By John Lam
Journalism Guild Writer
This is the first installment of a two-part series detailing the impact of trauma on incarcerated men’s likelihood of success at the parole board.
In the many group discussions held each day in San Quentin, it is not uncommon to hear men raise their hands and say, “I don’t know how to connect with myself.”
I felt this way, too, for many years. I thought I was alone in that feeling, but I wasn’t. I realized many incarcerated people were disconnected from their emotions, due in part to a lack of awareness about trauma’s impacts.
Trauma has created a serious barrier to self-reflection for many people, including myself. For those incarcerated with lengthy sentences those for whom the parole board will determine the time of their release this dearth of self-reflection can prove disastrous: The parole board often cites “lack of insight” in issuing denials.
When I came to prison at age 19, the violence and intimidation shocked me at first, but eventually fear became the norm.
Since I have been incarcerated at San Quentin, I have taken advantage of self-help groups and a new environment in which many people value self-reflection. I’ve begun to suspect that living under violent conditions may cause people to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which has long-term mental health consequences.
People develop coping mechanisms to survive the violence and fear in prisons, but these mechanisms are at odds with self-reflection and insight.
This issue has become increasingly relevant as California’s sentencing law reform allows more people to come before the parole board.
In the worst moments of all incarceration, trauma strips away the ability to empathize, to relate to other people, and to have self-awareness.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines trauma as “an event in which there is physical harm, the self is wounded, or when a person who directly experiences, witnesses or learns about a violent event is ‘damaged.’” This was my experience of prison.
Within several months after coming to prison, a numbness set in that allowed me to survive the fear for being targeted and the trauma of witnessing violence. Though they may not been diagnosed with actual PTSD diagnosis, incarcerated people often respond to the violence they have experienced with indifference, hyper-vigilance, or other PTSD symptoms.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports: “All people (who) lived through a traumatic event that caused them to fear for their lives, see horrible things, . . . feel helpless. . . (and experience) changes in the brain that may result in PTSD.” I believe everyone with whom I have been incarcerated has experienced these changes to some degree.
“I have been through four riots since I have been incarcerated and numerous violent altercations for the past 19 years,” said Donte Smith, 35.
“If you asked me three years ago (prior to coming to San Quentin), I would have told you that I didn’t care about my victims or what they went through because my top priority was about survival. I was numb and hopeless, and had difficulties relating to the crazy events happening around me (let alone) to what I had done to get to prison.”
This numbness is particularly troubling as I sit in groups with men who are attempting to process their culpability and to take responsibility for the harm they caused. The goal in these group settings is to truly empathize with and feel remorse for the victim(s), but men I have known find that their numbness prevents them from doing so.
In addition, I have seen numbness keep people from understanding the factors leading to their crime; such understanding is essential to being found suitable for parole.
“When I was in LA county jail, people were getting raped, beat up and robbed, so I put up a shield and never took it down so that people would not mess with me,” said Falao Toalepai, 52, serving 25 years to life for first-degree murder.
“I had no one I could trust to talk to about why I am in prison (because) I was worried about how other people would look at me — and it cost me 32 years in prison. I have been to the board five times and was denied each time for a lack of insight.”