Gay, Bisexual, Sexually Abused Male Inmates More Fearful of Prison Rape, More Open to Therapy

There is nowhere to escape in what often is referred to as a “sexual jungle,” especially for the most vulnerable. However, “Zero tolerance” toward prison rape is now national policy thanks to the Prison Rape Elimination Act passed by the United States Congress in 2003. Although this law changed how Americans think about prison rape, few studies have examined how inmates perceive rape and if they feel safe in prison. Even less is known about how their perceptions influence whether or not they ask for mental health treatment while incarcerated.

The most recent National Inmate Survey of 2011-12 of 92,449 inmates age 18 or older shows that among non-heterosexual prison inmates, more than 12 percent reported sexual victimization by another inmate and almost 5.5 percent were victimized by a prison staff member within the past 12 months. In comparison, 1.2 percent of heterosexual prisoners were sexually victimized by an inmate and 2.1 percent were victimized by a prison staff member. These rates are even higher for those with mental illness. About one in 12 inmates with a mental disorder report at least one incident of sexual victimization by another inmate over a six-month period, compared to one in 33 male inmates without a mental disorder.

Using data from more than 400 male inmates housed in 23 maximum-security prisons across the U.S., researchers from Florida Atlantic University conducted a novel study to examine the factors related to fear of rape in prison and the likelihood of male inmates requesting mental health treatment while incarcerated. They focused specifically on prisoners at risk of being sexually victimized in prison: gay or bisexual inmates and those with a history of childhood sexual abuse.

A key finding from the study, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, is that sexual orientation and a history of childhood sexual abuse are significant predictors of male inmates fearing rape as a big threat in prison and voluntarily requesting mental health treatment. Findings from the study reveal that nearly 38 percent of gay and bisexual inmates and 37 percent of inmates with childhood sexual abuse fear rape as a big threat.

Compared with straight inmates, gay and bisexual inmates are approximately two times more likely to perceive rape as a threat and three times more likely to voluntarily request mental health treatment in prison. Inmates with a history of childhood sexual abuse are more than twice as likely to perceive rape as a threat and almost four times more likely to request mental health treatment than inmates who did not report a history of childhood sexual abuse. Notably, this finding is inconsistent with previous research that has shown that there is no significant relationship between childhood sexual abuse and feelings of safety among male inmates.

“The consequences of perceiving rape to be a threat in prison are vast and could contribute to violence among inmates as well as negative mental health ramifications such as increased fear, psychological distress, chronic anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide,” said Cassandra A. Atkin-Plunk, Ph.D., co-author and an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice within FAU’s College for Design and Social Inquiry.

Inmates incarcerated for two to five years are nearly three times more likely to perceive that rape is a big threat compared with inmates incarcerated for less than two years. Inmates in prison longer than 18 years are nearly four times more likely to voluntarily request mental health treatment in prison. The researchers also found that Black inmates are twice as likely to seek mental health treatment in prison compared to White inmates.

“Knowing that gay and bisexual inmates and inmates with a history of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to fear rape and seek mental health treatment, prison staff can target outreach and treatment efforts for this vulnerable sub-population,” said Mina Ratkalkar, LCSW, MS, lead author and a licensed clinical social worker pursuing a Ph.D. who conducted the study while she was a graduate student at FAU. “Our study shows that these sub-groups of inmates are receptive to treatment, and our findings have implications for both practice and policy in the United States.”

The sample consisted of a nearly equal number of men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Black inmates made up about half of the sample, with White inmates comprising about one-third of the sample. Nearly one-third of the sample had previously been in juvenile detention and about one-quarter were incarcerated for the first time in the adult criminal justice system at age 18 or younger.

About 16.4 percent of the sample identified as gay or bisexual. About one-fifth of the men (73) reported a history of childhood sexual abuse, and about one-third of the men reported having received mental health treatment outside of prison.

New Research Shows Bail Reform is the Key Fix for Jail Overcrowding

Could bail reform be the answer to changing the trajectory of America’s current problem with mass incarceration?

That question is central to a new book published this month by University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Shima Baradaran Baughman and Cambridge University Press titled “The Bail Book: A Comprehensive Look at Bail in America’s Criminal Justice System.”

The book is the first comprehensive analysis on bail in the U.S. since 1970 and comes at a time when efforts to implement widespread bail reform across the country are gaining momentum. Senators Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif. — have introduced a bill to overhaul the nation’s bail system in an attempt to prevent individuals from being taken advantage by bail bondsman who often charge high fees and prey on disadvantaged people after an arrest.

University of Utah Law Professor Shima Baradaran Baughman

The bill, titled the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, is designed to address what the senators see as flaws in the system. Baughman’s book gives states concrete ideas on how to reform bail and save money, which would be even more feasible using reforms provided under the proposed bill. Other states have recently implemented their own bail reforms, including Colorado, New Jersey and Kentucky.

The time is ripe for sweeping changes, according to Baughman.

“Mass incarceration is one of the greatest social problems facing the United States today. America incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country and is one of only two countries that requires arrested individuals to pay bail to be released from jail while awaiting trial,” Baughman states.

In the book, Baughman traces the history of bail and demonstrates how it has become an oppressive tool of the courts that disadvantages minority and poor defendants.

She draws on constitutional rights and new empirical research to show how we can reform bail in America to alleviate mass incarceration. By implementing these reforms, she argues, the nation can restore constitutional rights and release more defendants while lowering crime rates.

Baughman is a former Fulbright scholar and national expert on bail and pretrial prediction and her current scholarship examines criminal justice policy, prosecutors, drugs, search and seizure, international terrorism, and race and violent crime. Her teaching and scholarship at the University of Utah focus on criminal law and procedure and her work is widely featured in media outlets like the New York TimesWall Street JournalEconomist, and NPR.

She began researching bail issues early in her career after realizing that the most consequential decision in criminal justice besides arrest is the decision whether to detain or release someone before trial.

“It ends up impacting everything in a criminal case — from whether a person goes to jail and for how long, whether they are able to keep a job, home, and kids, and whether they will recidivate or be rearrested again. All of these impacts result from a two-minute decision of whether a judge allows someone to be released or not,” she said.

