Whatcom County Jail Trauma Chart

This is a summary chart of an ethnographic research study of seventy-nine (79) people who have been dealing directly with the law and justice system in Whatcom County. The case study interviews were conducted by Joy Gilfilen, a civic systems researcher and President of the Restorative Community Coalition for nine years. Her goal was to talk with people who were directed impacted by an arrest in the family, to map out their experience and to find out from them where the system is broken and could be improved.

An unexpected finding was discovering the intense, high impact emotional trauma that is endured when someone is suddenly accused of a crime, taken captive, held in an hostile environment under duress, scrutized and examined in a highly intense compressed timeframes where they have no protection and no capacity to defend themselves. This chart synthesizes the emotional shocks endured, along with the physical, familial, mental and psychological impacts on the people interviewed in the case study group.

This diagram is limited to illustrating what kinds of impacts are felt during the time that elapses between a 911 call to the time an arrested person gets to their 1st Appearance in Court – which could be up to 72 hours. During that period of time their body (corpus) becomes a commodity that the authorities control.

1st Appearance: 
None of the symptoms shown on this chart are mitigated prior to 1st Appearance in court.  This is when the person arrested and accused of a crime  first finds out the charges filed against them by the Prosecutor, their value is set by the bail that is brokered, and their right to be free is negotiated, and they are assigned a Public Defender to essentially manage the paperwork of the courts for the accused.

This chart doesn’t show this economic or legal sequence of impacts and losses.  It does not include the impacts of economic, social, or job related ripple effects that follow as a as a consequence of an arrest, nor does it include the emotional impacts of what happens when a person is held in jail pending court, plea bargaining,or probation. That information will be provided in a separate document.

The synthesis of symptoms described in this chart are limited to what happens at the onset of a situation – from the point of a 911 call. This is when an unsuspecting accused person is suddenly placed in an extreme hazardous emotional and psychological conditions that are unfamiliar, debilitating, and whole-systems traumatizing.

The Accelerating Impact – RADD-RAT Symptoms: 
The interviews showed that even when people were perfectly well before the incident, the experience of dealing with the initial shock of whatever happened escalates in a short time to produce Radicalized Acute Distress under Duress (RADD) symptoms. The interviews showed how people at the point of being held captive, especially in the jail, then experience compounding traumatic emotions defined as Repetitive Accelerating Trauma (RAT) symptoms.

The intense accumulation of unrelieved emotional pressure compresses creating sustained emotional terror. Many described it as living in two worlds, confused by the inability to integrate two radically different realities – the current one (present but never seen before) and their old reality (known and lived but not present now). This caused a split psyche type of confusion that caused extreme anxiety they couldn’t comprehend.

The clear disorientation led the interviewer to research the symptoms found in split or broken brain conditions, bipolar diagnoses, and other severe mental illnesses. Eventually the symptoms she witnessed in the interviews (when people were talking about that first 24-72 hour period of the event) matched up with the Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder definitions that come with people who finally break under pressure and become labelled as mentally ill. It was clear that the symptoms were linked to the shock of finding themselves unexpectedly prey inside a system that they thought was their protector. They experienced deep betrayal that they had difficulty comprehending or expressing.

Jailing People Causes Mental Illness Symptoms 
One inescapable conclusion gleaned from the interviews is that any person in an emergency situation who is exposed to an arrest sustains deep emotional trauma, that if not mitigated, can lead to extreme mental illness – from the arrest and jailing experience alone. This was true even when there were no apparent prior mental illness, trauma or addiction issues.

It is the author’s finding that this is the Maximum Point of Optimal Leverage (MPOL) to make changes in the justice system itself. It is the point where administrators and officials can work together to converge efforts to get the maximum return on investments of time, effort and money expended (by taxpayers both inside the system and external to the system).

Mitigate at the Point of 1st Contact: 
The Point of 1st Contact (P1C) is the singular point where these people are acutely vulnerable to deep psychological wounding, are extraordinarily exposed, and are at risk for exploitation by a system that is unaware of their power, and do not know or recognize the compounding emotional impacts that accrue and cause untold damage to entire families and our communities.

