Enduring damages of prisons: Towards transformative justice

Leon Benson wrote the following essay, published here for the first time, in November 2021 while he was incarcerated at the Pendleton “Correctional” Facility, from which he was freed in March 2023 after being exonerated on all charges. Benson, the author of the forthcoming book, Letters of gratitude (Iskra, 2024), is returning to Indianapolis a year after his exoneration. Be a part of the celebration!

Introduction

According to Dr. Terence T. Gorski, an expert on substance abuse, mental health, violence, and crime, that over 60% of the people currently incarcerated in the U.S. have been in prison before, and there is hard evidence that “post-incarceration syndrome” (PIS) is the biggest contributing factor to this high rate of recidivism.

I personally felt the need to share this info with my IDOC Watch and Prisoner Lives Matter collective and that of other advocates of prisoner rights. Because the mental health of people exposed to the carceral experience is often overlooked. Please take notes for the sake of yourself and loved ones who are and have suffered prolonged incarceration.

A working definition

The concept of post-incarceration syndrome (PIS) grew from clinical work with people in prison within many of the criminal justice system’s rehabilitation, mental health, addiction treatment, and reentry programs. PIS is defined below as:

“A disorder with a set of symptoms that are present in many currently incarcerated and recently released people that are caused by their subjection to prison environments of punishment/violence deprived of opportunities of well-being. The symptoms are most severe in prisoners exposed to prolonged solitary confinement and institutional abuses.

The severity of symptoms is related to a person’s level of coping skills prior to prison, length of imprisonment, number of episodes of prison abuse and duration of solitary confinement, and degree of involvement in rehabilitation programs.” [1].

The symptoms

PIS is classified as a mixed mental disorder made up of a five-symptom cluster:

  1. Institutionalized Personality Traits. IPT are caused by living in an oppressive environment that demands a) passive compliance to the demands of authority figures; b) passives acceptance of severely restricted acts of daily living; c) repression of personal lifestyle preferences; d) the elimination of critical thinking and individual decision making; & e) internalized acceptance of severe restrictions on honest self-expression of thoughts and emotions;
  2. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is caused by both traumatic experiences before and during prison. Which include the following symptoms: a) intrusive memories and flashbacks backs of severe abuse; b) intense distress and physical reaction when exposed to cues that trigger memories of severe abuse; c) episodes of dissociation and emotional numbness; d) irritability, outbursts of anger, lack of concentration, and lack of sleep; e) avoidance of anything that trigger abusive memories; and f) hyper-vigilance, paranoia, and reduced capacity to trust caused by constant fear of abuse from prison staff, other prisoners and others after release;
  3. Antisocial Personal Traits. (APT) are developed both from preexisting symptoms and those developed during prison as an institutional coping skill and psychological defense mechanism. Although, primary APT involves the tendency to challenge authority and victimize others. In the patients with PIS, these tendencies are hidden by passive aggression when dealing with authority figures, while being directly aggressive with their peers outside of views of those in authority. This is a direct result of internalized coping strategies required to survive in the harsh, violent, and restrictive world of prison;
  4. Social-Sensory Deprivation Syndrome. The SSDS is caused by the effects of prolonged solitary confinement that imposes both social isolation and sensory deprivation. These symptoms include chronic headaches, developmental regression, inability to concentrate, repressed rage, lack of impulse control, inability to plan beyond the moment, obsessive thinking, and borderline personality traits; and
  5. Reactive Substance Use Disorder. Many prisoners who experience PIS suffer from symptoms of substance use disorders. Many of these people were addicted prior to prison, did not receive treatment during their imprisonment, and continued their addiction in prison through its black markets. Others developed their addiction for the first time in prison as a means to cope with PIS and the carceral conditions causing them. Yet, others relapse to substance abuse or develop substance use disorders as result of using drugs and alcohol in an effort to cope with PIS symptoms upon release from prison.

Major concerns about PIS

PIS is most severe in people subjected to incarceration more than one year in oppressive environments, who have experienced multiple episodes of institutional abuse (inmate-on-inmate violence: assault, stabbings, robbery, rape, and human trafficking; and staff-on-inmate violence: rape, assault, falsely reports of misconduct, and extreme punishments), who had little or no access to rehabilitative or educational programs, and who have been subjected to 30 days or longer in solitary confinement.

PIS is less severe in people incarcerated for lesser periods, who have reasonable access to rehabilitative and educational programs, who have been in solitary confinement, who have not experienced frequent or severe institutional abuse, and who have consistent communication with loved ones while incarcerated.

After looking at the above there should be major human rights and societal concerns because about 40% of the current 2.3 million of the U.S. prison population (40% of 2.3 million is 920,000) are released each year [2]. Meaning, the effect of releasing these 920,000 citizens with psychological damage from prolonged incarceration can have devastating impacts upon American society. Which include the further devastation of inner city and rural communities, and the destabilization of working/middle class sectors unable to reabsorb these returning citizens who are less likely to get jobs, yet more likely to commit crimes and disrupt family structures.

When we factor in how many of the lower income and communities of color are barely recovered from the Covid-19 pandemic. Adding more citizens in dire need to this equation can unravel these communities that are already held together by loose seams.

The structure is not broken

Each year many prisoners suffering from PIS are recycled back into society. Most are more broken than when they first went into prison. Which seems to keep the recidivism rates high, yet stable. Basically, the criminal justice system should no longer be viewed as broken, rather it be seen for what it has always been: a systemic weapon, designed by the Euro-American ruling class to control and disable lower income and communities of color.

