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Lonely man lost in surreal maze; concept of PTSD in prison
Illustration by Jorm Sangsorn on iStock

This story was updated on March 9, 2023, to include information received from the writer after the original piece was published.

I had a friend. His name was Teddy Poelking. Teddy was incarcerated for 25 years. Before his release, Teddy told me he was worried about going back to society.

“Why?” I asked. “What is there to worry about?”

According to Teddy, a lot. 

“First off,” he said, “the cars drive themselves nowadays, Christopher. They’re even electric. How does that work, Christopher?”

And then there’s “the internet,” which Teddy often lamented. “The internet” was his way of referring to the universe of social media and digital commerce that dominates today’s daily life.

“I don’t know anything about the internet.” This was a refrain he said many times to me, and it was a genuine worry to him. “I don’t know, Christopher, if I can make it. I’m fine here, but society has changed. People are meaner nowadays; they’re different.”

This was the last conversation we ever had. Teddy was released in December 2021 and outwardly seemed to be doing fine. But in July 2022, he called his girlfriend and told her he couldn’t take it anymore. He then ended his life. 

Teddy suffered from what I call incarceration-borne post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that dramatically affected his confidence and ability to cope with everyday life. 

PTSD is one of the most common disorders in the prison population. Mental health advocates are starting to acknowledge that the trauma of incarceration itself may make some people more likely to develop PTSD. 

What is sometimes called “post-incarceration syndrome” is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative source used by psychologists and health care professionals to diagnose mental health disorders. But much research supports the strong link between incarceration and PTSD, and shows that incarceration-related PTSD is a discrete subtype of the disorder resulting from long imprisonment. 

Research has shown that even the children of incarcerated people are more likely to have PTSD than others. 

Teddy, like myself, began his sentence at a high security level before clawing his way down over the decades to land here in minimum security. Nearly everyone pulling lengthy sentences is impacted by the journey. Some slightly so, but many terribly so.

From our conversations, I believe Teddy suffered from IBPTSD. I saw how he struggled to function day to day due to his anxiety. We often had one-on-one talks during which I would try to calm his worries. Teddy told me the anxieties he faced were borne from the trauma of his incarceration. This was no surprise to me, as it’s the same with me and so many others in prison.

I have been incarcerated for 27 years. I have experienced the highs and lows of incarceration, but some things never leave you. You witness unthinkable acts of cruelty and endure terrible things. You see and experience the worst of humanity.

Teddy’s journey was harder than most. Even soaking wet he was a mere 150 pounds,  an easy target. He often told me stories about the violence he had endured. These experiences profoundly impacted him.

The Department of Justice estimates that 70,000 prisoners are sexually abused every year. That’s nearly 1 in 20 people in prison. Other types of violence are also common in prison settings, and not just by other prisoners. I routinely hear verbal abuse, and even threats, at the hands of overworked staff.

Over the decades I have witnessed suicides and vicious attacks. These sounds and images are haunting. These men are sons, brothers, fathers and loved by their families. 

Are these the result of a prison environment that by its nature causes anxiety, depression and PTSD, even in those who have never had those issues? Absolutely.

I correspond with prisoners around the country and their stories are similar. Their traumas are real. Though there are no official statistics, incarceration-borne PTSD is a mental health crisis. We must address this crisis in our prisons for the sake of the incarcerated, and for the sake of society. 

For the incarcerated, changes in behavior and mental health rarely receive a diagnosis, let alone needed treatment. Untreated mental health issues while incarcerated often only get worse. 

I suffer PTSD in the form of anxiety. I’ve worked hard to overcome this conditioned response and I’ve had to do it on my own through sheer will. 

Whenever someone would walk close behind me, it used to cause me extreme anxiety. This was a result of traumatic experiences early in my incarceration. Just to give you some examples: During my first year, I was jumped from behind and robbed of my commissary as I left the prison store. Another time, in the recreation yard, a new inmate came up behind me and looped a belt around my neck, trying to strangle me. He had been sent as a pledge earning his way into a gang. High security is a war zone; it’s constant violence. Decades later I’ve been able to minimize this trauma and control my response, but on occasion I still feel uncomfortable when in these situations.

Another struggle I’ve had to overcome is a fear of silence. For those incarcerated, silence means something terrible is about to happen or is already underway. There’s no more ominous silence than the one that precedes an area of the prison erupting into violence.

To this day, I occasionally feel anxious when it becomes quiet in this environment. I can only sleep with the sound of white noise, like a fan or a radio. I was never like this prior to incarceration.

I minimize my anxiety through daily meditation. I consciously avoid triggers. When I can’t, I control my response through mental exercises, like counting to three slowly and focusing on my breathing. But all the treatment I’ve received I’ve had to give myself.

I have asked for help with my mental health through the prison system, but the system failed me, and so many others. I was first accused of making up my symptoms in order to get out of working my prison job. The second time, I was told my condition wasn’t severe enough. I realized later it wasn’t that the providers didn’t want to help me, but that they couldn’t. How can they when IBPTSD isn’t recognized as a condition?

Most of this nation’s incarcerated population will re-enter society, and they will be suffering from some degree of PTSD. They will struggle to navigate the modern stresses of this strange world, and life will take its toll on them. Sometimes the consequences will be borne by those closest to them. Other times it could burst into the community in terrible ways. 

There’s no way to really know why someone like Teddy ends their life. But the stresses of incarceration make it even harder for people like Teddy to prepare for life on the outside. We must acknowledge the reality of incarceration-borne PTSD, so more people can get the help they need.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Christopher Monihan is the author of the blog, and spends his time advocating for the incarcerated. He is incarcerated in Ohio.