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Prisoners Have High Incidents of Trauma, Researchers Find

A new policy brief out of Rutgers University in New Jersey looked at male Pennsylvania state prison inmates and found that almost all of them had experienced traumatic events in their lives. 

Nearly 600 men participated in the screening that looked at the prevalence of trauma in male inmates. Researcher Nancy Wolff, who runs the Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research at Rutgers, found that the men had experienced a wide range of trauma in their lives.

Eighty-five percent reported being a victim of a crime-related event, such as robbery or home invasion. More than three quarters of the men had been physically or sexually abused.

State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said at first he almost didn’t believe the figures.

"When I saw the numbers and I saw the prevalence of trauma overall, I was just blown away," he said. "I couldn’t believe that so many, such a high percentage of our offenders — so I called her up and said, are you sure about these numbers?"

Wetzel said trauma in male prisoners hasn’t really been looked at extensively, and very little trauma-focused treatment exist inside adult male prisons. With females, there has been a broad knowledge that a large percentage of that population has had trauma or unresolved trauma as a root cause of behaviors that lead to incarceration.

"With men we don’t, we haven’t really paid attention to that," Wetzel said. "We really pay attention to kind of the end game, we pay attention to what the crime is, we pay attention to what the addiction is, but we really haven’t rolled up our sleeves and digged down to, 'What is the root cause? What experience led to this individual getting addicted to ultimately doing whatever they did?'"

In the last couple years, the Department of Corrections has started screening women at commitment. Screening men will take some creativity, he says, because males tend to be less forthcoming in speaking about their trauma. But he says it needs to be done, since so far what they’ve been doing hasn’t been effective.

"I don’t see it as a big cost, and whatever cost is spent I see the opportunity to get a very good return on our investment," Wetzel said. 

He said screening, along with the correct treatment, will help curtail recidivism.

Inmates in the Rutgers survey who screened positive for both PTSD and for substance abuse were entered into a pilot treatment program designed specifically for men with trauma and addiction problems. Wetzel said those types of programs are the next step.

"Now that we have this study, it's really looking at, are our programs trauma informed?" he said. "The programs that we are delivering, that we already have OK outcomes on, are we making sure that for this specific group, it's not having a negative effect."

Prisons in Pennsylvania already deliver mental health services to 10,000 individuals, a little under a fifth of all inmates.

Research has shown that trauma exposure is strongly associated with physical and mental illness and substance abuse.

Wetzel said the prisons end up being the end game, and a lot of responsibility lies with the education system, human services departments and society as a whole.

"We’re not the problem," he said. "We’re how the problem gets exposed. So any other system fails — people end up with us."

The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.