Incarceration and Healing Trauma

Kathleen Tompkins

I recently heard a segment on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” about the incarceration of juveniles, and it really got me thinking. The show featured Nell Bernstein, who wrote “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.” So, I bought the book and shared some concepts with a SaintA group of staff members who meet regularly to discuss trauma informed care. These employees come from a variety of our programs and include therapists, social workers, trainers, anyone who is interested in how we implement trauma informed care.

The author’s premise is that the juvenile corrections system across the U.S. simply is not working. She concluded, after visiting many facilities, that incarcerating juveniles usually makes whatever emotional and behavioral problems they had before entering much worse. It’s quite common, she says, for traumatized kids behind bars to be re-traumatized and that they learn to tamp down any emotions, in large part because weakness is preyed upon.

The first thing I thought of, and which I shared with our group, was that this is very similar to the kind of emotional state we see with the young people we care for in our Residential treatment program. When they first come to us, they have been traumatized by something that makes them unable to function successfully in a foster care or group home setting. Their trauma has affected their brains and inhibited its normal functioning. We stress relationship, structure and safety and use these elements to try to reach them.

The discussion veered to therapy and how making a person re-live the trauma they have experienced is probably unproductive. If therapists working with incarcerated juveniles, or any juveniles for that matter, focus primarily on whatever they did to land them in trouble, that may be more harmful than helpful. A social worker who recently had visited youth behind bars also conjectured that, in the absence of trauma informed, compassionate therapy, many of the young people learn to simply say what they know the juvenile detention staff want to hear.

In my work with our boys in Residential, I like to give choices, using parts of different therapies. I try to help them tap into their own resources. For instance, I help them understand and visualize their safe place: what it is, where it is, how it looks and feels. I also ask them to bring around, in their minds, all their nurturing people, who they are, how they smell, feel. We sometimes focus on a protective figure, such as a big, lovable bear. We have had great success with animal-assisted therapy. The human brain is complex, and there is not one simple solution. One rule I do live by, however, is to try not to re-traumatize a child.

We came to no firm conclusions in our group other than, although the rate at which youth are incarcerated in our country is decreasing, it still is cause for concern. Trauma requires a thorough understanding of how and when in a child’s life it was created, what its effects are, and large doses of patience and compassion. The goal should always be to help a young person move beyond the trauma and heal. And become a functioning, productive citizen.

In my mind, slamming the jail door shut is a topic worthy of much more discussion.


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