How Prisons and Jails Might Function if Addressing Trauma Was A First Priority

By: Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia

Community Engagement Mental Health Victims June 3, 2021

Incarceration is traumatic, and the institutions charged with that function—prisons and jails—often operate in a way that is most traumatic for the people who are incarcerated. But we often overlook the trauma that is also experienced by those who work to staff the jails, and the families of people who are incarcerated.

It’s an opportunity for us to do better, and the scale of the challenge is huge. Every year, people are placed in jails 10.6 million times. On any given day, approximately 2.7 million US children have a parent who is incarcerated, and more than 5 million children have experienced parental incarceration in their lifetime. Approximately 415,000 correctional officers work in our jails and prisons.


Over-policing of Black communities results in a disproportionate number of Black people being sent to jail for low-level offenses. My own father was arrested for marijuana possession when I was growing up in a small town in North Carolina, and he ended up going to jail and then to prison for a couple of years.

As a child, you never forget the experience of police officers hauling your father off. You do not forget having to interact with your father through a piece of glass. They are links in the chain of trauma that lie embedded within a person. And it radiates through communities. Yet, these communities have no pathway to power when it comes to the policies and practices of the institutions responsible for the safety of their loved ones. That must change. There must be a shift in power from correctional leaders to community members when developing and overseeing policies, practices, training, and environmental conditions within these institutions.

Image credit: Chicago


I ran the jail in Chicago, Illinois, otherwise known as Cook County Jail, as warden, for several years. I was one of the first clinical psychologists in the country to run a correctional institution. My focus was to use my training to instill humanity in the institution, but we don’t talk about how people are traumatized by the experience of incarcerating other people.

The numbers are stark.

When you talk about such trauma the attitude, historically, towards jail and prison staff is, “Suck it up. You signed up for this.” But the problem is that compartmentalizing the trauma just leads it to bleed out in other areas of your life.

A person’s partner might say, “you are snapping much more often.” Or point out that you are not the same person you used to be. It took me a while after I left the job to realize that it is not normal to sleep only two hours a night. It is not normal to be constantly ready for your phone to ring. To feel on the edge of your seat worrying about the next crisis. It takes a significant toll on a person, and it is hard to see the woods for the trees when you are in the thick of it.

People who work in the system are sometimes a little nervous when I bring this stuff up. They do not want to risk opening an emotional Pandora’s box by talking about the trauma they might be suppressing. My response is that the box is already open. The effects are already exerting themselves on you, on your family, and on those you signed up to keep safe.

Interconnected Humanity

At Chicago Beyond, we have started an impactful conversation about all this. In my reflection on my time at Cook County Jail, one of the big things we realized was that if correctional staff treated the people who were confined and their families with humanity, they could also see the humanity in themselves. We partnered with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to develop family-friendly visitation, because helping people who are incarcerated hug their children for the first time in years is humanizing for everyone. People had strong emotional reactions to working in visitation, and we talked about the implications. We also acted on them at the policy level.

We have produced a report on this at The Square One Project, called Harm Reduction at the Center of Corrections. It includes a first-of-its kind framework for correctional leaders to better support the people detained, staff, and the families of both. It provides recommendations for correctional leaders centering on safety, transparency, agency, asset-based approaches, and interpersonal connections for these three groups to minimize the harm created by jails and prisons.

The project of harm reduction is critical from this perspective. There are many specific measures that can be used in correctional settings to decrease harm, including incarcerating fewer people. But the key ideas center around one core concept: correctional leaders promoting human interaction that instills humanity.

We are talking about imagining a future for justice and public safety that starts from scratch — from square one — instead of tinkering at the edges or cherry-picking cordoned-off areas for reform. To do so, we need to get to the root of the problem: decades of neglect around communities with chronic poverty and the twin crises of ingrained racism. That begins with drastic systemic change. It requires addressing the specific harm we have experienced as people and extending the compassion we give to ourselves to other people – all people.

