PTSD in Prison

One of the most traumatic and stressful situations a person can experience is incarceration. Even if you don’t get beaten or raped, the constant stress of dealing with hostile people, whether inmates or guards, will build up to a breaking point over the years. This can be manifested by a nervous breakdown or the development of a personality disorder.

During incarceration, there are no breaks, no days off, and there is no time given to recuperate your sanity. Even if you go to solitary confinement, that is typically the loudest area in the prison. In many instances people are doing 10-20-30 years at a crack. It is no wonder that when some people get out of prison they literally snap.

Though not news worthy, and therefore escaping the public’s attention, prisoners often snap before they even get out of prison. Since no guns are available, some inmates fire urine and feces at guards. This almost always happens in segregation.

I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Since segregation is the most stressful environment in the prison, this should not be a surprise.  Where is the psychologist that is going to stand up to their employer, the Department of Corrections, and tell them that instead of punishing inmates even more when they have a mental breakdown, they should try to avoid creating such a stressful environment that leads to these episodes in the first place? However, most people don’t care how unruly inmates are treated in their prisons, especially if they’ve done something to “justify” that treatment. This isn’t to say that prisoners don’t get psychiatric care in prison. The problem is that there is very little effort to alleviate the stress that is the cause of so many psychological problems. Then add the fact that upon release, psychiatric care is unavailable for most ex-convicts.

I guess the question is why should anyone, including the psychiatric community, care about how stress affects felons during and after incarceration? If psychiatry is to have any credibility, it must be consistent in the application of its diagnoses. For soldiers who return from the horrors of war, there is sufficient political capital to allow society to have empathy when veterans engage in some unordinary and sometimes criminal behavior. This often falls under the category of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, P.T.S.D..

Imagine the psychiatric community trying to apply this same argument to ex convicts, who in some cases have gone through as much or worse horrors in America’s prisons? Most men would probably prefer taking the risk of being shot than that of being raped. Still, I will not trivialize the stress of war to prove that prisoners undergo a great degree of stress. War and incarceration are opportunities for stress to have their greatest impact because the person experiencing them can’t just walk away when they’ve had too much. Escape and desertion are both crimes taken very seriously by our government.

Is there a correlation between stress and a person’s behavior? It is well documented that a large number of soldiers and prisoners are prone to alcohol or drug dependency after doing time in a war zone or in a prison. Experiencing high levels of stress and trauma make a person susceptible to engage in activities that will help them escape the continued experience of that stress and trauma through their memory.

Even though the event is over, the human brain has the same stress reaction whenever a veteran or prisoner recalls their experiences. The pressure, frustration, anger, rage, conflict and anxiety all come flooding back. Doing drugs or drinking are ways people try to cope with that. Obviously, this opens the door for other problems.

Soldiers and prisoners often have the same feelings of powerlessness or helplessness that eat away at their psyche. Soldiers who are sitting ducks awaiting the justification to use force, which usually only comes after being attacked, slowly have their ego chipped away as their comrades are chewed up by improvised explosive devices and snipers. For soldiers, trained both physically and psychologically to be aggressive in the face of the aggressor, these continuous assaults without an opportunity to fight back can cause them to feel emasculated.

Prisoners who suffer from numerous forms of degradation, at the hands of both inmates and guards, can also feel emasculated by their experience. This can range from verbal to physical abuse. Then there’s the aspect of dealing with an all powerful government that takes privileges away, based on the whim of a politician. The state is saying, “We’re taking your cigarettes, cassette tapes, porn magazines, etc., because we can, punks!” Even more frustrating is when the government rejects valid appeals.

Compared to the plight of the soldier, it’s not as much of a physical grind. Over the long haul, the psychological result is the same, the feeling of emasculation.

Considering that most prisoners and soldiers value strength as an important character trait, the feeling of emasculation can lead to aggressive behavior as a way to compensate for this perceived degradation. When you add the aforementioned tendencies toward drug and alcohol abuse, you can end up with a powder keg ready to explode. Understanding this for both groups is important. The fact that there are so many people who are not aggressive by nature, and whom everyone got along with, who then undergo this dramatic character swing after going to war or prison, proves that stress has a negative impact on behavior. The greater the stress experienced, and the more prolonged the duration, the more likely a person will eventually react with some form of negative behavior.

The big difference between ex-convicts and veterans is that veterans have learned self-discipline as part of their training. This gives them a greater ability to self-regulate these tendencies, but is not foolproof. Self-awareness goes a long way in controlling the self, however. Should we not then encourage both veterans and ex convicts to seek the introspection found when receiving psychological treatment?

After a person has served in combat, it would be outrageous not to always offer free psychological care to that veteran for the rest of their life. Furthermore, there should be no social stigma attached to that treatment. It would be no different than getting treatment for a piece of shrapnel left in the body.

After serving time in prison, ex-convicts should also be eligible for free psychological care. It would be cruel and unusual punishment to subject a person to one of the most stressful experiences a human being can endure, and then kick them out on the streets with no resources to help them cope with what they’ve been through.

This isn’t about justifying or excusing failure, it’s about understanding why people are failing so that we can do everything to prevent the next murder, robbery spree, or over-dose from happening. Realizing why a person is trying to destroy their self is a step toward treating them and preventing them from destroying others in the process. Do criminals already have tendencies to engage in these behaviors, thus the reason for their being incarcerated in the first place? Of course, and they do bear the brunt of the responsibility to change. However, many of these people lack structure, and unless someone provides it to them, they will not have a platform to stand on from which to make those changes. Our prison system should not consistently make people who are bad, worse. The fact that this happens all the time should certainly be at the forefront of the debate of whether continuously increasing our prison population will in fact reduce the number of crimes, or their severity, in the long term.

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2 Responses to PTSD in Prison

  1. JD says:

    I agree. I have been both in combat and in prison. prison was worse.
    no one feels any pity after you have been to prison. All they see is an animal.

  2. Raelene Anderson says:

    My son suffers from PTSD. He lost his daughter while serving in Iraq. After coming home he could not deal with the loss of a child and ended up in divorce and his wife taking his other child across the US. He turned to drugs and alcohol which in turn landed him in prison. The state prison is not equipped to handle veterans with PTSD and nor do they care. My son needs counseling, anger management and to learn how to cope with this. He will not get this treatment where he is and I am afraid he will come out of the prison an even more angry and hardened individual with worse PTSD than when he went in. This is one example of prison will make something bad even worse. I am sure my son is only one of millions.

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