Understanding the effects of trauma on lives of offenders.

Author:Gillece, Joan B.

The prevalence of trauma histories in incarcerated individuals is widely known. Estimates of up 85 percent of women in the systems have early experiences of physical and/or sexual abuse. The number of men have experienced similar life-changing childhood trauma is also significant. When correctional staff and inmates alike are made aware of the correlation between traumatic experience and self-destructive behavior, facility culture changes. When certain behavior is understood as adaptive rather than attention-seeking or noncompliant, attitudes change.

Defining Trauma

What exactly is meant by the term "trauma," and why is it also important to recognize trauma responses in both staff and individuals in custody? Trauma can be best understood as the personal experience of interpersonal violence, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, severe neglect, loss and/or the witnessing of violence, terrorism and disasters.'


The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders states that a person's reaction or response to the traumatic event is a significant factor. If the experience involved intense fear, horror and helplessness, and caused extreme stress that overwhelmed the person's capacity to cope, it is considered traumatic.


Trauma is the experience of situations or events that are shocking, terrifying and/or overwhelming resulting in intense feelings or fear, horror or helplessness. Traumatic events are interpersonal, intentional, repeated and sever, generally occurring in childhood and adolescence but also continuing over time. (2) When such events occur it is understandable that trauma can shape a child's basic belief system, identity, worldview, self-esteem and spirituality. (3)

Individuals with trauma histories may also become involved in self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse or self-harm, as a way to manage unbearable symptoms as adaptive, they manage situations differently, reducing the likelihood of their own injury and experience of violence.

Often trauma survivors have other responses to trauma that are not as easy to recognize. An individual may dissociate or appear to be "somewhere else," which is frequently due to traumatic reminder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, which is heard about more frequently because of the war in Iraq and returning veterans, is another response to overwhelming feelings of fear and helplessness. An individual suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder feels that the trauma is happening again. This may be called a flashback, reliving experience or abreaction. This can occur in the form of nightmares or intrusive thoughts. (4)

Trauma-based Intervention

When one looks at past experiences of individuals in the criminal justice system and understands how trauma affects them environments can be created that lessen the likelihood of retraumatization and assist individuals in finding the capacities to self-regulate. The traumatic past is not an excuse, but an explanation. Helping officers and inmates understand the excruciating affect of violence only enhances relationships that are respectful and nonharmful.

Although only a recent emerging intervention in corrections, several states...

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