Imprisonment for the traumatised

Roger Grimshaw
Thursday, 4 February 2021

Recently, I have been writing about trauma as a prelude to imprisonment, and reflecting on what kind of childhood experiences lie in the backgrounds of people sentenced to imprisonment.  

Increasingly, there is awareness that family experiences of abuse and neglect impact on later behavior. There is a plethora of studies about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), stemming from the original research in the USA which identified the long-term health consequences of stressful relationship experiences in childhood, including parental experiences of mental illness, addiction, and domestic abuse. The public health implications of such findings are profound. Instead of providing treatments that deal with the symptoms, it is important to get to the root causes and prevent future misery at its source. 

The statistics about ACEs among prisoners are startling. In a sample of prisoners in Wales, those who had experienced four or more ACEs were three times more likely to have been convicted of violence against the person than individuals with no ACEs. A study of the general population found that adults with four or more ACEs were 20 times more likely to have been imprisoned at some point in their lives. 

Understanding the processes that lie behind the statistics requires an appreciation of how children’s relationships with their carers are affected when there is inconsistency, and attunement is lacking. Future relationships are hampered by an inability to trust others. Insecurity arising within early relationships frame subsequent impulses towards violence. The resultant stress becomes a toxic influence which increases the risk of discord and ultimately violence.  

The key questions which then have to be confronted are about the purpose and scale of imprisonment. In what way does imprisonment resolve a root problem, such as the effects of ACEs? Is this what justice looks like? And does imprisonment have to expand as the extent of childhood unhappiness in society grows? Or is it a policy ‘dead end’, with no prospect of mitigating the sources of the problem? The debate about imprisonment is too often couched in terms of abstractions. Recognition of the influence of ACEs is a step towards a more material and concrete discussion that concerns not only imprisonment but the state of the public realm and society as a whole.