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PTSD (Prison Traumatic Stress Disorder)

When you can't reconcile who you are privately with who you are publicly.

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On 4/19/17 at 4:07, Aaron Hernandez was pronounced dead, hanged from a bed sheet attached to his window in a 6 x 8 cell at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts . He was found approximately 1 hour prior by correctional staff as they conducted routine security checks and head counts of the inmate population. In the ensuing hours, sportswriters have pontificated about the waste of talent in Aaron; how he squandered a $40 million dollar contract extension with the dynasty-winning New England Patriots; how, although he was chosen the country’s best tight end while playing at the University of Florida, he was drafted 4th in the draft by the Patriots after many teams passed on him, leery of his reputation of marijuana smoking and bar-fighting. There have been an army of arm-chair quarterbacks tossing around retrospective thoughts about it catching no one by surprise Hernandez would flagrantly foul out of life by being involved in criminal activity, even with status, wealth, and celebr

On 4/19/17 at 4:07, Aaron Hernandez was pronounced dead, hanged from a bed sheet attached to his window in a 6 x 8 cell at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts . He was found approximately 1 hour prior by correctional staff as they conducted routine security checks and head counts of the inmate population. In the ensuing hours, sportswriters have pontificated about the waste of talent in Aaron; how he squandered a $40 million dollar contract extension with the dynasty-winning New England Patriots; how, although he was chosen the country’s best tight end while playing at the University of Florida, he was drafted 4th in the draft by the Patriots after many teams passed on him, leery of his reputation of marijuana smoking and bar-fighting. There have been an army of arm-chair quarterbacks tossing around retrospective thoughts about it catching no one by surprise Hernandez would flagrantly foul out of life by being involved in criminal activity, even with status, wealth, and celebrity.

First and foremost, we have to understand that there are many of us who are perceived as public successes (i.e. have notoriety, thriving businesses, are of influence, etc), but are really very private failures. I know preachers, physicians, and police officers who are renowned in their disciplines and respected in their fields as subject matter experts. Individuals who are elected to public office or appointed to distinguished positions. People who have been selected to display their abilities under the glaring lights on some of the most prominent platforms. They uphold the integrity of their offices, have been proven faithful to their sworn oaths, and the beat goes on. However, these same persons struggle with pornography, are secretly addicted to prescription pills, cheat on their spouses, and (yes!) even commit crimes that go beyond accelerating the speed limit.

There is an erroneous perception society has about fame, notoriety and wealth: Money cures all ills. But, as the Notorious B.I.G. poignantly noted before his very own demise: “mo money” will inevitably bring “mo problems.” None of the fringe benefits associated with celebrity actually insulates you from either being sacked by the vicissitudes of life or just sidelined by drama.

Now, you may question, What does being a public success and a private failure have to do with Prison Traumatic Stress Disorder? In this case? Everything! You see, GoodTherapy.org reports, prisoners are, by definition, cut off from the rest of society, and their access to supportive friends and family may be limited. Many jails have instituted mail policies prohibiting letters and magazine subscriptions, and these policies can eliminate prisoners’ ability to communicate with and receive support from loved ones. Phone calls from jail can be costly, and prisoners from impoverished backgrounds may have families who can’t afford to cover the costs of collect calls, however infrequent. There’s little hope for getting any support in prison, as many prisoners are concerned more with gaining respect and avoiding fights in a relentless pursuit of safety. Support from loved ones can play a critical role in helping people overcome mental challenges, and isolation can increase a person’s risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. For the likes of the Aaron Hernandez’s we laud, it is unfathomable to have the “stinky” stuff of their lives exposed for the world to smell, when they have been used to Febreezing the odor via performing well.

The Boston Globe reports: “...there were 32 suicides per 100,000 state and federal prisoners in Massachusetts between 2001 and 2014 — the fourth-highest such rate in the country and about twice the national average. Between 2005 and 2006, a dozen inmate suicides were reported at Massachusetts prisons — including two at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center — prompting intense scrutiny of the state Department of Correction. Most of the suicides were committed in segregation units by inmates with histories of mental illness and attempted suicides.... The department then saw another sharp increase in suicides, with 13 prisoners killing themselves between 2009 and 2010, including three at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.” In 2014, there were 6 suicides, 1 of which occurred at the same prison where Aaron Hernandez hanged himself.

As someone who has been in the dejected head space that Aaron Hernandez was in, I know what it’s like to completely want to “give up” on and “check out” of life. I remember sitting in a detention center, facing a maximum sentence of more than 80 years, and stockpiling Benadryls for an eventual overdose if I lost trial. I can vividly recall writing my very own eulogy — addressing specific person’s with particular messages — and mailing it out as LEGAL MAIL to a trusted friend, so the facility would not screen, discover my intentions, and take disciplinary action. I remember the spirit of melancholy haunting my 24-year-old mind like Freddie Kruger in Nightmare on Elm Street. I know what it is like to pace back and forth in a 6 x 8 cell, randomly counting the cinder blocks, wondering how much sentenced time had lived in that particular space before you, and fighting the notion that the rest of your life will be diminished by 4 o’ clock counts and random shake-downs. I am familiar with your food selection being minimized to a high sodium Ramen Noodle diet and a honeybun desert menu.

Now, let’s be clear: Prisons do not, in general, make people "crazy." There are many people who go to prison and emerge with their wits still in tact. That is not what I’m suggesting at all. However, prison is a crucible that can strip search your inner fortitude down to its bare essential, and challenge your will to survive like Tom Hank’s in the movie Castaway!

Even for the most hardened criminals, prison can be a scary place. The DOJ reports that 70,000 prisoners are sexually abused every year, and assaults, fights, and other acts of violence are common in a prison setting. With little hope for reporting abuse by guards, some inmates may endure verbal abuse, threats of physical violence, and even severe attacks. Women inmates are at an increased risk of being sexually assaulted by jail and prison guards. This ongoing climate of trauma can create anxiety, depression, phobias and PTSD (Prison Traumatic Stress Disorder) in prisoners who previously had no serious mental health issues.

I am not here to debate the merits of Aaron Hernandez’s conviction for murder that scored him a life sentence, nor the double homicides for which he was acquitted that was thisclose to exacerbating a more complicated situation. My aim is to simply inform you of the stressors that can lead to an individual collapsing under the gravity of a prison sentence, and ending his or her life because the weight is unbearable.

If you are a(n) (ex)offender and feeling as if you are running low on the strength of life, I want to encourage you to find a trusted confidant that you can decompress and speak with about your concerns. Identify an accountability partner who will hold you responsible for living, if nothing less. If you know someone who is or has been incarcerated, place your finger on the pulse of his or her life with more frequency. Conduct periodic check-ins with her to see how high or low of a heart or head space she is in. Extend the invitation of your availability to be a listening ear. A suicidal person may not ask for help, but that doesn't mean that help isn't wanted. People who take their lives don't want to die—they just want to stop hurting. Suicide prevention starts with recognizing the warning signs and taking them seriously. If you think a friend or family member is considering suicide, you might be afraid to bring up the subject. But talking openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings can save a life.

Love is the ultimate expression of the will to live.

— Tom Wolfe

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