Cross-Cultural, Urban, Reformed, Ecumenical

The Trauma of Mass Incarceration


What happens within a person’s mind, body and spirit after spending weeks, months or years locked behind bars? How does a person learn to protect themselves from others while acknowledging the human need for connection? Were individuals already traumatized before entering prison, and incarceration becomes just another layer of untreated traumatization?

Unpacking these kinds of questions was the reason McCormick’s Symposium on Trauma joined with McCormick Days to examine the consequences of trauma on the well-being of people who are incarcerated, their families and society. Trauma and Mass Incarceration was the culminating presentation of the seven-month series that covered a broad range of topics, including the trauma triggered by the pandemic, the heightened racial unrest after the death of George Floyd and other African Americans, and the stress of joblessness, food insecurity and natural disasters. The online presentations were facilitated by Dr. Stephanie M. Crumpton, associate professor of Practical Theology, and Rev. Dr. Barbara Wilson, M.Div. ‘01, D.Min.’08, from the Presbytery of Chicago, which along with Science for Seminaries sponsored the webinars. 

“As we think theologically about mass incarceration, it’s important that we see this as work of the community,” said Dr. Crumpton. “The language is ‘our’…there is not a ‘them’ and a ‘us.’ One of the ways that faith communities can get involved is by partnering with organizations, becoming allies in the communal work of responding to the traumatic effects of mass incarceration on our communities.”

The experience of incarceration can include isolation, yet a lack of privacy, and the witnessing or experiencing of violence. Such encounters can impact a person’s sense of safety long after incarceration has ended. Unhealed, it has the potential to express itself in family conflict, inappropriate community behavior and recidivism. 

“People have to rebuild a sense of lived safety after incarceration,” said Rev. Dr. Barbara Wilson, director of Collaboration and Community Partnerships for the Presbytery of Chicago. “As we engage with those who have been incarcerated, we need to know the resources available and provide the kind of safe spaces – the brave and courageous spaces – that are important for the recovery from the trauma caused by incarceration.” 

View the Trauma of Mass Incarceration presentation and other webinars in the Symposium on Trauma series here.

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