How Cities Are Transforming Public Safety at the Local Level

By: Kirby Gaherty

Community Engagement Racial Disparities Victims March 23, 2021

The deaths of Black residents at the hands of law enforcement led to national unrest and protests in over 2,000 cities across America in 2020.

The losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain—and years before, of Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and far too many others—led this country to a reckoning: public safety needs a re-imagining, a transformation.

The movement away from traditional law enforcement response requires leadership and a true commitment to engage community. At the National League of Cities this moment reinforced the need and importance of the voices of local elected officials, many of whom are at the forefront of this work. The commitments of these officials, in collaboration with residents, spark city movement toward equity-driven public safety systems.

For mayors and councilmembers to speak about engaging communities is only natural because they are elected by and represent their residents. Many local leaders have recognized the gravity of this moment and the importance of addressing residents’ concerns. This gravity means that their words, and the actions that follow, carry great weight and responsibility.

In January, NLC’s Re-Imagining Public Safety Task Force convened for the first time as an organized response to these needs. The group, co-chaired by Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, and David Holt of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is made up of more than 20 mayors and councilmembers from across the country.

Representative of various perspectives, the Task Force’s goal is to amplify city-led initiatives that center community in public safety efforts. Several of the Task Force Members represent regions that are also working toward jail reduction and reduced disparities through the Safety and Justice challenge—providing a strong primer in transforming systems.

“This work demands a hard look at each community’s vision for public safety, accountability, and the opportunity for residents to not only to be consulted about desired outcomes but also to fully own the process of reimagining public safety,” said co-chair, Mayor David Holt.

“The trauma and pain experienced by residents due to systemic disinvestment in communities specifically in Black and Brown communities, must be addressed holistically and through transformations that start at the local level,” said co-chair, Mayor Ras Baraka.

City innovations are serving as an inspiration and conversation starter for the Task Force. Some examples include:

Community & Resident Engagement

  • At the center of national attention, the Minneapolis City Council has pushed to dismantle their police department and re-invent their local public safety system with a community focus.
  • In July 2020, the City of Columbus adopted a set of legislative priorities to reimagine public safety that deeply engaged residents. The three priorities are alternative crisis response, investing in violence prevention, and investing in a better, more accountable public safety division.
  • The City of Oakland created their own Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce to rapidly develop a recommendation for Council consideration to increase community safety through alternative responses to calls for assistance, and investments in programs that address the root causes of violence and crime (such as health services, housing, jobs, etc.).

Violence Reduction and Prevention Strategies

  • Several cities, including Newark, New Jersey and Baltimore, Maryland, have established or expanded their respective Offices of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery and Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. These offices prioritize holistic approaches to addressing community trauma, violence prevention and reduction.
  • In Washington D.C. Cure the Streets (CTS) is a public safety pilot program working to reduce gun violence in the District. CTS uses a data-driven, public-health approach to treat violence as a disease that can be interrupted, treated, and stopped from spreading. Additionally, gun violence was declared a public health crisis by the city.

Accountability  in Law Enforcement & Detention

  • In order to reduce the jail population safely, the City of New Orleans Mayor’s Office developed a strategic plan centered on smart decision-making that ensures public safety while minimizing the use of detention.
  • Residents in Philadelphia approved a ballot measure in 2020 calling for the city to create an independent police oversight commission to replace the existing police advisory body. City leaders are moving forward with steps to implement this voter-approved measure.

Health-Driven Solutions

  • The City of Albuquerque created the Community Safety Department, a civilian response force. Community Safety Responders dispatched via 911 call centers may have backgrounds like social work and doing peer-to peer support, or they may be clinicians, counselors, or similar.
  • Early this year, Los Angeles California announced a Therapeutic Transportation Pilot, a city/county collaboration to better respond to calls for law enforcement when managing mental health crises through a civilian responder model.

