May 31, 2019

From Sarah Carllson, MSW Intern, Trauma Informed Oregon

When I entered Framingham State Prison for the first time at age 19, I was placed in a cold, dark holding cell with 9 other women. Most of us were in bad shape, experiencing withdrawal symptoms, bruised from domestic violence, and simply scared to death of what we would experience after entering our designated cellblocks. After almost an entire day of being crammed in that cell, I was finally moved and asked to remove my clothes in front of an intimidating, angry-looking woman and then to bend over (stark naked) and cough. I was then placed with my first cellmate. She was quiet, dysphoric, and seemed out of place (as many of us did). Later that evening, three women entered our cell and essentially “punished” my cellmate for her crime. There was no debriefing, there was no one to talk to, and no one even bothered to get rid of the pools of blood. The unit was placed on lockdown and I was locked in for the night. I was told to “get some rest” and that an inmate cleaning crew would be in early the next morning to clean up.

When I went to my first meal, it was roughly enough food for a small child but I was grateful for it because I hadn’t eaten in a few days because the ham on the sandwiches we were given in holding had a green, shiny hue to it. I stopped for some Kool-Aid on my way to sit down and reached over another woman’s tray. I learned quickly that that is a big no-no. My tray was knocked out of my hands and this woman spit in my eye before swinging her fists at me. She was quickly taken away but the situation did not end there. I was blamed by her friends for her being sent to “the hole” (solitary confinement) and was harassed at every meal following that, to the point that I began skipping meals due to fear of being beaten.

Eventually, Big Mama, an abuser, took me under her wing and protected me. She gave me books, snacks, and sat with me at every meal. She introduced me to her friends, taught me how to stay “safe” and who to avoid. Without her help, I don’t know what would have happened to me in there. However, despite her support, I still found myself awake most of my nights, in a state a constant hypervigilance and wondering what would happen in the afterlife because I feared I might die within the prison walls. When I was released months later, the insomnia, severe anxiety, and preoccupation with death did not leave me.

Although I promised myself I would never do anything that could put me at risk for returning to Framingham, I quickly picked up substances again. I felt as if I needed a reprieve from the constant state of fear I was living in.

Policies to Reduce Harm

In hindsight, as a graduate student in the field of organizational social work, I recognize that there are policies that can be put into place to reduce harm to people entering and leaving the corrections system. They are as follows:

Transparency: Instead of waiting for hours in the holding cell with no direction, someone could have informed me of the intake process, which would have provided me with opportunity to mentally prepare and feel as if I had some dignity in a situation in which I was powerless.

Collaboration: The intimidating, angry-looking guard that checked me could have worked with me in moving through this process by letting me know what to expect, asking if I needed to use the bathroom first, or offering a kind conversation during the process to help with my apparent nervousness and discomfort.

Safety: I could have been warned of the dangers that awaited me in the prison and been debriefed after witnessing a vile assault.

Peer support: Offering a peer support program for new inmates may be the most important thing of all. Isolation and loneliness is harmful. If we can alleviate at least some of those feelings, we can promote better outcomes during and after incarceration.

Just because someone commits a crime, it doesn’t make that person less human. Adopting universal policies that promote physical and psychological safety, and that are rooted in the assumption that those in the justice system have likely experienced trauma, should be mandatory in all institutions—especially the prison system.

Some institutions have implemented policies such as those suggested above. Please see the infographic below for more details.