They’re the forgotten, the 2.3 million people in US prisons. The overwhelming majority of them have experienced significant childhood trauma. Before you click out of here, this isn’t another boo-hoo story, as some of you might describe it, about the dismal state of our corrections system, for inmates and guards alike. (Oh, yes, it is profoundly dismal.) This is a story about how one tiny part of it isn’t so dismal, and actually addresses head-on the fact that most (91 percent) of the approximately 2.3 million prisoners will finish their sentences and go home. To your neighborhood. So….wouldn’t you want the prisons to help these guys and gals so that they, and by definition, we, come out happier and more well-adjusted than when they went in?
Ok. Just in case you glossed over it, let’s go back to that sentence about childhood trauma. It is precisely why the 2,300 inmates at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash., ended up there. Over the last 20 years some profound, intense research revealed that people who have a lot of childhood adversity have seven times the risk of becoming an alcoholic, 12 times the risk of attempted suicide, twice the risk of cancer and heart attacks. They’re more violent, more likely to be victims of violence, have more broken bones, more marriages, and use prescription drugs more often than people who have no childhood adversity. And those are just the few drops in the bucket of how childhood trauma affects people’s lives.
A big surprise in the groundbreaking CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) — besides that most of us have at least one ACE — was how “normal” and ordinary some of the types of adversity are. Seeing your parents divorce. Living with a family member who’s an alcoholic or depressed, as well as having other mental illness. Verbal abuse, which includes being screamed at every day as well as being quietly told by your mother, “I wish you’d never been born, you freak.” Then there’s the stuff that you expect will mess with your head — physical and sexual abuse. Physical neglect. Emotional neglect — hardly being acknowledged or talked to during your entire childhood. Watching your mother being hit. And having a family member in prison. Since the ACE Study was published, dozens of other ACE surveys showed similar results. Recognizing that definitely more than 10 types of ACEs exist, other surveys have included racism, bullying, witnessing violence outside the home, serious illness or accident in the family, experiencing war, losing a family member to deportation, ending up in foster care, etc.
All these experiences damage the function and structure of kids’ brains. Kids experiencing trauma act out. They can’t focus. They can’t sit still. Or they withdraw. Fight, flight or freeze – that’s a normal and expected response to trauma. Kids who are experiencing trauma live in survival mode. So, they have a really hard time shifting their attention from survival brain to learning brain. Their schools often