As the Task Force comes together around recommendations for municipal leadership, many of these examples and themes will guide its work.

NLC is hopeful that this work, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, will guide cities across the country toward equity driven, community-envisioned public safety solutions.

—Kirby Gaherty is Program Manager, Justice Reform & Youth Engagement at the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families

Video Series: The Need to Address the Trauma of Individuals Inside Jails

By: Renee Williams

Community Engagement Mental Health Victims November 6, 2020

At the National Center for Victims of Crime, we have come to realize that the majority of the people in our jails and prison are victims of crime themselves.

We hope to shed light on the link between experiencing trauma or victimization and incarceration in our new video series.

We hope this series will encourage cities and counties across the country to develop and provide programs for crime victims who are behind bars  to overcome their traumatic pasts, and live happier, more fulfilling lives.

The series focuses on the experiences of three people: Lisa James, David Garlock, and Richard Smith, all alumni of Just Leadership USA—a national nonprofit dedicated to decarcerating the United States by educating, elevating and empowering the people and communities most impacted by systemic racism. Each of them has a lived history of victimization, trauma, and incarceration. These videos focus on them as survivors, examining their pasts through their own words. We are extremely thankful that Lisa, David, and Richard were willing to share their stories in such an honest, open, and vulnerable way.

The interviewer and narrator, Dr. Justin Ramsdell, Assistant Professor of Psychology at George Mason University, provides us with an introductory video providing background on the series and  guides us through four additional videos on: what makes victimization traumatic; developmental effects of victimization and trauma; connecting victimization and incarceration; and treatment within the criminal justice system

The videos are an effort to break down the false dichotomy between victims and offenders. The videos do not suggest that being a victim necessarily leads a person to involvement with the criminal legal system, later on. But they provide insight as to how these experiences are sometimes connected, and why the trauma experiences of incarcerated individuals need to be addressed. Just as we provide someone who is diabetic in jail with proper treatment, we should provide help to someone with a history of abuse.

One way that cities and counties can begin to address this issue is by reaching out to victim organizations in their communities who may be able to provide assistance to individuals inside the jail and those who are re-entering their communities.

—Renee Williams is the Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime

Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Victims Are Being Silenced During Covid

By: Renee Williams

COVID Policing Victims May 11, 2020

Some nationwide statistics around domestic violence and child abuse have, perhaps surprisingly, gone down since the Coronavirus pandemic took hold, but they only mask a deadly underlying trend: The silencing of victims until it’s often too late.

In New York City, for example, we’ve been working with Safe Horizon, the largest domestic violence and victims’ services organization in the country, serving more than 250,000 children, adults and families. Since the pandemic took hold, they have seen a decrease in domestic violence hotline calls and in the use of domestic violence shelters, as well as decreased child abuse reports. But just because those numbers are down, it doesn’t mean that there is less violence and abuse happening.

Victims are less likely to call for help during the crisis because they’re trapped in their homes with their abusers, without the necessary privacy. In the past, they might have gone to the public library to make those calls or use those online chat services, but the libraries are closed. And when domestic violence victims might have gone to shelters in the past, concerns about the spread of the virus—particularly in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic—are leading more people to say that they will “take their chances” at home, with their abusers, with potentially deadly results.

Likewise, child abuse reports are down. But we’re also seeing the lethality of child abuse cases spike disturbingly across the country. Police and child protective services aren’t seeing children, so they’re not able to report abuse. It means abusers are only showing up at emergency rooms when they’ve caused injuries so bad that they’re forced to get medical help for their victims.

One forensic interviewer in Virginia used to see dozens of children a week, she told the Washington Post, after they had been referred through conventional reporting channels. Now, she sees very few, and lies awake at night worrying about “the children that we’re not seeing.” At another children’s medical center in Texas, there have been three child deaths from severe abuse since mid-March, when the center typically sees four to six deaths a year, according to the Post’s excellent reporting on this issue.