“And usually it is decided based on whether the person can afford to pay the bail. That’s, unfortunately, the biggest factor. Almost 90 percent of people who are arrested cannot get out of jail before trial just because they don’t have $200 or $500 to pay to a bail bondsman.”

Baughman’s research presents a customizable plan for instituting bail reforms, including use of pre-trial risk assessments and helping judges to use predictive methods to release the right people on bail without increasing crime rates.

Her research may provide a helpful framework as conversations about the future of bail in America continue.

“There’s a lot of momentum on bail,” said Baughman. “Conversations are happening in every state to decrease the number of people incarcerated. Most of the people in jail are not people convicted of any crime and we can change that.”

Understanding the Impact of Paternal Incarceration on Children’s Schooling

anna haskins
Anna R. Haskins Photo Credit: Twitter @sealvarado_

Parents play an important role in their children’s lives, and parental involvement in elementary schooling especially affects children’s welfare. An impressive body of scholarship suggests that children’s health, development, and economic fortunes suffer in many ways if their parents serve time in jail or prison. Because the number of school-aged children in the United States with currently or formerly incarcerated parents sits at record levels, there is a clear need to better understand how mass incarceration furthers inequality and exclusion across generations. This includes unravelling the precise links among families, schools, and the criminal justice system.

Schools are conduit institutions that offer access to resources and avenues of economic mobility and social integration. In addition, schools do surveillance by keeping formal records and making direct connections to other public agencies – including the police. Formerly incarcerated parents may be wary of such school functions, making them reluctant to engage fully with their children’s schools. Our new study indicates that paternal incarceration is indeed a unique marker of disadvantage. Both incarcerated fathers and children’s primary caregivers have reduced involvement in children’s education at home and at school– and fears about surveillance held by previously incarcerated fathers help to explain this reduced involvement.

Why Parent Involvement in Schooling Matters

Parental involvement in schooling encompasses actions fathers, mothers, and other primary caregivers take at home or at school to promote their children’s learning and convey educational expectations. Home-based involvement includes efforts such as helping with homework, reading with children, communicating expectations, and providing access to books and educational materials. School-based involvement can include visiting the school for conferences or events, participating in parent-teacher organizations, chaperoning field trips, and communicating with teachers and administrators.

Parental involvement is known to boost children’s academic achievement and reduce the likelihood that pupils will drop out or have behavioral problems. Such involvement strengthens ties to school and enhances parents’ ability to advocate for their child, providing access to information networks integral to children’s success. By contrast, parents with lower levels of involvement – or who avoid schools altogether – reduce their children’s access to resources, information, and avenues of social integration. And such parents may convey feelings of institutional distrust.

Understanding the Impact of Paternal Incarceration on School Involvement

Assuming that fathers sent to prison or jail previously had some level of involvement with their children’s schools, scholars have theorized about reasons why they might withdraw from further involvements after release:

  • Work by the sociologist Sarah Brayne on “system avoidance” suggests that people who have been involved in the criminal justice system purposely avoid later engagement with surveilling institutions. Fathers who have served time may thus choose to refrain from activities that require interaction with the school, such as volunteering or attending parent-teacher conferences.
  • Criminal justice professor Sarah Lageson has explored how many parents “opt-out” of meaningful interactions with community institutions because of stigma or fear of having their online criminal records discovered by teachers, school officials, other parents, or their own children. Opting-out can occur preemptively because parents feel they will be barred from schooling activities such as volunteering – given that extensive background clearances are required in some states – or because previously incarcerated parents worry about stigma or embarrassment. In fact, opting-out can occur even if charges were minor or ultimately dismissed because online criminal records loom large in our digital world.

Larger Implications and Possible Remedies

Paternal incarceration, coupled with increased institutional surveillance, leads to lower levels of parental involvement in children’s schooling. This, in turn, undercuts children’s educational success and families’ ability to build trust with schools. As the number of young school-aged children with incarcerated parents grows, there may be strong, lasting, and negative consequences from this vicious cycle.

The long-term prospects of children with current and formally incarcerated parents are likely tightly linked to the children’s schooling, yet teachers often interpret parental involvement as a sign of the value parents place in their child’s educational success. However, a father’s avoidance of his child’s school may not flow from lack of caring, but from fear of stigma or adverse consequences from his previous record. Similar processes can influence the behavior of other marginalized populations, such as undocumented parents who worry about apprehension when interacting with their children’s schools.

Clearly, the country needs social policies that take into account the varied ways families, schools, and the criminal justice system interact. Untangling the secondary harmful effects of parental incarceration – including harms to children’s schooling – is necessary to prevent reproducing inequalities from one generation to the next. Research that helps educators and policymakers better understand issues that arise for children and families where a father has served time can help in the design of supportive measures.

Research so far suggests that involvement by previously incarcerated fathers in their children’s schooling can be encouraged to the degree that parents come to understand schools as safe spaces. To the degree possible, schools need to avoid seeming like one more surveilling institution to families that have already experienced the stress of an imprisoned parent. Doing everything possible to increase parental involvement by the formerly incarcerated is important because such steps are likely to strengthen family-school partnerships and improve the chances for educational success for a growing segment of all American children.

Innocent African-Americans More Likely to Be Wrongfully Convicted

African-American prisoners who were convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers and spend longer in prison before exoneration, according to a report released today.

“The vast majority of wrongful convictions are never discovered,” said MSU Law’s Barbara O’Brien, the author of a companion report, “Exonerations in 2016,” and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “There’s no doubt anymore that innocent people get convicted regularly—that’s beyond dispute. Increasingly, police, prosecutors and judges recognize this problem. But will we do enough to actually address it? That remains to be seen.”

“Exonerations in 2016” found a record number of exonerations for the third straight year and a record number of cases with official misconduct.

The National Registry of Exonerations is a joint project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. The registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989 – cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence.

The 2016 data show convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were more likely to involve misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants. On average, black murder exonerees waited three years longer in prison before release than whites.

Judging from exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white person convicted of sexual assault. On average, innocent African-Americans convicted of sexual assault spent almost four-and-a-half years longer in prison before exoneration than innocent whites.

In addition, the report, officially titled, “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States,” found innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people.

