The Trauma Of Incarceration

There is a mental health crisis affecting our nation’s long term incarcerated known as incarceration-borne PTSD (IBPTSD).

I have a friend. His name is Teddy Poelking, and he wrote for this blog in the post “Ohio’s Broken Parole Review Process” some while back. Please, take a moment to  read his words   for they are some of the last words he ever spoke.

Teddy was incarcerated for 2 1/2 decades.

Prior to Teddy’s release he told me that he was worried about going back to society:

“Why?” I asked. “What is there to worry about?”

According to him, a lot. “First off,” he’d say, “the cars drive themselves nowadays Christopher. They’re even electric. How does that work Christopher?”

And then there’s the “Internet” as Teddy often lamented. The Internet was his way of referring to the universe of social media and digital commerce that dominates today’s daily life.

“I don’t know anything about the Internet Christopher.” This was a refrain he said many times to me, and it was a genuine worry to him.

“Teddy, listen to me. You’ll pick up everything no problem. I know many people that’ve gotten out and knew nothing about these things and they’re doing great. Don’t you?”

I don’t know,” he said. Add to this the fact that Teddy suffered from incarceration-borne PTSD (IBPTSD) which dramatically affected his confidence and ability to cope with everyday life. “I don’t know Christopher if I can make it. I’m fine here…but society has changed. People are meaner nowadays, they’re different.”

Teddy, like myself, began his sentence at a higher security level. And like myself, Teddy clawed his was down through the levels over the decades until finally landing here in minimum security. Everyone, and I mean everyone, who pulls a lengthy sentence is impacted by the journey. Some slightly so, but many terribly so. You witness unthinkable acts, endure terrible things, witness crimes committed at the hands of the very staff tasked with your safety and crimes committed at the hands of your peers. You witness unthinkable cruelty and violence. You see, experience and endure the worst of humanity.

For Teddy, his journey was harder than most. He once was stabbed 17 times. He was beat to within inches of his life on another occasion. Others incarcerated become victims of sexual assault, and a wide range of acts of violence. Incarcerated men and women may endure verbal, physical and/or sexual abuse at the hands of overworked and stressed out staff. Why? All for what? The larger questions we should be asking are: Is any of this preventable? Are these the result of a prison environment that by its nature causes anxiety, depression and PTSD in those who’ve never had mental health problems? If so what can be done to change this and to address the trauma that inevitably accompanies these experiences. How can we effectively help these individuals?

There’s much that can be done but first a problem has to be acknowledged to exist. IBPTSD is real. However, corrections rarely acknowledges or helps those afflicted by IBPTSD. If a mental health condition doesn’t cause a radical change in behavior those incarcerated rarely receive the degree of treatment needed. Untreated mental health issues may worsen while incarcerated and often do.

I suffer from IBPTSD to varying degrees in the form of anxiety. I’ve had to work to overcome this condition and I’ve had to do it on my own through sheer will. For example, whenever someone used to walk close behind me it caused me extreme anxiety. It was a result of my experience early in my incarceration. Decades onward I’ve been able to overcome this trauma, but on occasion I still feel a degree of anxiety when in these situations.

Another trauma I’ve had to overcome is the fear of silence. For those incarcerated silence indicates that terrible things are happening or about to happen. There’s no worse silence before that preceding the entire prison erupting into violence. To this day, I occasionally feel anxiety when it becomes quiet in this environment. Rarely can I sleep without the sound of white noise like a fan or a radio. It was never like this for me prior to incarceration.

I’ve witnessed suicides, vicious attacks, men tormented even tortured by my peers because of their crimes, and these sounds and images haunt me to this day. It is another reason why I am so adamant in advocating for change and understanding. Every one of these men were fathers and sons. These are my demons, PTSD borne from my environment.

Teddy went home this year and outwardly seemed to be doing fine. Then a couple of weeks ago he live streamed to Facebook, called his girlfriend and told her he couldn’t take it anymore and put a gun to his forehead and killed himself.

