Blog Postpost

Posted Monday March, 15th 2021

Trauma Healing Behind Bars

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How do we make sure that the most vulnerable people in society have access to healing from trauma? Everyone deserves to have an opportunity to heal from trauma, although sadly, it is more accessible for some than others. In this blog, we will briefly look at the complex issue of incarceration and highlight a few ways the incarcerated population accesses trauma healing.

The number of people incarcerated in the USA is staggering. According to research by, the American criminal justice system holds close to 2.3 million people. This is around 0.7% of the entire population. One in every five prisoners in the world is in America.(1) According to the Washington Post, one in seven of these prisoners are serving life, and two-thirds are people of color. (2)

These overwhelming statistics beg the question: What is the purpose of prison? This issue seems to divide society. Should it be to punish, or rehabilitate? We have seen throughout history that harsh punishments don’t equate to decreased recidivism rates. If we look at European countries like Norway, Denmark, or Finland, we see that treating prisoners like people who need help, rather than people who need punishment, lowers re-offending. (3)

Many prisoners do need help. The percentage of people who were exposed to trauma before being incarcerated is very high. In the United States, one in six male inmates report being physically or sexually abused before the age of 18, and a larger number were witnesses to interpersonal violence. Around 50% report some sort of physical trauma throughout their lives.(4) Another study found that rates of PTSD were disproportionately high in prisoners of both genders. (5) The experience of trauma continues from the time of arrest to the multi-faceted experience of incarceration. Incarceration isn’t just traumatic for prisoners. It separates families – people often have to travel for hours to make a visit. Different states have different rules for how prison visits are conducted, with some families only able to see their loved ones through a barrier, and talk through a telephone.

For anyone, walking into a correctional facility can be intimidating. We are suddenly stripped of our agency, with guards in control, leading us through a series of heavy, locked metal doors that are slammed and double-locked. Relatives visiting their loved ones are often subject to intrusive searches. Worryingly, there have been cases of small children being strip-searched when visiting their parents in prison.(6) Indeed, one of the questions in the Adverse Childhood Experience questionnaire is “did a household member go to prison?” (7)

Of course, not everyone experiences the incarceration of a family member in the same way. Rene* has a son who has been incarcerated for several years. Her story is a case where a loving and supportive home was not enough to prevent the collision of mental illness with the criminal justice system. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) asserts that individuals in a mental health crisis are more likely to encounter police than get medical help. (8) NAMI reports that the demographics of the criminal justice system are devastating. In a year’s time: 2 million arrests in the U.S. involve persons with serious mental illness; 550,000 people with serious mental illness are in jails and prisons; 900,000 are in some kind of community control. The system is woefully understaffed and often poorly educated about the needs of those with mental illness. (9) The challenges for Rene to connect with her incarcerated loved one have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the shut down of visitation. She and her son are fortunate enough to have the necessary funds for the overpriced phone calls which are a lifeline of support and mental well-being. Sadly this is not an avenue of connection all can afford.

As punitive as the prison system in America and much of the world is, there are still people dedicating their lives to helping incarcerated people recover from trauma, and to improve their overall mental wellbeing. TRF partners with the Prison Yoga Project as one of our Therapeutic Alliance members. This organization supports incarcerated people with trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness practices to promote rehabilitation, reduce recidivism, and improve public safety.

Josefin Wikstrom, PYP Program Director and Training Coordinator in Europe, has worked with our own Bessel van der Kolk to expand her knowledge of trauma informed yoga. Josefin says “my work involves researching the need for special methods of treating traumatic stress in confined environments, patients burdened with the extra layers of fear and stress from being locked inside, chronic stress, psychosocial structures and lack of control.” (10) One of her students had this to say: “Yoga is a lens, a very valuable way of seeing life, a filter for me physically, mentally, and spiritually that’s connected to my emotions. I’m balanced, re-energized after every class.”

Jim Gilligan, a renowned Harvard psychiatrist and violence expert describes prisons as being in a state of “chronic recurrent crisis” In his research, he states that the most violent prisoners were also the most traumatized ones. He states that a huge number had been subject to child abuse, and a similarly large number were survivors of lethal violence. (11)

Jim highlights the importance of giving inmates the tools and resources needed to gain ‘self-respect’. He notes that many inmates feel that no one respects them – respect is also one of the main sources of violent conflict within a prison. He says that prisoners are “hypersensitive to being disrespected by others because they were so lacking in self-respect”. These resources include therapy and education. Jim found that a college degree reduced violent recidivism to a rate of 1%. (12)

Another member of our therapeutic alliance approaching societal integration and trauma from a novel perspective is Shakespeare Behind Bars. They offer theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated, post-incarcerated, and at-risk communities. Their program is not just built on dramatic expression, it aims to foster literacy skills, decision making, empathy, trust, and tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict.

The Prison Mindfulness Institute in Massachusetts is dedicated to delivering “mindfulness-based interventions.” They aim to provide “healthier, more humane environments for prisoners and staff alike.” When I mentioned this to a friend who has spent time in prison in the UK, he reflected on how many prisoners practice mindful things, without necessarily knowing. My friend said that people would walk around the yard, lift weights, draw, or write. He started sewing, because he found that it just “let him focus on what he was doing at the time,” rather than his sentence ahead of him.

I had the opportunity to volunteer in a prison in Wales, United Kingdom, facilitating creative writing classes for prisoners. It was a huge success. Feedback from the inmates was positive and they stated that they appreciated being able to express themselves away from the drama and bravado of the wing. Rene had the opportunity to experience weekly art classes in the visitation room with her son. This provided family contact in the context of a focused art lesson which provided both healing individually through expressive arts and relationally by being able to do this together.

I can say that from my own, albeit limited experience, of working with prisoners that what to do upon leaving the penal system is often a source of great anxiety. Rueben Miller has written extensively on the matter of life after prison. Rueben is a chaplain at the Cook County Jail in Chicago and now a sociologist studying mass incarceration. He notes that in the USA, there are over 45,000 policies that dictate the lives of former prisoners. If these rules are broken, it is enough to send someone back into the system. This creates a barrier and burden for them and their families who are working to rebuild their lives. There are organizations whose mission is to support the process of preparing prisoners for reentry into society. One such program that works to promote restorative justice is Prison Fellowship. They launched Second Chance Month in 2017 which is a nationwide effort to raise awareness about these barriers and unlock brighter futures for people with a criminal record.

We couldn’t possibly explore every single organization that helps people in prisons with their mental wellbeing. There are a lot of people, doing a lot of good in the world, and thankfully this page would go on for a lot longer than most people are willing to read! If you’ve had any experience in working with incarcerated people, been incarcerated yourself, or have been affected by any of the issues in this blog, we’d love to hear from you.

Non-Linked References:

(3) Tønseth, Christin, and Ragnhild Bergsland. "Prison Education In Norway – The Importance For Work And Life After Release". Cogent Education, vol 6, no. 1, 2019, p. 1628408. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/2331186x.2019.1628408. Accessed 2 Mar 2021.

(4) Wolff, Nancy, and Jing Shi. “Childhood and adult trauma experiences of incarcerated persons and their relationship to adult behavioral health problems and treatment.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 9,5 (2012): 1908-26. doi:10.3390/ijerph9051908

(5) Baranyi, G., Cassidy, M., Fazel, S., Priebe, S., & Mundt, A. P. (2018). Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Prisoners. Epidemiologic reviews, 40(1), 134–145.

*Rene is not her real name for privacy purposes.

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