Since 1989, more than 1,800 defendants have been cleared in “group exonerations” that followed 15 large-scale police scandals in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants. The overwhelming majority were African-American defendants framed for drug crimes that never occurred.

“Of the many costs the war on drugs inflicts on the black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful,” said University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, the author of “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States” and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.

Last year, there were more exonerations than in any previous year in which government officials committed misconduct; the convictions were based on guilty pleas; no crime actually occurred; and a prosecutorial conviction integrity unit worked on the exoneration.

The Number of Mentally Ill in Prison

An activity therapy room is seen at the Psychiatric Inpatient Program at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California in December 2015. Credit: Stephen Lam
An activity therapy room is seen at the Psychiatric Inpatient Program at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California in December 2015. Credit: Stephen Lam

As a clinical social worker in a prison in Michigan, I have seen firsthand how untreated mental illness needs have devastating consequences. It is also a symptom of a larger issue of the effect of untreated mental illness needs in the community.  According to Michigan’s Department of Corrections, 20% of all prisoners are in the mental health services program.  Using the most recent statistics on prison incarceration rates from 2013, slightly over 43,000 people were incarcerated, and 20 percent of prisoners in treatment equates to approximately 8500 prisoners having some type of diagnosed mental illness.

This figure is in stark contrast to a study done at the University of Michigan about mentally ill inmates which stated 65% of inmates in Michigan prisons have a mental illness and did not receive any treatment. The same study also put the number of mentally ill inmates at 30% of the total prison population versus the 20% reported by the Michigan Department of Corrections. It also reported male prisoners are less likely to receive treatment than female prisons.

The U of M study estimated that 77% of the 30% they believed to have a diagnosed mental illness were not receiving treatment which means only 23% of prisoners with a diagnosed mental illness is being treated. This does not necessarily mean the Department is failing to treat them or identify mentally ill inmates in the intake process. Inmates refusing treatment could also be a factor affecting outcomes. Inmates have the ability to say no to any form of treatment given if they are not a danger to themselves or others.

This study also looked at the involvement of mental illness as a factor in the crime the prisoner committed.  It was reported that 20% of the crimes committed were by a person who had a diagnosed mental illness with 65% of those people were not receiving any treatment for their mental illness prior to the crime being committed. I believe this issue was exacerbated when mental health facilities in the state of Michigan were closed down starting in the late 1980’s to 2003. These numbers do not address the issue of co-occurrence involving substance abuse, and the amount of drugs that enter prisons which is another serious problem.

Many people were forced back into the community where Medicaid funding did not keep the pace of the increase of mentally ill reintergrating back into the community.  As a result, people were not receiving treatment they needed and were forced to manage symptoms on their own. This caused other systems like the prisons to pick up the slack when a person with a mental illness committed a crime.

I am certainly not advocating for a return to state-run mental health facilities, but taxpayer money could be better spent on programs and even other levels of care in the community to stop the pipeline to prison for those suffering from mental illness.  The current budget in Michigan for the Department of Corrections is $1.9 billion dollars with $290 million allocated for health care of which mental health services are included with education spending at $13 billion dollars.

Michigan and other states need to create more mental health and drug courts to prevent mental ill individuals from being funnelled into prisons as a solution. Michigan has taken a step in the right direction and in 2013 10 mental health courts were designated in Michigan.

These courts have been reviewed by the Michigan State Court Administration and have found that they reduce prison recidivism rates.  As a social worker who attended one of these courts, the judges, attorneys, and probation officers involved have a greater understanding and empathy of the mental health needs of people in the criminal justice system.

Also, we also need more jail diversion programs as tool to provide relief for mental ill individuals getting in order for them to get the care they need to be productive. I had the privilege of working in a jail diversion program to divert people to services instead of keeping them in jail or prison. Only recently has the federal government started tracking data from many of these programs as well as working on uniform standards across the country.  Many states have different programs at the various levels which include intervention at the law enforcement level, at the court level, or after sentencing.

While I believe that people need to take responsibility for their crimes and poor choices, we should also take responsibility as a community to make sure those with serious needs get the help they need. Many of the prisoners I work with have significant trauma issues which is a contributing factor to complex problems.

Most importantly, we need to fund more programs and services for early childhood education to support families and identify issues early.  I know this will take significant amounts of money but a large majority of prisoners will return the community. Shouldn’t our money be spent in better ways?

We Must Honor Kalief Browder and Work to End State Violence

Screenshot from rare video footage from Rikers Island showing Kalief Browder being held on the ground.

On Saturday, June 6, 2015, 22-year-old Kalief Browder, a Black man from the Bronx, committed suicide at his home unable to recover from the trauma he endured as a child prisoner in New York City jails. Social Workers Against Criminalization (SWAC), a committee of the National Association of Social Workers – New York City Chapter, pauses today to send peace to Kalief Browder and his family and to acknowledge the tens of thousands of teenagers that remain in custody throughout the United States.

When he was sixteen, Mr. Browder was accused of stealing another boy’s backpack and was arrested. He was sent to Rikers Island because his family was unable to pay the $3000 a Bronx criminal court judge demanded as a condition of his release. While in custody, he maintained his innocence until the case was finally dismissed by Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson three years later.

Kalief Browder

At Rikers Island, Mr. Browder was bullied and beaten by correction officers and spent nearly two years isolated in solitary confinement where he mentally decompensated and attempting to kill himself there at least five times after being denied the healthcare services he requested.

He had not reported any mental health distress prior to being subjected to solitary confinement, which is considered torture by an abundance of international bodies and defined as pathogenic by forensic psychiatrists – that is, a direct cause of mental illness.

Each year thousands of teenagers and tens of thousands of adults will spend time at Rikers Island because they are unable to pay for their liberty while their criminal court cases advance through a legal system clogged by the hundreds of thousands of arrests dictated by New York City’s stubborn adherence to fundamentally racist Broken Windows policing. Like Mr. Browder, 95 percent of the people cycling through Rikers Island are either Black or Latino, and a recent study by the Vera Institute found that in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, race was meaningful predictor of bail and charging outcomes.

After spending three years, terrified and alone in a cage, Mr. Browder was suddenly released on the side of the road in Queens with a two-ride Metrocard and told to find his own way in the world that he had been unjustly ripped from and no longer understood to be his. Across the United States, 2.5 million people are incarcerated, nearly all of who will return to their home communities. Who is responsible for repairing the torture and damage inflicted by the State through the brutal, dehumanizing process of incarceration?

