Offender Trauma Study Proves Useful in Corrections Field

Oct 07, 2013, 15:15 ET from Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

HARRISBURG, Pa., Oct. 7, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Several hundred Pennsylvania state prison inmates recently participated in a voluntary study by Rutgers University to determine the connection between post traumatic stress and substance abuse disorders.

"The number of offenders with unresolved trauma experienced early in their lives is really shocking to me," Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. "This is yet another area we must continue to study. This type of groundbreaking work will ultimately lead to better treatment and fewer victims. There's no doubt that unresolved trauma leads to crime. Resolving early trauma leads to rehabilitation.''

Wetzel said the study's results will help corrections officials better understand, explain and address criminal behavior that occurs as a result of unresolved trauma.

"I am by no means saying we should excuse the criminal behavior caused by the trauma," Wetzel said.  "But now we will be better able to identify it and address the unresolved trauma through programming. This work will help the offender while also working to address their issues and prevent future crime."

The recently published study, "Screening for and Treating PTSD and Substance Use Disorders Among Incarcerated Men," is breaking new ground for the field of corrections. 

In 2012, Wetzel approved SCI Graterford and its inmates to volunteer in a trauma study conducted by Rutgers University that screened a random sample of inmates for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse disorders. Those inmates who screened positive for both disorders were assigned to evidence-based, specialized trauma-addictions interventions. 

The objectives of the study were to screen inmates at the prison for trauma and addiction-related problems and then study the effectiveness of two treatment programs designed specifically for men with trauma and addiction problems.

"A number of offenders either witnessed or experienced trauma early in their lives,'' Wetzel said. "Knowing this allows us to train our staff to better deliver trauma-based programs to inmates.''

Trauma experiences are defined as severe life events that can be directly experienced or witnessed. Most of these events overwhelm our senses and can alter behavior. Trauma experiences often occur unexpectedly and threaten life or safety and may cause feelings of helplessness or fear.

The following types of trauma were studied: being shot, stabbed, mugged or kidnapped; having a home vandalized; experiencing a home invasion, near drowning, car or motorcycle accident or experiencing a natural disaster such as hurricane or earthquake.

Examples of witnessing trauma include seeing someone killed, tortured or observing a tragic accident. The study used a broad definition of trauma including events that are witnessed or directly experienced that occurred either inside prison or in the community regardless of the person's age.

Approximately 1,000 of the 2,000 eligible inmates at the prison were randomly invited to be screened. Of those invited, 592 inmates consented and participated in the screening, with 240 of those actually entering into the treatment phase of the study. The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

The treatment interventions provided information about PTSD and the connection between PTSD and addiction problems, focusing on developing coping skills related to behaviors triggered by reactions to trauma. The men attended groups twice a week for 14 weeks and were evaluated for effectiveness over a six-month follow-up period.

At the end of the study, the men who participated in the groups had improved mental health, self-esteem, resiliency and coping skills. The men reported feeling better able to manage their anger and frustration because they understood their triggers and had skills to calm their reactions to life's challenges and respond in a more measured and socially appropriate fashion.

To view the Rutgers Policy Brief, visit this link:, click on the news drop down menu, then select "Policy Issue Brief."

Media contact: Susan McNaughton, 717-728-4025

SOURCE Pennsylvania Department of Corrections