Blueprints for High-Performing, Trauma-Resilient Jails: An Interview with the Presenters

From child abuse and emotional abuse, to witnessing the horrors of what adults can do to each other, trauma is a major part of an inmate’s history and psychological makeup, fundamentally shaping how one sees the world and interactions with others. To a person carrying traumatic baggage, a simple set of directions can be interpreted as demeaning; a gesture or movement as a threat. And these flawed interpretations can ultimately create the potential for conflict and even violence in an already charged situation.

But how can jail administrators balance the need to maintain a high level of security for both inmates and staff — and yet foster a sense of safety so that people aren’t inadvertently re-traumatized?

Check out this recorded webinar with Harmony Goorley and Dr. David Stephens of Falcon, Inc as they:

  • discusses the prevalence of trauma among your staff and inmates
  • explains the neuroscience behind and the psychological effects of trauma,
  • examines how trauma symptoms manifest throughout inmates’ incarcerations,
  • and guides you through the process of building an actionable blueprint for your trauma-resilient jail.



Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): You’ve said that roughly 70% of all inmates have histories of physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children or adults… That’s an incredible figure! How does that affect managing these individuals as inmates though?

Harmony Goorley: Trauma deeply changes the way survivors experience the world. The shattering experience of trauma robs survivors of a sense of safety. It is not uncommon for inmates impacted by trauma to present as suspicious and hypervigilant – over-reacting to officers’ directives, easily insulted and often perceiving disrespect from staff and suddenly hostile (often when concealing fear and anxiety). Inmates can also appear distracted due to impaired attentional systems and slow cognitive processing speeds, resulting in staff labeling them insolent or noncompliant. In the age of The Prison Rape Elimination Act, it is especially important to understand inmates’ risk of abuse. Pre-incarceration trauma increases inmates’ likelihood of being victims of abuse while in custody. Previously abused inmates may be more susceptible to custodial coercion, intimidation (i.e. financial exploitation), physical violence, and sexual assault.  These impacts are a shortlist of an extensive catalogue of how trauma impacts inmates and the professional posture required to effectively manage them. Failing to incorporate a culture of trauma sensitivity into a system will have poisonous effects on the mental, physical, and emotional health of the inmates and staff alike.


Dr. David Stephens: From a neuroscience perspective, trauma results in limitation in how the brain is fueled, meaning all aspects of cognitive and emotional functioning are out of proportion and difficult to manage.  Offenders with trauma histories experience more anger and then aggressive or violent behavior; increases in anxiety; increased depression and self-injurious or suicidal behavior; and significant difficulties with attention and memory.  All of these things make it more difficult for the person who is incarcerated to function in the correctional environment and make it more difficult for them to benefit from programming and other rehabilitative efforts.



Pre-incarceration trauma increases inmates’ likelihoods

of being victims of abuse while in custody.

Harmony Goorley




JCH: Help us understand… what is “unintentional re-traumatization?”

Harmony Goorley: Survivors of trauma may experience a resurgence of trauma-related symptoms when they are exposed to something in the environment reminds them of the traumatic event(s). No matter the form the trigger takes, they all serve to compromise survivors’ sense of trust and safety. Even though the trauma is in the past, survivors’ bodies react as if they are in immediate danger. Fight-or-flight activity floods the body and a sense of terror and panic follows. Triggered inmates will often engage in self-protective coping mechanisms, including avoidant behavior like attempting to move out of pat-downs or hostility like verbal aggression to back off peers or staff. Typical characteristics of the built environment can increase the likelihood of re-traumatization including, but certainly not limited to, loud noises, closed spaces, intrusive questioning during intake screenings, physical pat-downs, restraint tactics, etc. Relational dynamics/power struggles between officers and inmates can also mimic the power dynamics of abuser-victim, resulting in inmates replicating similar emotional reactions during past abuses. A myriad of situations, environmental elements, and even staff attitudes can result in inmates re-experiencing past traumas. When triggered, inmates’ mental and physical health will decompensate, resulting in additional facility resources being dispelled. Understanding unintentional re-traumatization will help build trauma-resiliency within a jail, protecting survivors, safeguarding resources, and ultimately boosting systemic safety and efficiency.


