Trapped Part Two: The Vicious Cycle of Trauma 

California prisons fail to help abuse victims and the mentally ill rehabilitate behind bars — and refuse to grant them parole so they can turn their lives around with loved ones on the outside.

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"There are thousands [of inmates] who need more than what they are getting now in terms of ... therapy," said Steve Fama, staff attorney with the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, which has represented mentally ill prisoners in numerous legal cases. Fama said many inmates struggle with a range of mental health problems that may not be considered serious enough to get them consistent counseling. "They aren't substantially impaired ... but they still need help," he said.

In many ways, the prisons don't prioritize helping inmates overcome their struggles — whether it's mental illness or trauma, abuse, or violence they experienced prior to their incarceration. On the contrary, lifers face a system that, advocates say, seems largely dedicated to their continued incarceration, despite numerous laws and policies that have the opposite intent. It's a model of punishment that sets some lifers on a path of never-ending imprisonment that begins on Day One of their sentence.


click to enlarge Troy Williams said he only found peace in prison during the few hours he slept each night. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Troy Williams said he only found peace in prison during the few hours he slept each night.

For years, Troy Williams only found peace in prison during the few hours he slept each night. Growing up immersed in gang violence in Los Angeles County, Williams, who is Black, encountered the same kinds of threats, violent conflicts, and racial politics behind bars that he had experienced on the outside during his youth and early twenties. In 1994, at age 27, Williams was the driver in a computer store robbery that turned violent, landing him a sentence of seven years to life for a "kidnap for robbery" conviction, according to his records. He said that from the start of his incarceration, it felt nearly impossible to avoid disputes and gang-related activities within the close confines of prison.

For people who have little firsthand knowledge of prison life, it can be difficult to understand how uniquely challenging it is to simply stay safe and out of trouble behind bars. "Imagine a bunch of peer pressure on steroids," said Williams, who is now 49, in a recent interview. "You're in a place where, when something happens on the yard, you don't get to say, 'I'm not involved.'"

Williams said that at some points during his imprisonment, the violence was so bad that he dreaded leaving his cell every morning and only found solace when prisoners slept at night. "You're in the middle of hell trying to be an angel."

For many lifers like Williams — who was released in October 2014, eleven years after he became eligible for parole and twenty years after he was first incarcerated — the idea of any sort of "rehabilitation" seems entirely out of reach at the start of a life sentence.

Wattley, director of UnCommon Law, explained how lifers in their late teens or twenties often enter prison with the assumption that they'll never go home again. Behind bars, they quickly encounter gang-related violence and extreme pressure to be involved in more criminal activity. Some are forced to act tough to avoid being victimized. "They are expected to engage in violence, drug sales, manufacturing alcohol, making and holding weapons, participating in riots," Wattley said. "They're caught up in that lifestyle. And there's not much time or opportunity or incentive to participate in positive programs." Some inmates, he said, are shunned and ostracized by fellow prisoners if they spend too much time in the library or seek mental health counseling, for example.

Judy Bell, a former lifer and client of UnCommon Law, who spent 26 years in prison, said in an interview that when she was first incarcerated at 22, she "didn't know how to cope and deal with things." She explained how she was surrounded by chaos — drugs, violence, correctional officers having sex with inmates. "There was just so much corruptness," she said, adding, "if someone tried to hurt me ... I would get in a fight."

In the early years of their sentences, many young lifers caught up in prison violence get disciplinary marks, are victimized, or both — and some may end up in solitary confinement as a result. Those situations are worse for mentally ill inmates, who are significantly more likely to be injured in prison fights and rack up rule violations, according to a Stanford Law School analysis of national data.

At the same time, prisoners convicted of serious crimes, especially those who are disciplined further behind bars, often wind up confined to the highest levels of security — in prisons and housing units that have the most restrictive environments and stringent rules — and thus tend to have the fewest opportunities to access programming, services, and employment. This makes it even harder for these inmates to get the help they need to change and to complete various programs that would eventually make them promising candidates for parole.

Paradoxically, prisoners who need the most help sometimes receive the least support. The disparity in programs can leave particularly vulnerable inmates at a serious disadvantage in preparing for parole, said Kate Brosgart, a state-appointed attorney who represents lifers at their parole hearings. "If the state is really interested in rehabilitation, the state should be making programs available," she said.

Bill Sessa, CDCR spokesperson, noted that California shifted the criteria for security classification in 2008 in an effort to reward inmates who have demonstrated good behavior and move them to lower-security facilities with more programs. That change enabled the corrections department to begin transitioning roughly 17,000 inmates to less restrictive housing, where there are more rehab programs, according to a report provided by Sessa.

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