By Guy Page
Monday’s Headliners column about legislative planning for the next wave of Vermont prisons prompted plenty of reader questions and comments.
Longtime Southern State Correctional Facility (Springfield) faith-based volunteer John Nunnikhoven of Chester expressed frustration that Vermont Department of Corrections (DoC) refused his volunteer offers of much-needed post-releasing housing for inmates:
“Part of the housing problem has been created by DoC with their change in policy regarding volunteers who were willing to take ex-inmates, under supervision, into their homes. We [John and his wife] did so for many years and had a good track record. Many of our ‘boys’ have been out far in excess of the three-year recidivism yardstick. Some of these were initially the result of a DoC request to consider the individual. We did refuse to take in a couple of individuals as beyond our capability to serve them adequately. There have been a wide variety of crimes represented from addiction to SO.
“A major part of our success is that we form a relationship with these men and women while they are still incarcerated and are able to work out the rules and regulations of living together. For many, it has been the first time they have ever lived in a stable environment.
“The rule change was implemented about 5-6 years ago and Central Office has adamantly refused any discussion of the issue. We have requested special exception 2-3 times but were told it is not an option. We are mature adults, experienced volunteers, and not overly susceptible to manipulation.”
Reader Vaughn Hadley asked, “Did I miss the definition of ‘trauma-informed correctional facilities?’”
No, Vaughn, you did not. Rep. Sarah Coffey (D-Vernon) did not define the term in her June 5 newspaper column that I wrote about, and neither did I. But it needs to be understood, as more legislators see perpetrators as trauma victims, as our attorney general frames crime as a mental health issue, and as prosecutors view killers less as criminals and more as people suffering from mental illness. The March, 2012 European Journal of Psychotraumatology, explains “trauma-informed correctional care” (TICC):
“Trauma-informed care is a relatively recent development in the treatment field. It has as primary goals accurate identification of trauma and related symptoms, training all staff to be aware of the impact of trauma, minimizing retraumatization, and a fundamental “do no harm” approach that is sensitive to how institutions may inadvertently reenact traumatic dynamics.
“Prisons are challenging settings for trauma-informed care. Prisons are designed to house perpetrators, not victims. Inmates arrive shackled and are crammed into overcrowded housing units; lights are on all night, loud speakers blare without warning and privacy is severely limited. Security staff is focused on maintaining order and must assume each inmate is potentially violent. The correctional environment is full of unavoidable triggers, such as pat downs and strip searches, frequent discipline from authority figures, and restricted movement.This is likely to increase trauma-related behaviors and symptoms that can be difficult for prison staff to manage.
“Yet, if trauma-informed principles are introduced, all staff can play a major role in minimizing triggers, stabilizing offenders, reducing critical incidents, de-escalating situations, and avoiding restraint, seclusion or other measures that may repeat aspects of past abuse.
“In addition to general trauma-informed principles, clinical staff can provide trauma-specific therapies—actual counseling models and curricula that are designed to promote trauma recovery. There is recognition that staff and inmate relationships are the day-to-day fabric of both trauma recovery and of re-traumatization. Clinical interventions for inmates need to be relevant to the environment, culture and relationships that incarcerated trauma survivors must navigate on a daily basis. The most successful interventions in prisons have goals that are congruent with the primary duties of correctional staff: public safety, safety of inmates in custody, rehabilitation and staff and institutional security.
“The centrality of trauma in the lives of inmates and explores components of what we will call trauma-informed correctional care (TICC). TICC is the adaptation of trauma-informed care for correctional settings in particular, which have their own unique challenges, strengths, culture, and needs.”
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.