Blindspots 1.1 Whatcom County Jail Trauma Study

What happens to people when they get arrested? Most people don’t know because no-one really wants to talk about it.

Why not? Joy Gilfilen, President of the Restorative Community Coalition, did a quest to find out.  It is disturbing to the soul. People who get arrested go through dramatic arrest shock and jail trauma before they ever even get to 1st Appearance. Before they meet any Public Defender, before bail. There is no safety zone at all.

Joy interviewed 79 people in an ethnographic research study inquiry:

  • 53 people had been arrested and went through the Whatcom County Jail and Justice System from beginning to end. All were still dealing with a lifetime of ripple effects.
  • These interviews caused her to interview another 26 who were friends, family, employers, criminal defense attorneys. There were employees of the system – police, defenders, prosecutors, clerks and other staff, jailers, emergency responders, hospital and mental health providers, and investigative writers. There were people of diverse demographics, education and financial class.
  • Of the 79 people, all were deeply concerned about the system. They were willing to talk about it for the purpose of hoping they could help fix it, and they had worked with the Coalition and had built up a level of trust.  These were not easy conversations – for the subject is emotionally traumatizing to talk about.  Each of the conversations were approximately 3 to 5 hours each.

Unexpectedly, Joy found in every case that the trauma starts at 1st contact with the law enforcement – often typically at the point of a 911 or EMS call. 

  1. The incident triggers a whole string of events…from immediate reactions, then through an arrest, booking and jail.
  2. All along there are unanticipated and surprising costs that accrue inside and outside the justice system.
  3. Unexpected things happen to everyone who gets involved – there is no preparing for the process.
  4. Investigations and evaluations compound and more costs accrue sometimes before charging and often right away – as if people are guilty upon arrest.
  5. Eventually people get to court – and enter the halls and chambers of an interminable justice system where the language is unknown, the hoops, excessive fines, fees and extra costs overwhelm.

This study was enlightening – and shocking – when Joy recognized how many people are directly emotionally and dramatically harmed at the point of 1st Contact with a 911 or law enforcement call. The extreme implicit bias and pre-conceptions of people is set up before anyone realizes what happens. Ironically this is due to excessive rules and regulation style measures being put in place. The impacts have increased as a result of technology, fear-mongering, and habitualized responses by institutions.

All of this is a recipe for creating and inflicting extreme trauma that derail entire families. A single arrest can throw an entire family into deep poverty for life. The arrest itself can cause breakups, mental illness, generational destruction. The good news is that once we understand what happens, we can see that the habits of doing this can be changed, and it is possible to intercept the cycle early.

This is podcast 1 of a multi-set of JoyTalks: Blindspots. 
There will be a several in this series of Blindspots. LOCALLY we now know it is possible to intervene earlier in the process and stop the recidivism cycle BEFORE it starts, saving taxpayers potentially millions of dollars in unsustainable punishment systems.  And it is probable that we can do this in this county if our officials can see the return on investment to the taxpayers.  Once intercepted, it can change the habit patterns of entire institutional systems that are co-dependent on arresting people.  It is to that end that Joy did this work to understand the needs of this population, and to understand how to speak with law enforcement and bureaucratic officials who have no way to hear this information.

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