While more visible acts of state violence – like police brutality – have been brought into the national spotlight by the relentless protest of young people of color, forcing a national conversation on race and policing, acts of torture and the traumas of incarceration remain largely unseen, though we now know them to be just as deadly. As social

As social workers, we acknowledge the historical and current role of our profession in participating and perpetuating state violence while recognizing our responsibility to stand up to the injustices of structural racism and the continued criminalization of Blackness and poverty by the very institutions that are sworn to serve and protect.

Social Workers Against Criminalization call for the immediate removal of all adolescents from Rikers Island, the cessation of any forensic social work practices that lead to the maintenance and furtherance of trauma and grief as well as the abolition of secured financial collateral for release and other money-bail practices that discriminate against the poor.


Barriers to Treating PTSD in Prisons and Immigration Detention

During the past ten years, I traveled to over 100 jails and prisons in the entire east coast of the United States, giving me the to opportunity to observe the dire lack of appropriate medical and mental health care in our prison system. The most immediate and urgent need is to screen routinely for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among incarcerated individuals.

alcatraz_prison_block_cc_imgAfter assessing over a thousand men who face lengthy prison sentences and endured long periods of solitary confinement, almost every person I have encountered has had an unaccounted childhood history of abuse and/or sexual abuse. To me, this has been most notable among those who have had a long connection to the criminal justice system— namely African American men, and more specifically those who have endured long years in the foster care system.

Many of the same patterns are also emerging within our immigration detention system, and so parallel conclusions can be applied to the immigrant population who are being held in prison-like settings. The goal of this article is to make the public aware of a growing epidemic of PTSD in our system of mass incarceration and detention. It calls for urgent attention to this immediate public health crisis. Addressing PTSD both in and out of correctional settings would lead to less violence and killings in prison and in the community.

The effects of living with untreated PTSD almost always flags a misdiagnosis of a mental health disorder of some other kind and no clinical account of the person’s abuse that can then lead to relevant basis for mitigation and the proper course for rehabilitation. It can also implicate mistreatment of symptoms and prescribing the wrong psychotropic medications to a person. In some instances, identifying PTSD can offer context to a whole host of other issues such as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Depression, or co-occurring polysubstance abuse issues. Once PTSD is identified, it should lead to a long-term regimen of individual psychotherapy and addiction treatment where appropriate, with an emphasis on the mental health component. PTSD does not have to last forever but when it remains untreated, it can certainly last a lifetime.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is caused by both traumatic experiences before incarceration and institutional abuse during incarceration that includes the six clusters of symptoms: (1) intrusive memories and flashbacks to episodes of severe institutional abuse; (2) intense psychological distress and physiological reactivity when exposed to cues triggering memories of the institutional abuse; (3) episodes of dissociation, emotional numbing, and restricted affect; (4) chronic problems with mental functioning that include irritability, outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, and an exaggerated startle response. (5) persistent avoidance of anything that would trigger memories of the traumatic events; (6) hypervigilance, generalized paranoia, and reduced capacity to trust caused by constant fear of abuse from both correctional staff and other inmates that can be generalized to others after release,” according to Terence Gorski.


What Are Some Barriers to Identifying PTSD in Prisons and Detention Centers?

  • A lack of basic trust between communities of color and mental health professionals who present themselves as affiliates of the system is pervasive among the prison population. Just within the past year, I met seven different incarcerated men who admitted to never disclosing their sexual abuse histories in previous psychological settings, largely due to feelings of distrust about disclosing personal information, deep shame, and feelings of worthlessness surrounding the abuse events. Indeed, an appropriate conversation about one’s traumatic histories leads one to be in his or her most vulnerable state. It requires a delicate process of assigning a substantive amount of time to assessing trauma between the interviewer and the person.
  • Just the physical environment of a prison setting alone can deter an appropriate atmosphere for eliciting intimate information about one’s trauma history. Advocates, lawyers, social workers, and counselors may have to request appropriate accommodations within the prison to do a proper trauma assessment. It is always most ideal for the incarcerated person to feel as comfortable as possible before disclosing details of their past and present abuse. In many cases, this will not be possible and the one performing a trauma assessment has to decide whether it is appropriate for the person to be engaged in this type of interview. Conversations regarding trauma histories should be facilitated in a manner in which the person will not be re-traumatized while recounting past events.
  • Proper training of correctional health staff, forensic health professionals, and legal advocates is necessary and critical. Those within correctional settings and the legal system should become a trauma-informed community to address the incarcerated population in a more realistic manner. Becoming a trauma-informed community will lead to less prison abuse and killings within correctional settings. Treating the root of an undetected problem will likely reduce recidivism among those that keep getting re-arrested and have long criminal histories.
  • Cross-cultural biases may influence the interviewer to associate symptoms such as anger, hypervigilance, avoidance, or depressive symptoms of PTSD with other culturally and stereotypically held beliefs about men of color in the prison system. In addition, attributing the nature of the criminal charge against a person can cloud the belief that the incarcerated individual was also a victim of trauma in the past. This often leads many professionals to dismiss the likelihood that a client has a substantive abuse history.
  • Even today’s well-trained lawyers and mental health advocates erroneously assume that if a person had an early history of trauma and abuse, it would have been documented a long time ago during an earlier course of treatment in previous years. This is an inaccurate assumption. It should be stressed that PTSD has only been truly understood among the medical community as recently as 2013 and this framework is not yet integrated within the legal and correctional system. Thus, the correctional and legal system largely still relies on outdated tools and outmoded diagnostic resources. Our historical pattern of under-treating PTSD among the incarcerated begs for a concerted effort and inquiry.
  • Language barriers can also deter identifying PTSD when it exists. If the person is unable to speak English, it is critical that a trauma assessment is conducted and modified to the individual’s native language.

What We Can Do

Anyone who has had contact with the criminal justice system should be automatically considered predisposed to the conditions of PTSD and Complex PTSD. This assumption should be more pronounced among those who have been charged with a violent crime.

