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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Wrongful Convictions and PTSD

I can really relate to this article. I served 10 years in prison for a "rape" I did not commit, 14 months for my 1990 escape, years in prison for refusing to register as a sex offender, and years as a fugitive. Do I have mental health issues now? You bet. Read on.

August 2010, Cover Stories, Free

Psychological Consequences of Wrongful Conviction

By Zieva Konvisser   Tue, Aug 31, 2010
Dr. Konvisser has published and studied posttraumatic responses in various settings. She has found that, while survivors of challenging life crises may suffer from posttraumatic stress symptoms, they also can grow or thrive after struggling with the crises. She is herself, one who lives reflectively, and finds that she enjoys very much working with those who are hopeful and have created meaning out of even the most difficult life experiences. Here she discusses how having been wrongly convicted leaves one with a particular set of psychological consequences.
Psychological Consequences of Wrongful Conviction[1]
Zieva Dauber Konvisser, Ph.D.
August, 2010
To date, only a few studies have investigated the psychological consequences of wrongful conviction, including those published by Grounds (2004), Campbell & Denov (2004), Curtiss (2007), and Weigand (2009), as well as those described in Frontline’s documentary Burden of Innocence (2003), Vollen & Eggers book Surviving Justice (2005), and a recent Innocence Project Report (2009). The trauma of wrongful conviction has been compared to the trauma suffered by veterans of war, torture survivors, and even concentration camp survivors as described by exoneree Ron Williamson in Burden of Innocence.[2] Research demonstrates that once an individual is isolated, interrogated, wrongfully convicted, and imprisoned, the threshold for torture is met and their mental health symptoms upon reentry are those of torture survivors—anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.[3]
The experience of being incarcerated can have long-lasting effects on all inmates, including relationship difficulties, concerns with physical and psychological deterioration, the indeterminate nature of sentences, and the prison environment itself.[4] Although the psychological effects of incarceration vary from person to person, few inmates leave prison completely unchanged.[5] While all prisoners must learn to cope with imprisonment, the impact of imprisonment on the wrongly convicted appears to go beyond that experienced by other long-term prisoners. They are victims of miscarriages of justice, and the deleterious effects of confinement are further exacerbated by the unjust nature of their incarceration.[6]
While wrongfully imprisoned, five Canadians, in a study by Campbell & Denov (2004), made use of several highly adaptive coping strategies to ensure their welfare in the hostile prison environment. These included violence, cooperation and belonging, withdrawal, and, peculiar to the experience of the wrongfully committed a preoccupation with exoneration and rejection of the label criminal. In addition, given their continual affirmation of their innocence, they suffered uncertainty over their release date.[7]
Once released and/or exonerated, the wrongfully convicted’s experiences differ from those who actually committed the crime that they served time for. They often find that they have an increased intolerance of injustice and a desire for the government to acknowledge that an error occurred. Furthermore, exonerees often want to receive compensation for the harm they suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system. In addition, several expressed their desire for some sort of official apology on the part of those responsible for judicial errors and public accountability in order to educate officials about the causes of such errors so that similar errors will not occur again in the future.[8]
In another study of eighteen men who had been wrongfully convicted and released, Grounds (2004) found a pattern of disabling symptoms and psychological problems, including enduring personality change following catastrophic experience, posttraumatic stress disorder, additional mood and anxiety disorders, and major problems of psychological and social adjustment, particularly within families. He also reported stresses specifically associated with the wrongful  convictions based on their becoming wholly preoccupied with their legal case, and the pursuit of it, and continual and unrelenting campaigning to protest their innocence, resulting in chronic feelings of bitterness and unresolved feelings of loss. Post-release psychological problems are experienced as a result of both the miscarriage of justice that typically entails acute psychological trauma from the overwhelming threat at the time of initial arrest and custody, as well as the chronic psychological trauma of long-term imprisonment entailing psychological adaptation to prison and losses—separations from loved ones, missed life opportunities, the loss of a generation of family life and personal life history. For the wrongfully convicted, there were years of notoriety, fear, and isolation and preoccupation with their claims of innocence, and, at the end, the absence of preparation for release and of post-release statutory support.[9]
In Surviving Justice, thirteen exonerated men and women share their tales and give testimony to their resilience, “if only to reduce the likelihood that it would happen to someone else.”[10] In addition to the harsh conditions of prison standards and health care, solitary confinement, sexual abuse, and violence experienced by all prisoners, for the wrongfully convicted, incarceration can have an especially devastating effect. “The sense that harsh punishment is being imposed unfairly makes it much more difficult to tolerate. The kind of hopelessness that can lead to suicide is intensified by the knowledge that even though one is innocent, nobody cares about the unfairness of the punishment.”[11] For the wrongfully convicted, religion is often their last hope; innocent but behind bars, they are all too aware of the imperfection of secular institutions and often experience spiritual conversions or renewals of faith. Some become jailhouse lawyers, providing legal services to themselves and others, because often they are the only source of reliable legal help for themselves. The parole process can be one of the most demoralizing and frustrating aspects of their time in prison: for some admitting the guilt and expressing remorse in hopes of gaining parole is a daunting challenge; for others, abandoning the truth is too high a price for freedom.[12]
