Trauma-Informed Criminal Justice

I woke up this morning feeling deeply grateful (and a bit tired . . . and relieved) for the experience this week of offering trainings about trauma to the staff of Lancaster County Prison and Lancaster County Adult Probation & Parole. And, as has been the case throughout my career, I feel like I learned more from them than they did from us.

Six days, eleven classes, 261 trained LCP staff and 44 trained Probation & Parole staff later, here are a few insights from this week:

  • Corrections professionals have some of the most stressful and under-appreciated jobs in our community. The situations they are exposed to and required to handle are often traumatic, yet there’s a general sense that they have to just “deal with it” and “be strong.”
  • One of the things Grace Marie Hamilton taught me is that she always made sure she showed as much care and concern for the people who worked within the criminal justice system as for those caught up in it – and I was reminded time and time again this week of how absolutely wise and essential it is for me to maintain that perspective.
  • Most of the people who came to this week’s trainings take their jobs very seriously, take pride in their profession, and care deeply about doing their jobs thoroughly and well. Many of them already do some of the things suggested in the training. Yet, the nature of the work can take a huge toll on them, and for some, can lead to cynicism, detachment, diminished capacity to show empathy or compassion, and a belief that nothing will ever change – including the people under their “care, custody and control.”
  • The lack of adequate mental health treatment and resources is a genuine crisis in our criminal justice system (not just here in Lancaster – this is a problem in prisons and jails across the entire country – see https://stepuptogether.org/) – and as a result, staff are placed in the untenable position of having to deal with the significant mental health issues of incarcerated people without access to the necessary mental health expertise and resources to truly address people’s underlying needs. This creates an enormous amount of additional stress and trauma for the staff.
  • As we talked about the connections between trauma, addiction and mental health issues, we acknowledged that much of what’s historically been done for people with mental health and addiction issues is like giving someone aspirin and an ice pack for a broken leg: while those measures might temporarily relieve the pain and reduce the swelling, the leg is still broken – and if what’s broken inside is never addressed, it may continue to “cripple” the person.

I’m deeply grateful to my training team: Allison Weber (SACA), Vanessa Philbert (CAP), Jen Strasenburgh (CompassMark), & Angela Keen (CCP), and my fantastic RMO interns (both Millersville University students) Lindsay Mays (MSW candidate) & Beckah Shenk (BSW candidate).

We are also very grateful to the Walters / Unitarian Church Trust, an endowment from Art and Selma Walters to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster (UUCL) for funding part of this training through a grant to the RMO. In awarding this grant, the UUCL Board has acknowledged the contributions of the RMO to achieving the vision of inclusiveness among all humans as well as respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, as promoted by the Walters Trust and UUCL. We are deeply honored to have been awarded this grant from the Walters Trust and UUCL.

This first round of trainings for prison and probation/parole staff is the beginning of the RMO’s effort to build the foundation for a trauma-informed criminal justice system in Lancaster County. There’s more to come…but I’m hopeful that this week’s trainings helped to start the conversation.

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Brokenness, Judgment, Compassion, and Kinship

One of my heroes, Father Greg Boyle, of Homeboy Industries has said, “The true measure of our compassion lies not in our service to people on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.” This requires a deep understanding and acceptance of our own brokenness or, as one of Father Greg’s “homies,” former gang member Jose, says, ““How can I help the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?”

My work as Director of the RMO for Returning Citizens is with people who have been wounded in countless ways, by poverty, addiction, mental illness, incarceration, trauma. They are demonized and marginalized by the rest of society. For longer than I’d like to admit, I’ve been operating under the delusion that to serve them effectively, I need to be a pillar of strength and model of someone who has things pretty well figured out.

The core messages of my childhood were: “What’s done is done. No point rehashing the past. Get over it and move on.” “Don’t air your dirty laundry.” “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”  

These messages have steeped me in what Brene Brown calls the “myth of self sufficiency.” In “The Gifts of Imperfection”, she writes, “It’s as if we’ve divided the world into ‘those who offer help’ and ‘those who need help.’ The truth is that we are both . . . Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”

I’ve finally come to understand that in my work, I often attach judgment to “helping” people coming out of prison because I have NOT come to a full understanding of my own brokenness and my own need for help.

When I first heard Brene Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability and shame, I identified deeply with her admitted perfectionism and belief in self-sufficiency, her desire to plan, control and avoid vulnerability (aka “weakness”). But when she said her research shows that vulnerability is essential to creativity, joy and authentic connection and that being vulnerable is our most accurate measure of courage, it was a sobering wake-up call for me.

So last summer, I applied for, and was blessed and grateful to receive, a Baldwin Fellowship from the Lancaster County Community Foundation. As part of my Baldwin project, since September, I have been delving deeply into childhood trauma and how it affects connection, health, and mental health.

I’m now preparing for the next major phase of my Baldwin project: a trip to Oregon, Washington and Alberta, Canada, to visit several trauma-informed communities to develop a deeper understanding of how a broad-based, cross-sector “Trauma-Informed Community” approach could fundamentally change our schools, healthcare, community-benefit organizations, justice system, and entire community.

I hope the insights from the trauma-informed communities I visit may help us move toward becoming a trauma-informed community here in Lancaster – a place of true compassion and kinship.

As I prepare for this trip, and throughout my travels, I will be posting updates about what I’m learning along the way – about trauma, brokenness, judgment, compassion, and kinship. So, stay tuned…