Incarcerated Traumatic Stress Syndrome

By David “Dawud” Lee

“Incarcerated Traumatic Stress Syndrome” is caused by the weight of living in an unnatural and unhealthy environment. Prison environments are both unhealthy and unnatural to human beings and other species of animals. Survival in such environments creates an ongoing hypervigilance that causes Incarcerated Human Beings (IHBs) to break down in an unnatural manner. The breakdowns are physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual in nature. It is just a matter of time before they occur.

Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary defines hypervigilance as “the condition of maintaining an abnormal awareness of environmental stimuli.”

The agony associated with incarceration is something that causes hypervigilance and profound stress on every aspect of the human being. By nature, we are not designed to live in cages, and are profoundly stressed by such unnatural living experiences. The trauma and stress of incarceration ultimately cause breakdowns of the minds, bodies, emotions, and spirits of incarcerated human beings. Even the strongest of the strong will eventually begin to experience various degrees of atrophy due to long term incarceration.

Death By Incarceration (DBI) sentences are the most traumatizing and stressful sentences given to a person, and no such sentence should exist in a developed society. There are some very dangerous people living in every social arrangement, and we need to work towards developing humane ways to address such harmful people.

In October of 2023, the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and Human Rights Coalition (HRC) sent a delegation to Geneva, Switzerland to address the United Nations Human Rights Committee about the draconian nature of DBI sentences. Saleem Holbrook, Patricia Vickers, Nikki Grant, and Valerie Kiebala were among the delegation. There were other activists from around the country there demanding that the UNHRC condemn the use of DBI sentences in the United States, and the UNHRC strongly condemned the use of such sentences in this country.

I have been in prison for 36 years serving a DBI sentence, and I have firsthand knowledge of the trauma and stress associated with incarceration, especially while serving a DBI sentence. I have been living with sarcoidosis for over 30 years of my incarceration, and my lungs are in terrible shape. My sarcoidosis has led to other health issues, e.g. COPD and pulmonary hypertension. The stress, trauma, and hypervigilance connected with 36 years of incarceration is also the main reason for my rapid decline in health. The isolation of the pandemic was also a major factor in my health decline, because incarcerated human beings were more isolated than normal during thelockdowns. We spent close to two years on a statewide lockdown, and we suffered unacknowledged traumas as a result.

During the statewide lockdown, we would spend 23 ½ hours locked in the cell for months, and we would come out for our 30 minute telephone, shower, and kiosk time at any time of the day in small cohorts. We watched millions of people lose their lives due to COVID 19. Some were friends and family. The country never engaged in a collective healing process, and incarcerated human beings were expected to just continue on as usual. The lockdowns throughout the United States were hard on people living outside of prison, so just imagine what the average incarcerated human being experienced.

Most incarcerated human beings come from struggling working class communities and have very few resources to address the traumas associated with struggling to pay bills. We usually live in food deserts, which makes it even more difficult to deal with the dysregulated stress of being unable to understand how to change your condition – conditions created by the systems that govern our lives and mostly benefit elites and the people operating those systems. Incarcerated human beings carry adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and other traumas associated with living in struggling communities with them as they attempt to navigate incarceration.