An exoneree’s years in prison can exact a severe psychological toll, including posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and mental institutionalization—“They are so used to the institutional schedule where all their daily activities are regimented that when they leave, they are unable to think for themselves and interact spontaneously and naturally with the nonprison world.”[13] According to psychologist Craig Haney, exonerees’ attempts to reconcile their incarceration with their innocence can lead to “suffering that is impossible to make sense of, suffering that becomes very difficult to build from or grow out of.”[14] Exonerees often struggle with dating and sexual relations after their release, with trust and expressing their rage and despair being particularly challenging and causing them to engage in avoidance or distancing behaviors. They face difficulties maintaining marriages and reuniting with children, who also suffered the imprisonment. Exonerees are not entitled to housing assistance, employment, financial aid, or health care. In addition to leaving prison with little help and nowhere to go, only a fraction of exonerees receives compensation for wrongful conviction or have their innocence fully acknowledged by prosecutors, investigators, or victims.[15]
Most recently, the Innocence Project Report Making Up for Lost Time (December 2009) summarizes the many obstacles that exonerees continue to face post-release—psychologically, physically, and financially. Even after they are free, the former prisoners struggle to shake those adaptations that made it possible to survive in a hostile environment. The regimented daily routine of prison life made them unaccustomed to making their own decisions. The violence of prison life has led to a social distancing, emotional aloofness, and a lack of positive social skills. The lack of opportunity and alienation from the outside world has resulted in low self-esteem. Posttraumatic stress disorder is common; almost all prisoners have witnessed violent acts or been victimized, and memories of these experiences can be re-traumatizing. Symptoms include trouble sleeping, recurrent nightmares, difficulty concentrating, irritability, anger, and hypervigilance. Exonerees also struggle with the psychological dissonance of having been profoundly wronged by society. Grievous losses and feelings of “what might have been” follow the exoneree throughout their entire lives. In addition to these psychological obstacles, medical care provided to prisoners is notoriously poor, exacerbating existing conditions and leaving others untreated.[16]
From a financial perspective, many exonerees were wrongfully convicted in their youth, while their peers were advancing their careers or getting an education. After a decade or more in prison, exonerees find themselves starting over at an older age. There are few professional opportunities for prisoners, and exonerees released from prison have little or no experiences with computers or modern technology and are far behind their peers in the workforce. Services available to parolees in many states, including job placement and temporary housing are not available to exonerees who face all the same obstacles, in addition to the psychological effects of wrongful imprisonment. To make matters worse, exonerees are saddled with the responsibility of continually having to explain their exonerated status to prospective employers, landlords, and others who identify them as “ex-cons.”[17] As Anthony Robinson explains in the documentary Burden of Innocence, “There is always a stigma of having served in prison—a sense of disbelief.”[18]
Re-establishing a sense of independence and control over one’s life is very important because these were taken away from them while imprisoned. Thus, securing housing is an important need for successful re-integration into society. Employment is also necessary to achieve financial independence.[19] Yet, many employers are not willing to take a chance on hiring someone who has been in prison—innocent or not.[20] As a result, there is often no income stream or health insurance coverage and little sense of purpose in life.
At the end of many of the psychiatric assessments of the eighteen men who were wrongfully convicted and released from long-term imprisonment, Grounds was left with a strong impression of irreversible damage that could not be substantively remedied. He suggested that efforts should be directed towards helping those concerned to find a way of living with it, coping with their grief, and gaining a better level of understanding of their difficulties.[21]
As so movingly described by Anonymous in the essay Bits-n-Pieces in this issue of Obvious Answers, life after prison is akin to the painful task of trying to put back together the almost unrecognizable bits and pieces of a broken up puzzle to recreate the beautiful scene—or life—as it existed before.
Not to diminish in any way the difficulty of such a task or the prevalence of so many negative consequences experienced by those who have been wrongfully convicted, it is also important to recognize that, in the struggle with such a highly traumatic experience and its consequences, there is the possibility for more positive outcomes and responses as well. Some people may be defined forever by a major life crisis or traumatic event, such as bereavement, HIV infection, cancer, bone marrow transplantation, heart attacks, coping with the medical problems of children, transportation accidents, house fires, sexual assault and sexual abuse, combat, refugee experiences, and being taken hostage,[22] as well as terrorism, torture, and wrongful conviction; while others can master the events and can integrate them in a growth-producing way. Over time, they are able to confront and process their trauma-related thoughts, feelings, and images; and with genuine support from close, caring others—including friends and family, other people “who have been there,” and professionals, as well as the broader society and culture--most trauma victims manage to move on with their lives, which no longer seem to be wholly defined by their victimization. Victims can become survivors.[23]