Dr. David Stephens: Offenders have developed expectations over time that nobody in authority or in positions of power can be trusted.  When a correctional officer or a staff member asks them to do something or gives them instructions they must follow, this is unintentionally re-traumatizing.  It triggers memories of past actually abusive experiences, or past times when they perceived they were being mistreated or disrespected, which ultimately reinforces their inaccurate images of themselves and others.  All of this reinforces their perceptions of unworthiness, which again is re-traumatizing.



JCH: What are the possible benefits to rethinking the incarceration environment so that it’s not unintentionally  “retraumatizing” inmates unnecessarily? 

Dr. David Stephens: Facilities who address the environment and make it as safe as possible (psychologically and physically) experience significant benefits to officers and staff.  There is less aggressive, disruptive behavior, and fewer crises on the part of inmates.  This reduces correctional officer and staff stress and makes them more able to respond appropriately to the legitimate needs of offenders.


Harmony Goorley: Actively symptomatic survivors of trauma are often high utilizers of medical and mental health services. Depending on the intensity and chronicity of triggers and emotional upheaval, these inmates may require frequent crisis intervention or acute placements for hospital-level care. As their sense of safety collapses, these individuals may be less willing to engage in necessary treatment interventions.  Creating an atmosphere of safety and respect will have a stabilizing effect on trauma-affected individuals. Trauma-conscious jails are better able to boost the willingness of inmates to comply with staff directives, engage these inmates in necessary treatment protocols, and ultimately reduce disruptive facility incidents.



…Research has confirmed

that approximately 40% of all correctional staff

meet diagnostic criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Dr. David Stephens




JCH: How does a staff member’s past traumas affect how they potentially do their jobs in a prison environment? 

Harmony Goorley: Trauma is an equal-opportunity offender – impacting the cognitive, emotional, and physical health of inmates and staff alike. Stressed employees working inside a chaotic, sometimes violent, environment, serving stressed inmates/patients can uniquely expose correctional professionals to a multitude of workplace hazards. Whether correctional professionals experienced a traumatic event prior to their employment, suffered the impacts of vicarious trauma or experienced a traumatic event while on the job, the psychological and physical injuries can contribute to reduced productivity, negative employee morale, absenteeism, and high turnover. Please join Falcon Senior Expert Dr. Robin Timme for his webinar, Trauma-Informed Jails: Incorporating Wellness for Correctional Officers, where he discusses specific aspects of correctional work that create toxic stress in employees and supply techniques to improve employee wellness.


Dr. David Stephens:  I would add that research has confirmed that approximately 40% of all correctional staff meet diagnostic criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  When somebody has PTSD, that person is more likely to respond aggressively or with anger, and they are more likely to feel unsafe in any environment.  Given the stressful and risky environment of the jail or prison, correctional staff with PTSD are much more likely to be hypervigilant and to be expecting dangerous, threatening behavior on the part of offenders.  This frequently leads to aggressive over-reactions on their part, which triggers offenders who have histories of trauma and PTSD, which leads them to become more aggressive, and then there is a self-reinforcing vicious cycle of angry, aggressive, and even violent behaviors.



To me, there is no greater reward

than helping somebody reclaim their life

and discover their true worth and purpose.

Dr. David Stephens




JCH: What drew you both to this line of work? And what keeps you motivated, given all that you both see in the course of your career?

Harmony Goorley: I am a firm believer that any person has the ability to rectify his/her past mistakes and make for a brighter future. I know firsthand that personal transformation is never an easy road, even under the most ideal of circumstances.  Untreated trauma will create enormous obstacles for individuals desiring change. My life’s work is to help individuals achieve the best versions of themselves. I often fail to bring forward my best self when I am anxious and afraid. I think of trauma-resiliency as the bedrock to a rehabilitative system.


Dr. David Stephens: I have discovered over the course of my career that the majority of people who are incarcerated have been psychologically or physically injured, or both, which contributes to their inappropriate, criminal behavior.  I have also seen people recover from those injuries, stop using alcohol and drugs, and become prosocial, contributing members of society who develop meaningful, rewarding lives.  To me, there is no greater reward than helping somebody reclaim their life and discover their true worth and purpose.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of  “Balancing Order and Recovery: Blueprints for a High-Performing, Trauma-Resilient Jail.”



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