Therefore, we will be met with an immense amount of resistance from the shareholders of the Prison Industrial complex when attempting to enact authentic therapeutic and rehabilitative change within its facilities nationwide. However, we must keep the pressure on prison craft and legislation to influence the changes that can, despite how slow.

Reducing PIS’s community harm

Since PIS was created by the criminal justice system’s policy and programing, as misguided and often insensitive attempts to reduce crime, we must become more PROACTIVE in ways to help ourselves and loved ones.

We have to take the initiative to heal our own communities because we cannot depend on most of our state or federal officials nor on many of those who live outside of our experiences to properly do so. This type of initiative can seem overwhelming due to all of the other problems we seem to have already.

However, working from the scientific and philosophical thought and approach of Healing Justice—while chanting “An ounce of prevention is better than a ton of cure”—can make our collective efforts less intimidating.

i propose we start with the Healing Justice that can be loosely defined as:

“How leaders/teachers/activists/mentors respond to the crisis of hopelessness amongst the risk of communities (youth, women, people of color, PIS victims etc..,.) In which both organizing and healing are required for lasting change. While identifying, confronting, and transforming structures of violence (i.e. any system that deprives people of the opportunities of well being)” [3].

Two of the four approaches to Healing Justice can be immediately utilize in reducing the devastating personal and societal effects of PIS:

  1. Transformative Organizing: This views social change as an ongoing process of individual and collective reflection, growth, healing, and transformation. The broad goal of transformative organizing is to re-imagine ways to restructure our economic, political, and judicial systems in ways that create justice, democracy, and equality. This process requires that we first develop an awareness of how these structures influence our values, relationships, and behaviors.
  2. Restorative Justice: This focus on repairing the harm and crime to victims and community peace. Opposed to punishing offenders with extensive and unnecessary prison sentences, restorative justice seeks to use therapeutic and civil agreements. Which involves the offender accepting responsibility for the harm created and agreeing to some form of compensation. I feel the importance to include the above Healing Justice frame and approaches to assure that those who work to reduce PIS keep a mind set of empathy, healing, and hopefulness. Because, from my experience, those trying to help others without such a mind set can undermine true healing and cause them to act out of what the late, Dr. Martin Luther King called “conscientious stupidity.”

Conscientious stupidity in my interpretation means someone with the best intentions in attempting to help another, but doing so in the wrong ways. For example, we can not truly help people heal if we do not properly analyze the harmful circumstances and empathize with those who are harmed by them. Conscientious stupidity then would make us more of sympathizers to the people we seek to heal, rather than allies to them. There is no progression in that.

In addition, although we BELIEVE the current prison SYSTEM should be abolished that causes PIS, we KNOW that such change can not be an event because it takes mindfulness and persistent process for lasting change. Therefore, it is logical and practical that we evoke this PROCESS from our current positions, available resources, and critical visions.

Now let’s look at the following areas we can focus to implement Restorative Justice to transform
the current judicial system:

  1. lobbying to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders;
  2. expanding the role of drug and mental health courts to promote treatment alternatives to incarceration;
  3. increase funding and expansion of community based addiction and mental health programs staffed by professional and peer expertise trained to meet the needs of the court defendants diverted to treatment instead of prison;
  4. convert 80% of county, state, and federal correctional facilities into Restorative Centers equipped with the proper rehabilitative, educational, and vocational programing;
  5. implement universal pre-release programs for all offenders with the goal of preparing them to transition into community based addiction and mental health programs before integrating into society; and
  6. assuring meaningful and consistent communication between those incarcerated for prolonged periods and their families/friends through visitation, phone calls, and mail to reduce PIS.

The final liberation

“You are not yet free, you still search for freedom. You aspire to the free heights, your soul thirsts for the stars. But your wicked instincts, too, thirst for freedom. Your wild dogs want freedom; they bark with joy in their cellar when your spirit plans to open all prisons. To me you’re still a prisoner who is still plotting [their] freedom: alas, in such prisoners the soul becomes clever, but also deceitful and bad. And even the liberated spirit must still purify itself. Much prison and mustiness still remain in [them].”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus spoke Zarathustra

While i’m not a huge historical fan of the 19th century German philosopher Nietzsche, i do recognize the universal truths in some of his work. So i used the above passage as a metaphor of how PIS barks like wild dogs in the minds of myself, and many others who are currently incarcerated.

This disorder’s acronym is rightfully PIS, because we are PISSED for being forced to endure prolonged imprisonment; for being left in solitary confinement for decades; for being under unrelenting attack and threat by prison staff; for being neglected by loved ones; and for being betrayed by the very society that we must some day return.

Rather than senselessly wallowing in the mud of hurt and unrefunded time; it is vital that we attempt to heal ourselves while within this epic struggle, by using the best ways we can through spirituality, therapeutic activities, and by challenging our toxic conditions. And hope; and do mean hope, that we are able to subdue most of the damage that has been committed against us, before we are finally released.

References

[1] When Dr. Terence Gorski first developed the diagnosis of Post-Incarcerated Syndrome he used the acronym PICS for it. However, for purposes of this article i chose to use the acronym PIS. For a deeper study of Dr. Gorski’s publications see this site.
[2] I amended the prison population statistics from Dr. Gorski’s 2011 paper “Post-Incarceration Syndrome” And Relapse” with statistics updated for 2021.
[3] Healing Justice is a term and framework developed by Shawn Ginwright from his community activism and research. In addition, the other two of the four critical approaches to Healing Justice are Healing Circles and Contemplative Practice.

Featured photo: A car caravan protest outside the Pendleton “Correctional” Facility in 2021. Credit: PSL Indianapolis.

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