The Trauma of Incarceration

The Trauma of Incarceration

Whenever someone I am meeting for the first time asks me what I do for a living, I’m often met with the question “why?” The focus doesn’t tend to be on the victims/survivors aspect of my work, but rather on the reasons why I choose to work with incarcerated individuals. The answer I give is usually academic, that I studied the population in grad school and saw how incarcerated people often do not receive the services that they need. It is true that I have an academic interest in incarceration, the politics of punishment, and how mass incarceration in the US is an extension of slavery and colonialism. However, the true honest answer is this: growing up, many of my close family members were incarcerated. The answer to the “why” is deeply personal for me. Although I have not experienced incarceration directly, I have witnessed the impact it has on families, communities, and the individuals who have lived that incarceration. One of the common threads throughout what I have witnessed both personally and professionally is trauma.

Wolff and Shi (2012) report that in the US, one in six incarcerated individuals who are born male
[1], report being physically or sexually abused before the age of 18. Fifty-six percent reported experiencing physical trauma. Additionally, there is a high prevalence of incarcerated individuals born male to have witnessed intimate partner violence and experience abandonment in their childhoods.
[2] These rates for incarcerated individuals born female are higher. In a study conducted by the Vera Institute for Justice, it was reported that in the US, 86% of incarcerated individuals born female experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, 77% experienced intimate partner violence, and 60% reported caregiver violence.


In addition to incarcerated individuals having incredibly high rates of pre-incarceration trauma, they are also at risk for experiencing further violence and trauma while incarcerated. In 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported 24,661 allegations of sexual victimization in prisons, jails, and adult correctional facilities.
[4] More than half (58%) of this sexual victimization was committed by staff on incarcerated individuals. Forty-two percent involved sexual victimization by incarcerated individuals toward other incarcerated individuals. Physical assault in prisons also contributes to trauma experiences. Nineteen percent of incarcerated individuals born male report being physically assaulted by other incarcerated individuals and 21% report being assaulted by prison staff.
[5] Unfortunately, research and data about physical assaults in prison are lacking.


Incarcerated individuals also experience vicarious trauma. When a person is incarcerated, they don’t have much control over what they see and hear. This means that an incarcerated person may see and hear acts of violence/traumatic events, but they can’t remove themselves from the situation like people who are not incarcerated can. Witnessing violence can also trigger past trauma. In my experience as a Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) counselor, I have had clients whose pre-incarceration trauma – even that which had been addressed through therapy – would reopen because of the violence witnessed inside the prison.


On top of pre-incarceration trauma and trauma experienced both primarily and secondarily during incarceration, the experience of incarceration in and of itself is a traumatic experience. People who are incarcerated are subjected to harsh physical and environmental conditions, such as limited outside time, overhead lights being on 24 hours a day (specifically for individuals in solitary confinement), and extreme temperatures. People who are incarcerated also lose their identity. Rather than a person with a complex history and lived experience, they become an ID number. There is also a lack of bodily autonomy which can be especially difficult for people with sexual trauma histories. Incarcerated people are under constant surveillance, are put in restraints even when there is not a present safety risk, undergo pat frisks and strip searches, experience a lack of privacy, and are subject to property searches. There is also rampant racism, heterosexism, and cisgenderism in prisons, furthering cycles of trauma through oppression and discrimination. One of the biggest factors in the traumatic experience of incarceration is disconnection from community. The isolation of incarceration is extremely harmful. People are taken away from their families and communities and are often incarcerated in prisons many hours from where they are from. It can be difficult and expensive for family and loved ones to visit.


Given all of these factors, it is no surprise that people who are incarcerated have a very high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
[7] In New York, the release plans that are created for people coming out of confinement do not include addressing the impact of incarceration. Both incarcerated individuals and formerly incarcerated individuals do not have access to the trauma care that they need. Trauma workers and healers must consider the trauma of incarceration when working with individuals who have a history of confinement or who are currently confined. It is integral to include the experiences of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals – especially survivors/victims – when discussing, creating, and implementing best practices for trauma-informed care and collective healing. Doing so can help to address generations of individual, historical, and institutional trauma.







[1] I use the phrases “born male” and “born female” as most data about incarcerated individuals is gathered based on the type of correctional setting they are in (male or female). However, data does not always encapsulate the prevalence of transgender individuals being detained in correctional facilities that do not match their gender identity, but rather their sex assigned at birth (SAAB).
[6] Just Detention International (JDI) webinar: Understanding the Trauma of Incarceration