As Campbell & Denov discovered, through their resilience, many of the wrongfully imprisoned men they interviewed revealed creative and resourceful strategies that appear to have helped them cope with an untenable reality. As mentioned before, in order to survive they implicated themselves in activities that allowed them temporary respite form the harsh reality of wrongful imprisonment, manifesting an obsession with their cases and a constant preoccupation with legal matters surrounding potential appeal or exoneration and diverting their energy and attention away from the devastation of their present circumstance towards the possibility of release. In addition, many rejected being labeled as criminals and withdrew from other inmates, holding on to their pre-prison identity and allowing themselves to remain in control. After their release, they expressed little tolerance for injustice and desired that the wrongs committed by the criminal justice system should be acknowledged and rectified to whatever extent possible.[24] For Anthony Robinson in prison, “My whole purpose of surviving was to clear my name.” After he was paroled, he successfully fought for exoneration.[25]
Heather Weigand, founder and Executive Director of FocuzUp, a social justice agency dedicated to addressing re-entry issues for the formerly incarcerated, stresses the necessity of immediate, comprehensive psychosocial services to the wrongfully committed for a productive re-engagement with life. Most importantly, the exonerated want their standing as innocent people recognized and the trauma of their conviction acknowledged. She also recognizes that there are victims of the criminal justice system who grow organically into amazing new leaders and advocates for criminal justice reform. She acknowledges several exonerated persons who are attempting to heal their communities while healing their own lives, including Ken Wyniemko[26] who served eight years in Michigan prisons before DNA evidence proved his innocence. They are involved on a grass-root level to empower and educate communities, advocate for policy change, and provide fellowship to each other.[27]
Although there is still much to be done in this area, several relevant strategies for providing compassionate assistance to the exonerated have already been addressed in the studies of the psychological consequences of wrongful conviction cited in this paper, as well as in the Innocence Project Report. Grounds recommends three forms of social system support that are needed for those who are wrongfully committed and subsequently released from prison: (1) at the time of release, the prisoner and family need to be informed about the problems they are likely to experience, and on release they may need a designated residential facility with specialized advice in the initial days; (2) the ex-prisoners may need appropriate treatment for specific psychiatric conditions and long-term counseling to help them come to terms with their lost years; and (3) work with the family is needed to facilitate mutual understanding and develop coping strategies.[28]
Curtiss describes the therapeutic value of exonerees, like torture survivors, telling their stories, being listened to within a therapeutic setting, and being allowed to proceed at their own paces in as much or as little detail as they are comfortable with. Given that their trust in other human beings has been purposefully violated, a sense of trust must be established with any professional who attempts to assist them with adjusting to post-release life. In addition to telling their stories, involvement with other exonerees is helpful by allowing them to re-establish a sense of family, community, and membership. Hearing that other exonerees may be experiencing the same or similar things, helps validate the feeling that each individual has.[29] Weigand adds a caution that speaking engagements for the exonerated can be healing, but they also can be triggers of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, especially to a legal audience or with the media. Nevertheless, it is important to share such stories to help others who might encounter wrongful convictions and so that society learns as much as possible from these events.[30]
Finally, in addition to developing a series of recommendations for states to compensate the wrongfully convicted to allow exonerees to be independent, self-sufficiency, and re-establish a life for themselves, the Innocence Project recommends that they create a “release plan” based on the exoneree’s individual needs to provide immediate services, including housing, transportation, education, workforce development, physical and mental heath care through the state employee’s health care system, and other transitional services. Finally they recommend issuing an official acknowledgement of the wrongful conviction. “Conceding that no system is perfect, the state government’s public recognition of the harm inflicted upon the wrongfully convicted person helps to foster the healing process, while assuring the public that the state—regardless of fault—is willing to own up to its wrongs.”[31]
Ernest Duff, Executive Director, Life After Exoneration Program (LEAP), compares exonerees to political asylum seekers who have been victims of a highly personalized yet systematic process of injustice. He observes that “The future of exonerees hinges on how supportive an environment they land in is, and on the resilience within each exoneree to avoid despair and take their newfound freedom as an occasion for growth.”[32]
As someone who has personally experienced the trauma of wrongful conviction or as an advocate for the wrongfully convicted, think about how you might apply some of these ideas and strategies to help yourself or other exonerees heal and productively reengage with life.

1 comment:

  1. This post has been helpful, and I plan to review the other materials listed. I wish there was more literature out there to help the victims and families of wrongful prosecution. The criminal injustice system that demands pleas for short time or LONG sentences and exorbitant legal bills for trial is designed to make wrongful conviction invisible - making it so much more painful!