As a technical assistance provider for the Safety and Justice Challenge, my organization specializes in helping jurisdictions around the country center the experience of victims in their efforts to reduce jail populations. We connect sites with experts and best practices, train and educate on trauma and victimization in incarcerated populations, and on victim-centered principles, to ensure that victims’ experiences are centered in criminal legal work.

We explored some of the ways jurisdictions are using technology to speed up the granting of restraining orders by remote technology at a recent webinar in partnership with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, for example. And we also encourage anyone concerned about the issues raised in this blog to contact our VictimConnect Hotline at 1-855-4VICTIM.

Jurisdictions across the country are doing a lot to ensure that victims’ needs are met with remote technology. But efforts to help vulnerable families are also complicated by underlying inequities.

Just as poorer households have suffered without access to the computers and Internet needed to get online for schooling, so, too, are they more likely to be without the technology and space to communicate privately as they seek help for abuse. Where teachers used to look for in-person signs of abuse like falling asleep in class, or stealing food, there are also fewer opportunities to do so in an online world. It’s impossible for teachers to see facial bruises if a child’s webcam isn’t working, for example, and that’s assuming that the child has been able to log on for classes, at all.

The resources are there to help, but we all need to begin with considering victims’ voices more intentionally. The biggest questions on the minds of those in our criminal justice systems around the country right now should be: “Who’s voice am I not hearing? Whose face am I not seeing?”

We can help folks to hear and see those victims before it’s too late.

–Renee Williams is the Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime


Identifying All Victims: Why We Need To Stop Applying Individual Labels in Criminal Justice Reform Efforts

By: Renee Williams

Community Engagement Courts Victims April 20, 2020

The criminal justice reform movement has often overlooked the inclusion of victims in their efforts. It has also misunderstood and frequently miscommunicated who victims are. In fact, when the National Center for Victims of Crime entered into the conversation about reform, people asked, “why are victims interested in reform, and why should they be included in the process?”

The answer for those of us in the field is clear – victims are at the moral center of the criminal justice system. Soliciting victims’ opinions on issues that will affect their lives is the right, smart, and just thing to do. However, reformers may be surprised that crime survivors are often their strongest allies and supporters. That’s because in the majority of cases, those who have committed a crime have also survived trauma and identify as victims themselves.

Ninety percent of individuals who have been, or are, incarcerated, are also crime victims. Labeling someone an “ex-con”, “felon”, or “prisoner”, however, clouds our perception of them and their perception of themselves.  Attaching these labels to individuals attaches the corresponding stigma of being “bad” and “not deserving” of assistance and crucial services to address their trauma. While in fact, this assistance is what may help them to heal and live productive lives. “The worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me, is that I begin to believe it myself,” wrote Eddie Ellis, the late justice reform leader.

The taint of these labels extends to the places where people who have been incarcerated, and are crime survivors, live.  We call them “bad neighborhoods” making it easier to leave them unprotected and under-resourced rather than providing these places with treatment, assistance, security and compassion.

In 2016 the Department of Justice Office of Justice announced that it would no longer use the words “felon” or “convict”, and in 2018 Washington state’s reentry council urged people to “use accurate and non-stigmatizing language” to describe individuals who have been formerly incarcerated. Such people are “often characterized as being part of a criminal underclass”, the council said. While the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution to adopt the practice of using “human-first language”, recently.

As we continue to reform the criminal justice system, let’s ensure that the voices of victims are heard and considered.  Let’s also stop defining others by the worst thing that they have done in their lives and create additional barriers to their success and healing. As Eddie Ellis said, “no single moment or experience should define any of our lives forever. Least of all in words.”

Renee Williams is the Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime

You can watch a Facebook Live video on this subject featuring Ronald Simpson-Bey of JustLeadershipUSA and Erik Henderson of San Francisco County, and Mai Fernandez of the National Center for Victims of Crime on the MacArthur Foundation’s Facebook page.