Becoming trauma-informed almost always requires a client-centered approach in either mental health or legal advocacy. It is absolutely essential that clients are put at ease, especially within prisons. Conducting trauma assessments almost always requires a skilled clinician who understands the continuum of PTSD and what its components look like. It is also important to allot an appropriate amount of time to acquire information related to one’s trauma history.

Commonly used universal screening tools in a proper trauma assessment are the PTSD Checklist (PCL-C) and the Life Events Checklist (LEC). To screen for signs of Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI, you can use the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire-Revised, a more developed cross-cultural tool to assess one’s history of torture, severe head injuries, and other extreme life hardships. You can also use the Hopkins Symptom Checklist-25, to screen for depression and anxiety symptoms. You may want to also use the Beck Depression Inventory II (BDI II) to look for depression symptoms that frequently co-exist with PTSD when left untreated for a long period of time.

After conducting a trauma assessment, various relaxation and stress reduction techniques can be taught to the one facing and enduring incarceration. An appropriate amount of follow-up should be done to see that the person is referred to proper treatment of PTSD for the long-run.

The Care Act 2014 and What it Means for Prisoners in the UK


The British prison service is struggling to deal with an ageing and growing population. As it stands, the number of prisoners in the United Kingdom has increased by 20% in the last 12 years, and is now fast approaching 85,000. Higher crime rates combined with longer sentences mean that many inmates are reaching old age in prison, leaving the system struggling to cope with the demands placed on them.

The Break Down

The Care Act 2014 is due to be implemented in April 2015. This Act is a revolutionary piece of legislation because for the first time, it outlines practices for the care of prisoners. As the Minister of Care and Support, Norman Lamb states: ‘The Care Act has created a single, modern law that makes it clear what kind of care people should expect… First and foremost councils will now have a duty to consider the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of the individual needing care.’

This new legislation will affect not only the prison service but local authorities across the country. As of next year, social care needs in the UK prison system will be assessed on a case by case basis. Prisoners who meet a set of criteria and are deemed to require extra support will have services provided by their local authority, rather than by individuals employed by the prison service. For the first time, the prison service and local authorities will work in conjunction to share a legal duty of care.

Staffing and Training Issues

With 13% of prison inhabitants situated in the 50 plus threshold, this Act could put further strain on the British prison service and its staff. Therefore, in order to comply with this Act as well as cope with these growing care responsibilities, prison staff will require professional training to deal with these extra demands. Courses including palliative care, health and safety, and dementia awareness could soon become a standard part of a prison officer’s training. But there are limitations on the care duties that a single member of staff can be reasonably expected to perform. For example, those inmates who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, are disabled, or incontinent, call for a higher provision of care and require a larger allocation of a prison officer’s time.

This Act will come into effect during a turbulent economic period for the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). Having already experienced huge financial cuts over the last few years, NOMS in currently expected to shave a further £150 million. The prison service does not have the financial budget or levels of staffing that would be required to provide one-to-one care for each prisoner. Given their expected cut back, the reality of being able to viably fund new staff and provide training is a tall order. Yet for the safety and welfare of the general public, these inmates cannot be released back into society purely on account of their age and care needs. Perhaps an appropriate solution would be to create an alternative establishment: by providing a secure facility solely for elderly offenders, a smaller number of staff would require additional training. It would also free up essential space in a prison system that is growing at an exponential rate.

Essentially, The Care Act will now require the UK prison service to provide social care in conjunction with the health care provided by the NHS. The provision of adequate training required by this statute will cause a large strain on an already financially burdened system. The prison system will need to implement core structural modifications, as well as training and staffing changes, in order to provide and cope with this additional social care role.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of ToledoBlade

Prison Reform and Race Equity

Too many people are incarcerated in the United States, particularly people of color. With nearly 1.5 million Americans in prison in 2012, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world, far exceeding runners-up Russia and Rwanda. Despite comprising only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

People of color have been disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration. While African-Americans and Latinos make up 15 and 17 percent of the population, respectively, they account for 38 and 23 percent of the prison population. Currently, African-American men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetimes and Latino men have a 1 in 6 chance. These figures are overwhelming compared to the rate of incarceration for White men, who have an overall 1 in 17 chance of ever going to prison in their lifetime.

Racial inequality in incarceration is particularly evident for drug offenses. Currently, two-thirds of all people in prisons for drug offenses are either African American or Latino. According to Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, “These figures are far out of proportion to the degree that these groups use or sell drugs”. For example, a 2011 survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that White Americans use every category of illegal drugs at significantly higher rates than African-Americans or Latinos, yet they are far less likely to be convicted for drug offenses.

incarc rate by race & gender - webWar on Drugs & Race

Advocates for prison downsizing agree that mass incarceration and its disparate impact on communities of color can be directly attributed to policies stemming from the “War on Drugs.” In response to rising drug use in the 1980s, law enforcement and sentencing shifted dramatically to a punitive “hard on drugs” approach encouraging the imprisonment of low-level, non-violent drug users and sellers. Since then, the prison population has increased five-fold and incarceration for drug offenses has gone up 1,100 percent. With as few as 40,000 drug offenders serving prison sentences in 1980, this number has snowballed to over half a million in 20092. Lengths of prison terms have also dramatically increased.   In 1986, drug offenders spent an average of 22 months in federal prison; by 2004, sentences for similar crimes were nearly 3 times longer. In sum, over the past 40 years more and more people have been arrested and sent to prison, while fewer and fewer have been released or diverted.

prison jail drug web-1

Racial bias, discrimination, and unequal treatment under the law have also characterized the United State’s anti-drug crime agenda. As the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project explains, “By 1980, the link between minorities, drugs, and crime was firmly cemented in American rhetoric and anti-drug policy.” Evidence of discrepancies in the treatment of people of color in the criminal justice system has been well documented.

  • For example, federal sentencing guidelines from 1986 to 2010 held that 5 grams of crack cocaine, a substance more readily available in communities of color, was equivalent to 500 grams of powder cocaine, a substance consider chemically identical to crack cocaine but more readily available in White communities.
  • Further, the Sentencing Project cites that people of color are more likely to be targeted and racially profiled by law enforcement resulting in higher initial entry into the criminal justice system.
  • In addition, legal scholars Fishman and Schazenback found in 2012 that prosecutor are significantly more likely to pursue the maximum length of sentence for minority defendants, while judges are more likely to convict these defendants and agree to longer sentences.

