Economic inequality, racism and trauma: growing up in racist combat zones and living in racist prisons.

Author:Katz, Rebecca S.


Living in a sanctioned combat zone is physically dangerous and psychologically traumatic (Humphries, 2010). Similarly, living in a high crime urban area and witnessing your friends and relatives die as the result of gang related or drug related violence is similarly psychologically disturbing. In both scenarios, practicing the necessary hyper-vigilance necessitated for survival over the course of time also becomes psychologically exhausting.

Young boys and girls who become men and women in communities surrounded by violence and poverty, with little political or social recognition of these hardships or attempts to provide assistance are not unlike our soldiers who survive war in spite of government inaction after their return home. (Harding, 2009; Humphries, 2010). Living in constant fear and witnessing combat or neighborhood violence is traumatic (Boelen & Prigerson, 2012; Stroebe, Schut, & Van De Bout, 2013; Bowlby, 1969, & 1988). (Humphries, & 2010; Chamberlin, 2012). Specifically one scholar argues; "trauma related nervous disorders became the mark of someone who had failed to live up culturally constructed notions of the ideal male citizen soldier. Thus victims were blamed for the unmanly behavior by way of stigmatizing medical diagnoses" (Chamberlin, 2012, p. 358). Similarly, our government labels inner city poor men of color who act out their pain after witnessing neighborhood violence/combat, as criminals rather than victims of the corporate-government abandonment of such places. Historical attempts to deny and complicate the trauma of soldiers in combat is likened to historical attempts aimed at emasculating Black men while differentiating them from real men, who are socially constructed as white and not criminal. Therefore, our social, economic, and political denial of the humanity and worth of the masculinity of men of color is similarly replicated in the social denial of their psychological injuries suffered in economic deprivation, inequality and their early childhood and adolescent neighborhood trauma (Boelen & Van Den Bout, 2007; & Bowlby, 1947). Moreover, both White men and men of Color subsequently suffer the pains of imprisonment compounding the psychic pain of their early experiences in abusive families and economically abandoned rural or urban areas. Among men of color locked in Southern rurally dominated penal institutions, they experience employees' own racist attitudes are similar to poor white inmates' racist ideologies (Hassine, 2009, 2012).


Semi-structured interview protocols were utilized to interview twenty-one adult incarcerated men in two medium security prisons over the period of March 2012 through February 2013. The University Institutional Review Board on Human Subjects approved the protocol as well as State Department of Corrections and the two prison wardens. Neither Warden permitted a personal solicitation of volunteers directly. One Warden at the prison with a higher a level of security asked unit administrators to request that interested men place their names on a list to be scheduled for the life history interviews. In the second facility, a slightly lower level of a medium security facility, I spoke directly with Unit Staff asking them to encourage incarcerated men who might be interested in participating and would be forthcoming. I met each man on the unit where he lived in the second prison and in the first prison I met with men in the Education wing separate from living quarters. While my undergraduate research fellow observed several interviews, I was the only interlocutor throughout the data collection process.

As a former mental health therapist in a variety of settings from group homes and psychiatric hospitals to two prisons, I established a therapeutic rapport to gain the trust of each interviewee firstly expressing my interest in their lives. Secondly, I demonstrated my interest in them by exhibiting genuineness, empathy and respect. Moreover, my experience as a Therapist has provided with me a unique skill set to be present in the moment with each man and earn their trust through the demonstrating the previously mentioned qualities and engaging in appropriate self-disclosure with each individual.

The questions included eighty-six open-ended items querying men about their experiences inside and outside their respective institutions including the following: neighborhoods where they grew up, favorite activities, most pleasant and most painful memories, favorite relatives, the history of involvement in substance abuse as well as delinquency, romantic relationships, prison visitation, prison program participation, educational changes, and new attachment relationships. We also queried early family relationships love relationships and same-sex friendships, work histories, educational histories, history of harmful and helpful behavior, and gang involvement. These questions were developed based upon extant research on systemic neighborhood theory, strain theory, and social learning theory. One coder was utilized for the research simply because this project was designed and conducted by a single social scientist with the assistance of an undergraduate research associate and the graduate assistant who were trained throughout the process of this research project.

We also informed each interviewee that we were attempting to understand their life story and how they have become who they are now. I engaged each man by mindfully listening to their life story and attending to verbal and nonverbal responses. I communicated a sincere understanding of the man's individual experiencing by demonstrating warmth, genuineness, empathy and respect of the individual. In addition to the experience of institutionalization (Karp, 2010), we argue that providing a nurturing and warm responsiveness to each man in a semi-private room, allowed us to penetrate the protective armor that men in prison often wear to remain psychologically guarded. I utilized additional probing questions as necessary to develop the life history narrative of each individual in order to know them more fully as human beings. I took voluminous notes during each interview capturing quotes when possible. Nevertheless, I tried to capture the totality of each man's life as best as is feasible through my field notes. After each interview session notes were typed into an electronic document file. . This paper includes an analysis of eight of the men of color and one White male whose life course resembled that of the other men particularly with regard to his gang related experiences and because his racist beliefs mirrored some of the other White males' racist ideologies. .

With regard to coding data, only the primary researcher reviewed each written interview question by question and typed responses from each man individually and then subsequently integrated each man's story into a coherent chronological order from their early environment through adulthood and various periods of incarceration. There is no literal quantitative coding of this data, as it is the story of their lives as they told me, it is a verstehen in the original operationalization of the term as Max Weber intended it. Readers will come to know these men as I did with their frailties and strengths as you read through their stories. Emergent these within the narratives of the responses were identified are summarized below.

Seven of the incarcerated men were Black, twelve were White, and one was an Asian Pacific Islander and one was Latino. Two men had been incarcerated for over twenty years and two for over ten years. Four of the men who committed murders were white, and three were Black. One white man was incarcerated for assaulting a police officer following a car accident and the discovery of drugs in his automobile. Three Black men murdered other men in drug related transactions. One white man was incarcerated for physically abusing his infant and five men were incarcerated for burglary or robbery. Three other men, one white and two African American were incarcerated for drug sales, although two reported that they witnessed, shot at and probably killed others and had been shot or stabbed themselves 'on the streets'. Only one young African American male was incarcerated for a minor parole violation. Twenty of the interviews were completed, however in this research we primarily discuss the men of color, all which are based upon completed interviews.


Each of the men in our study (White and men of color) were seriously psychologically damaged, often resulting from early childhood wounds which remained largely ignored and untreated within correctional institutions. Specifically, most of the men grew-up in violent families, were physically or sexually abused and or witnessed violence in their family or neighborhood. More importantly we also found that the psychic pain of these men resonated with the findings of other studies of men and violence, particularly longitudinal work accomplished in Loeber's (1998) Pittsburg Youth Study as well as Farrington's & Joffille's work (2012) work with London men (Joffile, Farrington, & Vannick, 2012; Loeber & Farrington, 1998; Loeber & Farrington, 2014). Specifically, the men who came of age in poor violent urban neighborhoods encountered a great deal of violent victimization both precluding and following involvement in perpetrating violence themselves. These nine men experienced long periods of their youth in psychiatric (predominately white men) or juvenile institutions (primarily men of color and some inner city poor white men).

The juvenile justice and mental health systems failed to treat the mental health problems of these men and boys when the opportunity presented itself. We find this particularly alarming given current trends in recent mass shootings revealing that many shooters suffered from untreated mental illnesses (Heinz, 2014, & Meloy, Hempel, Grey, Mohande, &amp...

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