While there are many other findings that will be reported upon by the study author, this dramatic finding deserves its own page. It is at this P1C -point of first contact – with 911 (the Whatcom County EMS system personnel, law enforcement, corrections officers, jail and justice system staff) that the system could make small administrative, legal or bureaucratic changes that can have huge impacts on people involved.

At this point of 1st Contact, the system actors can directly stop or lessen the impact of unnecessary trauma sustained in the first 72 hours. The system actors can choose to mitigate side effects, de-escalate conflicts and choose to not prosecute non-dangerous people. Instead, we can work to find ways to heal the situation, and expand the jobs in this sector. We can also choose to decriminalize certain violations, to not incarcerate non-dangerous people, and to instead (even if a person must go to jail) find and fund 21st century healing modalities to assist people in recovery. Restorative justice principles can be applied in communities, business situations and in family units to restore equilibrium to all parties involved and straighten out inequities. These are just a few small actions that can be taken.

Study Details:
The interviewed case study group consisted of:

  • Fifty-three (53) people who had been arrested and went through the jailing, court and justice system processes over various periods of time. Some were still within the system.
  • Twenty-six (26) were family members, partners or employers working with the person to assist, mitigate impacts, or extricate the person from the system
  • Both males and females, ages 17-65, some ill and disabled, others were physically able. Many were college students, divorced parents, even grandparents, some had recently lost a loved one.
  • Very wealthy people with homes and real estate; as well as homeless, bankrupted, or carrying tens and hundreds of thousands in debt to the system
  • Veterans and people who had prior stress and PTSD conditions, or medically diagnosed disorders
  • Medicated – some were on legal medication or dealing with active addiction prior to the situation, some were sober, others were self-medicating for stress, or in recovery
  • Some were blue collar workers, some were not working, others were fully employed professionals who held degrees and licenses prior to the event
  • The interviewed people were of multiple religions, and diverse ethnicity. This included Natives, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Russians and other Caucasians who were citizens and immigrants.
  • All of the people interviewed ended up victimized by the economic impact. Sudden and hidden costs accrued were in the thousands. Most accrued $10,000 to $30,000 in immediate debt (or more). They also lost incomes, jobs, benefits, or the ability to be employed. They were held hostage to and exploited by privateering business contractors who charged fees for services that were not accounted for in the “criminal justice system”. Fees like towing, storage, counselling, phone bills, EHM or evaluation services, commissary costs, child care, extra housing, medical costs and more.
  • Unexpectedly, none of the people studied or interviewed were people originally intending to ‘commit a crime’. They were typically stressed and unfortunate people who make mistakes that cause them to became prey to a system that labels them a criminal. The label is placed on them at the P1C – before they ever even technically enter what is commonly called the “criminal justice system” where the system assigns them guilty by administrative prejudice. They do not know that they effectively become a “cost of goods sold” item to the Whatcom County Corporation at the point of an arrest.  Finding that out is a traumatic betrayal of trust that is almost unspeakable to people who loved America and believed in our heritage of freedom.  It creates a kind of deep “soulular betrayal” that is virtually indescribable.  The vacancy of the heart is felt, and people are left desolate in its wake.

Watch for the other side of the chart…
it is called BlindSpots: Unexpected Findings from Jail Trauma Research. 
Coming soon, for it deals with what happens to the family members and the people who typically called 911 to get help, then end up unwittingly causing a loved one, or an employee or neighbor to be thrown into jail, into poverty, and into a spiral of unexpected punishment that lasts a lifetime, and harms generations.  

About Joy Gilfilen

Joy Gilfilen is a speaker, facilitator and executive business coach in the fields of leadership empowerment, intentional systems change and civic health. Joy became President of the Restorative Community Coalition in 2010 committed to researching the impacts of the jail industry on humans. As she discovered the self-destructive nature of punishment as a cultural norm, she began studying how to reverse engineer the problems using restorative economics as the tool.

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