Though not explicitly racist, many anti-drug policies and implementation strategies echo the American Legal System’s long legacy of racial injustice, continuing the American tradition of targeted injustice against people and communities of color.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Policy

The most notorious and influential policy resulting from the War on Drugs are federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. Mandatory drug minimums are judicial guidelines requiring convicted drug offenders to serve an automatic and standard minimum length of time in prison- regardless of criminal context. These policies are rooted in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which first established the national drug schedule, followed by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which outlined punishments for federal crimes. The resulting mandatory minimums are “triggered” by specific quantities of eight controlled substances, including heroine, crack and powder cocaine, marijuana, with increasing minimums for large quantities and aggravating factors such as weapon procession or drug trafficking (mandatory minimums are also triggered from LSD, PCP, methamphetamine, and propanamide.). Unlike the majority of crimes in the U.S., for which judges determine sentence length on a case-by-case basis, mandatory minimums intentionally restrict judicial discretion7.

However, mandatory minimums were not considered controversial until the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. With this omnibus drug bill, President Reagan significantly increased the length of minimum sentences while reducing the quantities of controlled substances that trigger the minimum. These guidelines form the basis for our current federal drug sentencing and require either a five or ten-year sentence without parole for the majority of convictions9. Due to aggravating circumstances, some offenders can be sentenced to life in prison without parole. These changes had major implications for first time and low-level offenders. For example, before 1986, simple possession would have required offenders to pay a fine. After 1986, these same individuals could be sentenced to a federal penitentiary for a minimum of two, three, or five years for the least severe offense depending on the substance.

In 1994, Congress approved the “Safety Valve” exception to mandatory minimums. These provisions allow prosecutors to refrain from requesting mandatory minimums for defendants found guilty of low-level offenses, such as simple procession or intent, while meeting certain case key criteria. These requirements include a lack of criminal history, violence, weapon procession, as well as limited involvement in drug enterprise and full compliance with sharing information with law enforcement.

Most recently, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine. Previously, 1 gram of crack cocaine was held to the same standards as 100 grams of powder cocaine. After 2010, this gap was amended to a 1 in 17 ratio. While this ruling represents a positive step towards sentencing equality, a disparity between the two substances remains.

11-18-1to100-disparity2Policy Shortcomings

Despite the efforts of the Fair Sentencing Act and Safety Valve procedures, federal mandatory drug minimums continue to support an unsustainably large and racially disproportionate prison population. These shortcomings are highlighted when considering the two primary intentions of the mandatory minimums- both of which have failed to be realized.

First, mandatory minimums were intended to reduce major drug trafficking. Rather, these procedures have been used to incarcerate low-level offenders. As penalties are determined by the quantity of drugs involved, this broad policy fails to recognize the function or threat of the individuals who are typically arrested and charged with drug trafficking. For example, a currier may be carrying large quantities of a substance but often represents the least culpable participant in an international drug selling organization. In the Sentencing Commissions September 2013 report to Congress, they reported the category of drug offenders most often subject to mandatory minimums are street level dealers, many levels away from major suppliers and trade leaders. As their report explains, “While Congress appears to have intended to impose these mandatory penalties on ‘major’ or ‘serious’ drug traffickers, in practice the penalties have swept more broadly.”

Second, mandatory minimums were intended to reduce sentencing disparity. The original authors believed limiting judicial discretion and fixing sentence range would result in uniformed prison terms. However, contemporary research indicates the opposite has occurred because sentencing guidelines continue to require a tremendous amount of judicial discretion while doing little to address the issue of racial inequity head on. For example, judges must decide if a mandatory sentence can be triggered in the first place and if any aggravating circumstances can be proven to increase the sentence above the minimum.

According to a national study conducted at Northwestern University, defendants of color were significantly more likely to qualify for mandatory minimums and aggravating circumstances compared to white defendants, and were also less likely to qualify for Safety Vales exemptions. Their findings indicate 41.1 percent of Latino offenders were subject to minimum guidelines compared to only 28 percent of White defendants. Further, 70 percent of drug cases involving white offenders proved aggravating circumstances, as compared to 88.4 percent of cases involving African-American offenders. Qualitative data from the Northwestern study indicate a number of judges would have preferred to reduce the sentences for people of color, in particular, due to mitigating circumstances but were unable to due to restrictions in judicial discretion. As the conclusion explain,

In short, our findings suggest that judicial discretion does not contribute to, and may in fact mitigate, racial disparities in Guidelines sentencing. Policy makers interested in redressing racial disparity today should pay much closer attention to the effects of mandatory minimums and their effect on prosecutorial and judicial discretion.”

The Smarter Sentencing Act

In light of growing national awareness about the current state of crisis in our prison system, not limited to a failed War on Drugs, overcrowded facilities, skyrocketing recidivism rates, and irrefutable racial inequity, federal policy makers, think tanks, and Attorney General Eric Holder have been pouring over the issue of sentencing reform for the better part of two years. The current status of this effort is a bill known as “The Smarter Sentencing Act” submitted to the Senate floor by the Judiciary Committee on January 30, 2014.

If approved, the Smarter Sentencing Act would:

  • Reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and direct the US Sentencing Commission to lower sentencing guidelines accordingly;
  • Give judges more leeway to ignore mandatory minimums in cases with mitigating factors;
  • Make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine from 100:1 t0 18:1 by reducing the amount of crack triggering five and ten year mandatory minimums from 5 and 28 grams respectively to 50 and 280 grams. This act also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for possessing five grams of crack. However, the Fair Sentencing Act only applied to offenders prosecuted after 2010. The Smarter Sentencing Act would retroactively reduce the sentences of individuals currently serving sentences based on the old crack cocaine sentencing guideline.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a step in the right direction and is likely to have a major positive impact on the prison population if passed. In particular, the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act is likely to reduce the over-representation of people of color in the prison system. However this act is not enough. In particular, a disparity between crack and powder cocaine continues to exist. In addition, only a small cross-section of the sentencing guidelines will be reformatted.

