Trauma-informed care works with the changing of mindset and questions. Instead of asking those in our care, in our class, in our police cruiser, in our prisons or schools “what is wrong with you?” we instead ask “what happened to you?” Imagine if this was part of the training our correctional staff received. How would it change the atmosphere currently circulating in our Vermont facilities? How could it improve the chances that folks would get out and stay out if they were seen in this light?

The Compassion Prison Project uses this approach in their workshops inside some of the nation’s largest, toughest facilities. They facilitate circles where adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are named, and given the compassion and understanding needed to move forward with healing and self respect. This project is just one example where trauma-informed care and mindset changes the atmosphere and the opportunities for understanding. Most importantly, it addresses some of the underlying reasons why folks who are incarcerated are depressed, angry, and unable to begin the process of healing.

The trauma-informed approach is guided by four assumptions, known as the “Four R’s”: Realization about trauma and how it can affect people and groups, recognizing the signs of trauma, having a system which can respond to trauma, and resisting re-traumatization.

As a former Corrections Officer, I didn’t start the job thinking about the trauma of the people I would be working with. It wasn’t till later I recognized the trauma. Now I clearly see the current system does not recognize, respond appropriately, or resist re-traumatization. Even though many of the staff suffer from trauma themselves, they do not recognize it in the people they are guarding and who are in their care.

For example: When a cell is “tossed” (otherwise known as a search), corrections staff go into a person’s personal space (essentially their home) and throw everything around. Books get torn, clean clothes end up on the floor, drinks get knocked over, paperwork disorganized, and all personal belongings turned upside down. It can be terrifying, and it is disrespectful. If nothing is found (meaning a person was completely innocent of having anything they weren’t supposed to), the resident is left feeling violated. They are left feeling punished for nothing; resentful and frustrated. Then that resident has to clean up the mess. Any trust that was built with that officer is now tainted.

If the person did have “contraband”, (even something relatively benign like a homemade hair tie), they get a disciplinary report (DR) or ticket which marks points against them. Those points can keep them from jobs, special programming that’s required for parole, parole itself, and even increase their time in prison. For someone with previous trauma, this behavior from the prison staff can trigger angry outbursts that in turn get the them more tickets and more points. It can escalate to a scenario where they are thrown to the ground, cuffed, and dragged off without any of their belongings and taken from that safe space they created in their cell to solitary confinement. This, all because of a trauma response to a lack of respect during a standard cell search. Re-traumatization has just occurred.

As a corrections officer, I always found more contraband when I made less of a mess. I always put things back as I went along because I respected the person’s home. Essentially this is the person’s house for the time they are incarcerated.

Building trust between corrections staff and residents is crucial for true rehabilitation of any kind. Having respect for the individual is crucial, and recognizing trauma can contribute to more respectful, compassionate behavior. This approach can go so much farther in improving our prison systems.

Imagine that cell search with a trauma-informed approach. A much less violated person! Much more mutual respect would be established! How much more smoothly everything could go! And less violence would take place, cutting down on all too common interactions where both resident and officer get physically hurt. So much could change for the better with training and awareness of a trauma-informed approach in our corrections facilities.


— Janet Dorn with Jen Canfield

Visit the Compassion Prison Project Website

One Comment

  1. Fhyre Phoenix January 23, 2023 at 11:17 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for this article.

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