This could have been prevented. We need IBPTSD awareness. We need to address this mental health crisis in our prisons. IBPTSD awareness is in the same stages as war borne PTSD was for veterans of the first Gulf War. It took years before the psychiatric and medical communities coalesced around the PTSD truth.

Most families have no idea that their loved one is suffering. Those that do are left feeling helpless to intervene, to save a son or daughter from what they’re enduring. Calls by worried family and friends to prisons are frequently met with indifference. At worst they set into motion acts of retribution by the very institutions loved ones reached out to for help. Readers have told me that these are their experiences. It’s a problem nationwide.

IBPTSD is a mental health crisis. There are no official statistics, but I estimate nearly 60% of this nation’s long time serving incarcerated suffer from some degree of IBPTSD. This figure doesn’t account for the millions of men and women released through the end of determinate sentences or by parole boards over the course of time. These formerly incarcerated are back in our communities quietly struggling their traumas taking various tolls. Sometimes it’s borne by those closest to these formerly incarcerated. Other times these traumas burst out onto the community scene in terribly negative ways.

When will we finally acknowledge this health crisis?




I created Lettersfromchristopher in 2019. Every post on this blog is the voice and story of someone incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. Through these stories we seek to draw awareness and understanding and to spur action for change. Please, share this post with others. Thank you! for following.

8 thoughts on “The Trauma Of Incarceration

  1. Jim

    So glad you are advocating for this. I think that IBPTSD is probably more in the realm of combat-related PTSD from post Vietnam vice post Gulf War 1.

    1. Teresa

      My daughter has been in special education because of a severe comprehension disability. Her father died her senior year, and she was pregnant 4 months after graduating. Only after the man drug man cycle. She is easily misleading, and has no concept of reality. She was zeroed in on after being homeless in Iowa, with a baby, for 2 years. She found guy/heroin, and baby #4 was positive for heroin. This was at the height of the pandemic I am immune compromised, and couldn’t travel. I couldn’t relocate to Iowa, which was what they expected, because theyvwouldnt just give me the kids. Told me I don’t make enough money on disability, and my states child services would be in touch of things changed. The two kids are in foster care, or have been adopted. I don’t know. But the reason I gave you this back fill is, the FBI, sent someone with a wire, 5 times to my daughter to purchase drugs. The police put her the hospital, because she was walking around mumbling. Put her in psych ward for 2 weeks. Then on to Hillcrest Mental Rehabilitation Facility. Her doctors and case workers were trying to help her when yhe FBI picked her up for 2 counts of conspiracy to distribute. No drugs. She didn’t test dirty going into jail. 8 months in Linn County jail, facing 20 to 40 years. For a delusional woman with a comprehensive disability. On wire, who knows what she told the informant. Her friends that I have talked to have said she brags that her mom is a millionaire. Lives in a mansion. When it’s just the opposite. I just don’t get our system. The assigned attorney told her to plead guilty. 🥺

    2. Prison trauma can come at the hands of staff. You don’t need physical trauma to develop IBPTSD. So many inmates I’ve talked to tell me about the verbal cruelty of some staff and how it has negatively affected them. Something rarely mentioned is trauma inflicted upon family of incarcerated who themselves worry about the trauma someone they know is enduring behind bars, especially at the hands of staff. More awareness to IBPTSD is needed, more action, more compassion for those who suffer from it.

  2. sarahornellis43125

    Mental health services in corrections needs to be overhauled. Less and less do we address the root causes of trauma behind bars, and more and more mental health services have become reactionary.

    1. christopherm001

      Not only has institutional treatment become reactionary it routinely fails to diagnose the underlying cause of trauma to the detriment of the individual. I see the devastating effects this ultimately has. Improper diagnosis are common in prison

    1. Thank you to everyone who has commented on my post and all who regularly follow the blog. Drawing awareness to IBPTSD is important to me because it affects so many of us incarcerated. It’s a silent crisis behind these walls.

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