Prison, Paranoia and PTSD

Prison is a dangerous place and it requires a certain set of skills to survive.  A sixth sense of danger, eyes in the back of your head, and acute powers of observation are necessary to avoid the pitfalls and snares of life on the yard.  Prison is full of predators looking for easy targets.  In spite of attempts by the administration to weed out the most dangerous individuals from general population, violence occurs on a daily basis.  If you are blessed to be 6 5″ and 275 pounds there are not going to be very many that will test you. However, those of us with more meager statures need to be wary at all times.  As Kenny Rogers sings, “You’ve got to know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

It all starts with the arrest.  Some people turn themselves in, some are captured peacefully, and some resist arrest.  All of them end up in jail.  After a stripe search, mugshots, and finger printing the process of incarceration begins with the sound of a slamming door.  Freedom becomes a memory and a hope.  You are no longer in control the decisions are made for you.  This is a traumatic and stressful situation for everyone whether it is your first time in jail or your tenth.

The reality of the situation is that the behavioral characteristics that make for model inmates are the same ones that keep the majority of people out of prison to begin with. Conversely, those with behavior that is not appropriate for a civil society frequently end up in prison and it is where they need to be.  However, their behavior becomes amplified when placed in confinement and surrounded with other like themselves.

When you live a criminal life, you know that others are out to get you; either the police, rival gangs, or a desperate loner.  You never know who or when, just that someone is gunning for you at some time so you must remain hypervigilant at all times.  The streets of the inner city have much in common with the jungles of southeast Asia or the wild, wild west.  Nighttime drive by shootings and raids cause them to sleep in the back of the house with multiple deadbolts on the door and a loaded gun in the nightstand or under the pillow.  During the daytime they always sit with their backs to the wall, always travel in packs, and never go unarmed.

Many of these same patters continue in prison because the same people who were on the streets with them are in prison too.  Turf wars, endless cycles of revenge attacks, arguments, personal slights, and theft leads to confrontation.  A healthy dose of paranoia is not necessarily a bad thing in prison.  The fight or flight instinct has kept man alive for thousands of years.

There are a lot of people in prison today that didn’t grow up on the street and never experienced the criminal lifestyle.  They committed white collar crimes, suffer from addictions, or made poor choices in the heat of the moment that brought them to prison. Many never had any previous police contact or seen the inside of a jail before.  To them prison is a scary place with danger lurking around every corner.  The stress of the criminal justice system can break you easily and many are.  Isolated, alone, and many without support.  They are easy to recognize by the “deer in the headlights” look on their faces.  These people are forced to sink or swim.  They have literally been thrown to the wolves and the survival skills of the zebra need to kick in quickly.  Unfortunately, not everyone learns to have a healthy fear, their paranoia has a deeply profound and long-lasting effect on them.

Psychiatrists have found that long prison sentences under stressful conditions results in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) the same as those who have been the victims of violent assaults or combat survivors.  Living with stress triggers certain chemical changes in the brain which can have a short-term benefit such as heightened awareness, quicker reflexes, sharper hearing and eyesight.  There are side effects to stress.  Stress is not good for the heart, it disrupts the appetite and also deprives sleep.  It is like being nervous and jittery without drinking the coffee first.  Doing time is emotionally draining.

The difficulty with long term incarceration is that this physical, psychological, and mental stress doesn’t automatically go away when you are released from prison.  I have heard a story about a guy that paroled to his nephew’s house which was right behind the prison and across a farm field.  Every time the emergency count siren was blown he went back to his bedroom and sat on his bed, like Pavlov’s dogs associating the bell with feeding time.

Many people who parole from prison never truly leave it behind.  For those who lived in fear and trepidation find themselves unable to return to a state normalcy that they had before prison.  Relationships that were once open and carefree are now reserved and cautious.  Strangers represent danger and the police are to be avoided.  You evaluate everyone in terms of angles and opportunity, threats and alliances.

While the waking nightmare is over, the night terrors may last for years.  The brain has difficulty processing the present without the filter of past experience, and when that experience is traumatic in nature nothing is simple or safe.  Moving in crowds, such as malls or stadiums is difficult.  Making decisions over a large selection of options in a grocery store can be over whelming.  Driving in unfamiliar areas or to new destinations becomes confusing.

PTSD is a recognized mental condition that many combat veterans have to deal with 10, 20 or even 30 years after the fighting stops.  Research has confirmed that the same is true of ex-offenders.  The experience of prison life leaves a lasting impression that seriously impacts the individual’s ability to function in society, the workplace, or the home.  The dream is that life will go back to normal, while the reality for many is far different.

Counseling and drug therapy will help some, but most will suffer in silence alone and isolate from support groups.  Many will only have basic health insurance and will not be able to afford expensive mental health coverage or high out of pocket expenses.  Self-medicating and destructive behaviors only lead back to prison and further damage.  A vicious cycle that repeats itself.  In some instances, the result is an overdose or suicide. Unlike the soldiers there is no Veterans Administration to serve the formerly incarcerated to help them deal with the symptoms. Prisons don’t take responsibility for those no longer in their custody.  So, who will look out for those in need of help?