Penobscot County is planning a new, bigger jail. The argument is that the currently overcrowded facility is a risky environment. While roughly 75 new beds are needed to reduce overcrowding, the group is planning to add twice that, just in case.
Now seems like a good time to re-imagine prison. Since 2005, the Corrections Alternatives Advisory Committee of Maine has been discussing the need for reform in the state justice system, citing bail reform, providing resources toward reducing sentencing, creating more pre-trial diversion programs and lowering pre-trial incarcerations that are a result of poverty. We need also to look at one of the largest contributors to incarceration, mental health, particularly as the result of trauma.
We are in a new world of mental health understanding, with a proliferation of evidence of the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on dysfunctional coping, stress management, impulse control and emotional regulation. These are trauma symptoms. Trauma treatment requires negotiating a toxic “fight or flight” system that is in a state of permanently switched on hypervigilance, awash in stress hormones. Trauma survivors need to be supported while they slowly and carefully learn to tolerate the events in their lives, including being able to be in their own bodies without squirming. Meanwhile there are triggering experiences, intrusive thoughts, maladaptive stress responses and a need for grounding, steadying, stress reduction and empowering.
The Office of Justice Programs describes the impact of trauma-informed care in prisons to improved sleep for inmates (vital to resolving mental health symptoms), improved participation in programs and reduced interpersonal violence. They recommend system-wide trauma-informed treatment. This requires establishing safety, trust, choice, collaboration and empowerment. They recommend this at every point of prisoner contact. This means asking permission, discussing what is going to happen, adapting procedures that might be triggering and listening to prisoners, so they feel heard.
Trauma-informed care is becoming fundamental to schools, mental health practices and, in some places, corrections services. Treating trauma has profound results not only on diversion, but on safety in prison and successful re-entry. It improves resilience and reduces recidivism. James Redford’s documentary “Paper Tigers” details the astonishing turnaround in externalizing behaviors due to the implementation of trauma-informed practices at a “last chance” school for kids serving suspensions. Where ordinarily a behavior would get them expelled, in this school, they got programs and treatment, they were heard, they had a chance to express their concerns and contend with the events that kept tripping them up. Just listening to the students’ stories began to change behavior, according to the principal. One teacher learned, after a student acted out, his father had come home from prison and murdered his mother the night before. This kid was not ready for class.
We know that incarceration impacts community, and rural areas experience the impact disproportionately, with damage to families and what researchers call a downward spiral of disengagement. The Muskie School of Public Service tells us that an increase in drug arrests has led to an increase in the imprisonment of women in the past 10 years. The Annie E Casey Foundation tells us that Maine leads New England in incarcerating parents, which is associated with, according to one study, ADHD, conduct and anti-social behavioral problems, developmental delays and speech or language problems in children. Social brain theory tells us that community is an evidence-based mental health need. In a rural state, such as Maine, community is a vital resource.
What if we thought of a pre-trial trauma diversion? What if a significant ACE score got you remanded to a program where you were heard, and taught tools to manage the impacts of trauma? What if that way, we helped people to return to community, began a healing process and lowered the number of beds we need?
Barbara Mainguy is a social worker in the Bangor area.