As social workers, we must remain active in the fight to end mass incarceration and the over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system. We must be creative and vigilant in creating new solutions to prison reform. According the Urban Institute’s “Stemming the Tides” report, here are some suggestions for additional “Front-End Changes” (i.e. reducing the number of people committed to prison and reducing their sentence length) and “Back-End Changes” (i.e. increasing the number of people released from prison and reducing recidivism).

Front-End Changes

  • Reduce all drug sentencing minimums by half
  • Increase access to Safety Valves exceptions
  • Increase the use of drug treatment diversion
  • Increase access to community-based drug treatment and services to prevent drug crime

Back-End Changes

  • Apply all current and future sentencing guideline reductions retroactively
  • Increase use of Early Release programs for good behavior and negative drug tests, as well as for the terminally ill and inmates over 70 years old
  • Increase transition and re-entry services and begin services prior to release date
  • Increase the use of probation and house-arrest

What are your thoughts on prison reform? How can we reduce the prison population, increase racial equity, and find an alternative approach to drug treatment? How can we, as social workers, be more involved in this fight for justice? Share your thoughts and comments below!

Addiction: Treat the Parent – Treat the Child


This past week has seen a report from the London School of Economics that has looked at the impact of the war on drugs. What they found is that it has been a miserable failure around the world. From an economic perspective, the war has cost billions but the supply of drugs is cheaper and better quality while rates of usage has not been impacted. The time for a conversation about drugs as a health problem seems to be at hand.

Addiction is one of the most common problems for families that come to the attention of child protection. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration in the United States estimates that about one out of every ten children live with a parent who has a substance abuse or substance dependence problem. Michelle Kelley and her colleagues at Old Dominion University point out that fact in some new research.

We also know that children exposed to greater amounts of chronic substance abuse tend to have more emotional, behavioral, social, academic problems than their non-exposed peers. They also have a 2-4 times greater risk of developing their own substance abuse problems.

This is a major health concern. Yet, it is often not treated as such. The National Academies have just released a report that shows that the United States incarcerates more people for drug offences than any other country in the world. In general, from the 1920’s to the early 1970’s saw stable rates of incarceration. But as the war on drugs began, the rates quadrupled. Drugs became a criminal as opposed to a health issue.

Sadly, many drug users resort to fairly low levels of crime in order to sustain the drug habit. But, they also get caught and end up jailed. Too many of those people are parents. Yes, it is true that drug use exposure for children is negative but so too is the loss of a parent to the prison system.

Knowing the negative impacts on children, when we are able to focus on rehabilitation services for the parents, we can too often ignore the needs of the children. They too need therapy. The research by Kelly and colleagues identified that most parents will consent to their children also getting treatment.

There is a lot of good research that shows addiction is really a family disease. Thus, we should treat the family. A parent entering rehabilitation seems like the perfect opportunity for us to pay attention to the needs of the other family members, including the children.

It might also be remembered that, if the parent is sent to jail, there may be less focus on the health issues, particularly for the children. The research published this last week should allow us to think again. It should also cause child protection to ensure that case planning with these families should have specific treatment objectives for the children.

The Case of Joshua Messier: Wrongful Use of Restrains and Seclusion

The use of restraints and seclusion in psychiatric hospitals has caused long lists of issues for patients and the rest of the mental health community. The tragic death of Joshua Messier was a prime example of how dangerous using restraints can be especially when dealing with someone who has a mental illness.

Joshua Messier was a schizophrenic patient at Bridgewater State Hospital. Bridgewater serves as both a prison and a mental health facility. Due to his schizophrenic outburst, Joshua was placed in prison even though he was not a criminal.

Joshua Messier
Joshua K. Messier

Joshua Messier was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was a patient at Bridgewater State Hospital at the time of his death on May 4th, 2009. On the night of his death, Messier was aggressively tied down to a bed after an outburst. During this time the guards used a method named suit casing to restrain him. This method involves holding the person’s knee onto their chest.

Suit casing was banned in Massachusetts because it can cause suffocation. Joshua stopped breathing and died after the aggressive restraints. To make matters worse, the guards who were handling him had no experience in mental health training.

Upon the autopsy examination, Joshua’s case was ruled a homicide due to appeared internal bleeding. Officials at Bridgewater claimed that the guards were following the “standard procedures” with Joshua. They even went as far as blaming Joshua and his mental illness for this tragedy. Joshua’s parents won a civil rights lawsuit and received a $3 million settlement this past March.

Since the death of Joshua, many patients at Bridgewater spoke up about the wrongful use of restraints while in treatment. Bridgewater officials promised to cut back on restraints and seclusion but the numbers have shown that they have actually increased.

The use of restraints and seclusion are just another way mental health facilities are becoming more like prisons. With proper training in mental health care and the elimination of dangerous restraints methods, cases like Joshua’s should not happen anymore.

Does Putting Children in Jail Solve Anything?


During a single year, an estimated 2.1 million youth under the age of 18 are arrested in the United States. When we think of mass incarceration, we cannot just think of adults. Countless boys and girls are funneled from schools and neighborhoods to the juvenile justice system each year, often followed by what seems to be the inevitable entry into the adult criminal justice world and its facilities.

What are the effects of the “School-to-prison” pipeline? Students of color face harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated. Black and Hispanic students represent more than 70 percent of those involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement. Currently, African Americans make up two-fifths and Hispanics one-fifth of confined youth today.

According to recent data by the Department of Education, African American students are arrested far more often than their white classmates. The data showed that 96,000 students were arrested and 242,000 referred to law enforcement by schools during the 2009-10 school year. Of those students, black and Hispanic students made up more than 70 percent of arrested or referred students. Harsh school punishments, from suspensions to arrests, have led to high numbers of youth of color coming into contact with the juvenile-justice system and at an earlier age.

African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison. According to the Sentencing Project, even though African American juvenile youth are about 16 percent of the youth population, 37 percent of their cases are moved to criminal court and 58 percent of African American youth are sent to adult prisons.

A longitudinal study conducted in Chicago tracking 35,000 former public school students showed that:

  • Youth that went to prison were 39% less likely to finish high school than other kids from the same neighborhood. Even young offenders who weren’t imprisoned were better off; they were 13% more likely to finish high school than their incarcerated peers.
  •  Young offenders who were incarcerated were a staggering 67% more likely to be in jail (again) by the age of 25 than similar young offenders who didn’t go to prison.
  • Incarcerated youth were more likely to commit “homicide, violent crime, property crime and drug crimes” than those that didn’t serve time.

