November 11, 2013

The Nov. 8 Metro article “Report: Staff at D.C. jail lacks skills to curb suicides” failed to capture testimony about one possible solution.

As many as 95.5 percent of women and 88.6 percent of men report a history of significant traumatic experience prior to incarceration. A routine strip search is anything but routine for survivors of childhood sexual abuse or rape. Without proper training, correctional officers often assume individuals’ symptoms of trauma or mental illness are “fake,” missing important warning signs. Without first being screened for prior trauma, a client of my organization was detailed by D.C. jail staff to clean up the scene of a gruesome suicide. He has received no trauma counseling since then and suffers from nightmares.

Programs in Maryland and Rhode Island demonstrate that trauma-informed correctional care benefits incarcerated individuals, correctional staff and the system as a whole. According to Joan Gillece, project director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Center for Trauma Informed Care, “When correctional staff and inmates alike are made aware of the correlation between traumatic experience and self-destructive behavior, facility culture changes.”

Tammy Seltzer, Washington

The writer is director of University Legal Services’ DC Jail and Prison Advocacy Project.