked in a cell 23 hours a day.
I have come to believe the daily violence sears itself into the collective memories of incarcerated people.
|“The experience of being locked in a cage
has a psychological effect
upon everyone made to endure it.”|
Mika’il DeVeaux, executive director of Citizens Against Recidivism, who served 32 years of a life sentence in New York, wrote in The Trauma of the Incarceration Experience: “The experience of being locked in a cage has a psychological effect upon everyone made to endure it. No one leaves unscarred. I remain haunted by the memories and images of violence…. I can still see the murders I witnessed. I still see the image of a person being hit at the base of his skull with a baseball bat on a warm sunny afternoon during recreation hours…. I watched as the perpetrator…walk(ed) away as if nothing had happened.”
“Symptoms of trauma are most severe in prisoners incarcerated for longer than one year who have little access to education, vocational training, or rehabilitation,” according to Terrance Gorski, author of Post Incarceration Syndrome and Relapse.
These symptoms can lead to parole denied by the board.
Reasons cited for denial include lack of insight, lack of remorse, and/or poor institutional behavior, all of which can stem from trauma. These denials can be devastating, as they may last for periods from three to 15 years. Without good program support, many inmates find the task of preparing for the board to be nearly impossible.
Mental health care and therapeutic techniques can help people who have experienced trauma. However, two problems arise in the context of the prison system. First, there is often a stigma associated with seeking help through mental health services. Nothing said between an inmate and the psychologist is protected by the psychotherapist–patient privilege enjoyed by ordinary citizens.
“The one time I did go to mental health to seek help for quitting cigarettes, it was recorded into my prison file, which was used against me in the parole board,” said one man incarcerated at San Quentin who wished to remain anonymous. “I was told that it … divided my loyalties (and) that I am still supporting criminal enterprises.”
The second challenge is that mental health care cannot change the environment which causes mental health issuesto begin with (is limited by one’s environment. It cannot change someone’s material circumstances.)
Make self-help programs commonplace in prisons everywhere.
“Today, there are numerous places where I can get the help I need,” said Donte Smith, 35, who has been incarcerated for 19 years. “I finally began to understand what my victims went through, and Restorative Justice (a group) helped me with that.”
Increase availability of services to treat long-term exposure to violence or victimization . Trauma–related mental health issues faced by the incarcerated (effects of being a victim or witness of violence.)
“The psychological damage resulting from seeing violence every day stayed with me for decades,” said Robert Spears, who has been incarcerated since 1977. “I was living in fear.”
Increase awareness among incarcerated people, prison administrators, and parole board about (mental health and the influence of trauma on incarcerated people.)
“I used to think seeking help…made me a lesser person, that other inmates would see me as a person who was insane, that didn’t have it together,” said Falao Toalepai, 52, serving 25 years to life for first-degree murder. “Truth was, after experiencing all the trauma for so long, I was going insane. Today, I’m better because I have sought help.”