It is important for us to come to a general consensus about how we want to treat our nation’s children. There are countless policies and procedures in place that, either purposely or inadvertently, burden youth with consequences intended for adults. In the state of North Carolina, 16 and 17 year olds are automatically charged as adults. Additionally, depending on the crime, a child can be charged as an adult as of age 13. Our minimum age to enter juvenile court is 6. We are funneling children into the world of mass incarceration, and arguably in some cases, we are handpicking who will suffer that fate.

Researchers have estimated that it costs society 1.5 to 1.8 million dollars to care for one habitual offender from adolescence through adulthood. So even if we cannot agree on this issue in terms of social justice, surely we could agree that spending an exorbitant amount of money to keep youth justice-involved might not be the best allocation of our limited funds.

Mothers of Bedford and Prison Reform

On February 12, 2013, Our Children’s Place, a local nonprofit based in Chapel Hill, in partnership with Meredith College hosted the viewing of “Mothers of Bedford” and opened the discussion on prison reform.  This riveting documentary by Jenifer McShane, follows the lives of five women as they try to be mothers to their children while incarcerated in a maximum security prison.  Early on in the film, viewers are hit with some cold, hard facts:  Women are the fastest growing population in today’s U.S. prisons.  Furthermore, 80 percent of those women are mothers of school-aged children. While many parents find it difficult to be away from a child a week, imagine being separated for ten to twenty years?

After the film, we had a Q&A with Jenifer McShane, and the audience was eager to ask questions.  McShane said that it was a 5 year process to make this film, because she had to keep going back and forth.  When asked what her motivation was, McShane replied, “Sister Elaine’s work should be told.  She is a mother, a visionary, and she has been doing it for decades.  I went into the prison and this took over my life.  It had to be told.”

The topic of privatizing prisons arose, and how it is scary to think prisons owners can make a profit from housing inmates.  The viewer wanted to know McShane thoughts on this phenomenon. McShane stated she did agree that privatized prisons are a scary thought.  McShane went on to say that the model used at Bedford Hills is hard to replicate, but she is convinced it can be done with supportive superintendents and communities.  The curriculum was made at Bedford, but it can be shared to help spur prison reform in other states. One final question was asked which was directed to Melissa Radcliff, Executive Director of Our Children’s Place.  An audience viewer asked, “Why North Carolina does not have this program implemented in our prisons”.

Radcliff stated that this public forum is the start of the conversation.  It has been noticed that people are not talking about it, so the public needs to help ask questions.  Ask teachers if they know about the children in their class? Do they have parents in prison? Do they know what resources to offer?  I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Radcliff, and I asked her if she saw N.C. implementing this model in the future? Also, did she find legislators hesitant and/or resistant to change?  Yes, I do think we’ll have the opportunity to implement some new types of programs for children of incarcerated parents, both inside prisons and in the community, in the near future.  With that in mind, our education and awareness efforts will need to be ongoing as will our work to gather research and data on how children are impacted when a parent goes to prison.”

The Children’s Center at Bedford Hills Correction Center in New York was initiated and led as the Director by Sister Elaine Roulet.  The Children’s Center is a highly unique program that allows infants born while the mother is incarcerated, the ability to stay with the mother for up to one year.  One of the five women in the film, Melissa, who is serving a two year sentence had her daughter, Emma, while in Bedford Hills. Therefore, she has been able to take advantage of the Nursery resources and keep Emma with her at all times.

This has given her the ability to see her daughter’s first achievements and create the natural bonding that is needed during this developmental stage.  The Children’s Center not only houses a Nursery, but it also has a children’s playroom and a parenting center.  The playroom is useful during visitation hours, so the children can feel that they have a more “normal” visit with their mother instead of sitting at a table with a guard.

The mothers are allowed to have a planned weekend with their children twice a month.  However, if you have any infractions, you are not allowed to participate.  For example, one mother, Tanika, had gum in her cell, and that is not allowed. She was not allowed to participate in her scheduled overnight / weekend visit.  Tanika was also confined to her cell for 15 days, except for the 1 hour she was allowed outside.  Even though she received this punishment, Tanika knew how disappointed her sons would be in not having their visit. One holiday that is widely celebrated at Bedford Hills is Mother’s Day.

The film shows Mona doing arts and crafts with children, fixing up the rooms, and decorating. Mona, while her sons are much older and she is a grandmother, has become the “honorary party coordinator” on the unit. It is no surprise to see Mona go all out for Mother’s Day.  She has everything decorated, and she has created silhouettes of the moms to give to their children.  All of the prisoners anxiously wait for everyone to get there because buses were sent out to pick up their families.  Anneathia, who has a history of drug use and her mother is also a recovering addict, waits for her two daughters to arrive.  She says, “Today you’re a mom, but tomorrow you go back to being an inmate.”

Rosa, mother of two boys, works in the Nursery while serving her sentence. Throughout the film, I noticed that Rosa’s oldest son, Joey who is only 10 years old, seemed very mature for his age.  It could be seen in the way he talked and in his thought process.  At one point, Joey was talking about what happened to him and his family, and how he was not going to let it stop his dreams.  He said, “The past is the past, but the past also travels with you into the future.”  You could hear murmurs and “wows” from the audience, as they were all thinking the same thing…. How profound to come from this innocent child.

In retrospect, N.C., along with many other prisons has a long road ahead of them to make things better for these children.  I have personally worked in a Labor & Delivery unit for 10 years, and have seen how a prisoner comes in to have a baby, and then goes back to the prison without her baby, sometimes in tears.  Everyone makes a mistake, and while there needs to be punishments and consequences, I feel that the children are not being considered or recognized.  Therefore, their “sentence” is far worse than the mothers, because not having their mother during crucial stages of development has long lasting effects that can carry on past childhood.  Joey, 10 years old, asked what “prison” was when he was younger, and he was told: “that is where the bad people that do bad things go”!

Joey’s reply: “Where do the good people that do bad things go?”


Photo Credit: Our Children’s Place Website

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