The realities of war and crime are exhibited in the lives of those who have survived encounters with death and destruction. We are familiar with the news articles which recall the significant adjustment problems that many veterans have after release from active duty. On a more private note those who suffer from the aftermath of crime exhibit a similar constellation of reactions and defensive behaviors.
Both groups seek to overcome their past experiences, but often face physical, emotional and spiritual challenges which impair their ability to move onto the healing process. In that odd twilight world of heightened awareness, startled responses, temper flairs and an inability to be comfortable with others, their principle coping mechanism may be withdrawing and isolating themselves. Certainly various avoidant behaviors are easier to mask their personal discomfort and tend to shield the sufferers from the curious gaze of others.
In previous works entitled The Psychology of Desperation and A Theory of Victimization, I have been exploring the direct relationship between trauma and poor post-incidence adjustment. Subsequent years of work with returning veterans helped to focus on the similarities occurring among those who have weathered our international and domestic wars. While we can clearly acknowledge the tragic impact on troops returning from the Middle East or Asia, it may be more difficult to appreciate the toll on individual lives who have lived through the domestic war mentality which seems to underlie many government initiatives.
The War on Drugs, The War on Medicare Fraud, The War on Crime, The War on Poverty, The War on Domestic Violence, The War on Child Abuse and The War on Tax Fraud are just a few of the examples which have been crystallized around the concept of war. These domestic initiatives seem to be interspersed with the endless international wars conflicts, engagements, police actions or whatever other clever euphemism may be offered. Have the American people become so immune to suffering, that we freely take fire to our chest and expect that we will not be burned?People are irremediably changed by exposure to trauma, either the international or domestic variety. We have lived with an unspoken challenge to “suck it up” and move on with our lives. The problem with this solution is simple it is not a solution at all! It is an invitation to live by the axiom of denial. “It does not hurt…..much” is what we mutter under our breaths as we notice how our country has changed in the past 75 years. Given the principle of relativism apparently our leadership has expected the governed to fall into step and accept the onward march into more and more conflicts.
When the veterans return from war, the government “accepts” responsibility to help these individuals resume a whole life. To whatever point which may be economically feasible attempts are made to rehabilitate those injured in the service of their country. The results are mixed and unclear given the large number of veterans currently living on the streets. If there is not clear concept of “wholeness” then largely government efforts are public relations strategies offered to soothe the guilt of the nation that sent them into harm’s way. It makes us feel better to know that something is being done for these unfortunates. While several million American citizens have rotated through a series of international wars, there appears to be no accurate statistic on those who continue to need the support of a grateful nation.
Domestically there are many millions of citizens who have endured tragic losses as victims of crime. Some recognition has been provided for the primary victims and the tertiary community members with various funding mechanism and support outreach program. But like those unrecognized who need the assistance of the government in a post-war environment, there is another group which is largely invisible to the communities in which they live. They seek anonymity out of the fear, pain and shame which accompanies the constant potential of being socially unmasked. They live in silent privacy to minimize the risk of being discovered. These are the family members, spouses and children of current and former offenders.
A brief review of the statistics will help to inform those unfamiliar with the growing national burden of providing adequate opportunities to accommodate those impacted by the significance of post-prison life.
- 2 million are currently incarcerated in the U.S.
- 8 million are under parole or probation supervision in the U.S.
- 30 million former felons are thought to be living in U.S. communities
- 90 million family members/friends have had someone go to prison.
- 14 Million Arrests occur across the U. S. annually
- 1 million estimated new felony convictions occur each year
The numbers are staggering, reaching up to one third of the American population and government leadership has no plan to deal with the needs of the spouses, children and family members who quietly serve their sentences in communities across our country. One informed source has publicly predicted that 75% of all children with parents in prison will go on to encounters with the criminal justice system which result in jail and prison sentences. There is no end in sight to this incredible social burden. It just keeps burgeoning like an ever growing wave of potential destruction. Largely the media has neglected public mention of this problem.
Apparently like war, prison is good for business. Private prisons are now listed on the stock exchange and the CIA has acknowledged building and maintaining an unknown number of prisons in foreign countries at the largesse of the U.S. taxpayer. Not only have prisons become big business, but as a nation we have officially exported this technology abroad. The question arises how a third of the American population could have a need which has largely been shielded from view and not have been investigated by curious journalists and social scientists? That ominous silence echoes the sound of the ice cracking under our feet.Some would argue that this is not a population of social interest, though they cannot deny the significance of the number of citizens involved. Other would openly acknowledge the difficulty in being empathic with those who are directly or socially related to the offenders themselves. Unfortunately a policy of exclusion which apportions limited resources by most favored status is destined to fail. That lesson should have been learned at the end of World War I when the Axis powers were encumbered with such burdens that they were largely unable to initiate a successful post war recovery program. Those burdens eventually became the foundation for a resurgence of hostilities known as World War II.
In the immediate post war world of 1945 it was recognized that if those who were victorious did not help their former enemies to recover than history would repeat itself yet again. Based upon that reality the Marshall Plan was implemented in Europe while MacArthur initiated similar measures in Japan and other Asian countries. This resulted in the tremendous post war reconstruction efforts which drew our former enemies into working alliances which ensured progressive and peaceful cultural transformations in nations which had previously taken up arms again us. It has become the basis upon which are current international relationships have emerged. No less is true in Iraq or other nations where our troops have spilled blood,
If these concepts clearly work on the international or macro level, have we lost the ability to recognize their potential implementation on the domestic or micro front? One problem is evident in our haste to be pro law and order NO ONE wants to appear to be soft on crime. So the growing epidemic is hastily buried even as the fiscal burden has over taxed various states ability to continue the endless expansion of prison building.
When the public finally has to choose between educating its youth or building and maintaining another prison, it is my hope that reason and reasonable will start to prevail. The mighty social planners have attempted to stave off that dilemma by transferring state prisoners from one state to another to fill up any beds, overcrowding and of course the role of big business in turning these facilities into profit centers. The clock keeps ticking as the wave of restlessness continues to grow and there is no plan evident to accommodate these postponed social demands.
If in fact 90 million family members, spouses and children of offenders exist within our borders struggling to work out real life situations without government assistance or planning, then it is like watching the beginning of a social famine which will continue to plague this nation well into the 21st century. No answer is an answer. As members of this population begin to talk with each other they will find their voices.
Once given a common voice they will become a powerful entity in their own right and will learn well from the lessons of social indifference which currently governs the rule of law. War is indifference expressed as a matter of social policy. Armed confrontation may have been the clear method of choice up to now, perhaps this is the time when the willingness to help others regain meaningful participation in the community will become the domestic achievement of a mighty and once compassionate nation.
Kevin J. McCarthy, Ph.D. a retired clinical psychologist-consultant, educator, researcher, lecturer and author (Surviving the Justice Experience). He currently works as a director with www.dismasproject.com. Dr. MccCarthy lives with his wife Quinta in Slidell, Louisiana.
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