Post Traumatic Stress After Prison
Jordan Halliday is a long time activist. He believes that total liberation includes the liberation of Humans, Earth, and Animals. He identifies as a vegan atheist anarcho-syndicalist with green tendencies. He currently hosts Which Side Podcast and helped found the Which Side Media Collective.
Jordan was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2009 on charges related to resisting a federal grand jury investigating local illegal animal rights activities under the animal enterprise terrorism act (AETA), mainly concerning fur farm raids in Utah. He was jailed for nearly four months under a contempt of court order to compel him to testify. He was later released and indicted on criminal contempt of court. He pled guilty to “Criminal Contempt of Court” on July 27, 2010. The charge was a unique one in that it is sui generis, meaning it is neither a felony nor a misdemeanor.
Jordan was sentenced on November 3, 2010 to 10 months in prison with 3 years of probation upon release. He filed an appeal with the 10th circuit court, which was denied. Jordan was accused of violating his terms of parole by allegedly associating with “the vegan straightedge” by giving an interview to a clothing company. A dozen armed FBI agents raided his house and he started serving his sentence early on January 9, 2012.
Jordan was released on July 20th, 2012, his civil time running concurrent with his criminal time. He was released with 3 years of probation. On August 8th, 2013 he was granted early termination of supervision after filing a motion with his lawyer.
Serving a prison sentence is an experience in one’s life that cannot be compared with many other things outside prison itself. Prison is a very dark and depressing place with a culture of its own, and it can really get into your psyche. You begin to experience a heightened alertness to attack and aggression. Many will bottle up and suppress emotions while creating a hard emotional/mental exterior to hide behind. Some experience a total loss of humanity.
When a guard instructs an inmate to strip down for a search they must comply. You will often come back to find your room, bed and locker in disarray after a guard has come through to check for contraband. To put this in perspective, this is the only thing you can really call your own. It is your place, your home. It can feel like a complete violation of personal space and property.
You can also feel under threat of attack from other inmates if you fail to provide paperwork proving why you are incarcerated. The prison will often not provide this paperwork in an effort to even the playing field for inmates who may have snitched, cooperated or been accused of a crime of a sexual nature. Some inmates will have to learn to eat fast and cover their food to avoid theft from other inmates. Each prison and jail has its own set of inmate created politics and rules you must abide by in order to make it. This will often involve the way you eat, sleep, shower, brush your teeth, watch TV or even use the restroom. These are only a few examples of life in prison.
When a prisoner is released from prison into society it is usually with little or no preparation for what the outside world expects. Adjusting to freedom and to the stress, demands and expectations of others can often be difficult. I want to touch on a subject that is not often talked about when a person gets out of prison. This is the fact that when released many of us have experienced signs and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress & Post Incarceration Syndrome. Nicole O’Driscoll, a qualified nurse who manages a mental-health crisis house, explains that “Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterised by traumatic memories and flashbacks, emotional numbing or episodes of anxiety and depression, difficulties managing mood and behavior, and problems with normal daily activities such as eating and sleeping.”
For myself I still get bouts of anxiety from things like the jingle of keys, which subconsciously remind me of when the guards were close and walking towards my room or down the hall. I’ve also had debilitating anxiety from loud sounds, and the sight of authority figures, or even black or white cars that were parked outside my house or behind me in my car. These things have gotten better for myself overtime but haven’t ever fully gone away.
Some inmates may have been a victim of violence, abuse or other traumas while serving their sentence, and this isn’t always from other inmates. Terence T. Gorski who wrote an article on Post Incarceration Syndrome noted that it can be “caused by constant fear of abuse from both correctional staff and other inmates.” As I mentioned, most of my symptoms are brought on by an association with authority and/or correctional staff.
These traumas are not always only the result of being incarcerated but also with experiences leading up to incarceration such as arrest as well as many other things. For myself it is definitely a combination of many things. I feel I need to add a little background to give context to my personal experiences dealing with PTSD.
During the summer of 2008 I experienced a lot of strange harassment outside my home. Some of this harassment I believe was coincidental, while others were more directed. During that time I was heavily involved in animal rights activism and my name would sometimes appear in newspapers. I believe it was shortly after my name appeared in a University of Utah newspaper in regards to anti-vivisection demonstrations that I received a decapitated rat head in the mail. I had a pet rat at the time and the fear that it was him only added to the trauma of the situation. During that time someone also spray painted the word “MEAT” all over my street, delivered extremely hardcore pornographic videos (which had really explicit titles that could have been taken as threats), and woke me on a regular basis with loud knocks on my window and/or searchlights in my windows, followed by screeching tires from a fleeing truck. Over time I’ve tried to put all the harassment together and come to conclusions about who might have been behind it. But I haven’t ever come up with anything concrete.
Living with these fears of constant harassment definitely increased my own personal anxiety. To add salt to the wound, I found out that my parents were visited by the FBI who asked them questions about me. After not returning their call I was kindly visited by the FBI at my work a few days later. This ended with me storming out of an office while the FBI trailed me and told me that I was making a big mistake by not cooperating and that they would subpoena me to a grand jury, in front of corporate management and for all the customers to hear. They followed through on their promise 6 months later and again visited me at my work to deliver my subpoena.
After refusing to cooperate with my first initial grand jury & filing a motion pro-se declaring their subpoena invalid as it wasn’t properly filled out, I was once again visited at my work by at least 12 FBI agents and the lead United States Marshal to make sure the subpoena was properly filled out this time. Every visit certainly increased my anxiety and fear of authority.
I ultimately was arrested and sent to jail for my refusal to cooperate with a grand jury. This process in itself is enough to break some people emotionally and mentally. Besides the thorough body search which requires you to strip completely nude, bend over and cough – which is extremely humiliating and can make a person feel subhuman very quickly – there is also the contempt and force in which the people in authority feel and use towards you. Just a routine fingerprint can be aggressively done. For myself the US Marshals made fun of my jacket and pressed my fingers extremely hard against the fingerprint scanner before leaving me in an isolated cell for a few hours. I was eventually moved from federal holding to a county jail where the entire process was repeated over again. While at the county jail I spent over 72 hours with 12 other individuals in a holding cell designed for 5 as a temporary place to keep inmates for a couple of hours when moving them to another facility or courthouse.
The jail was overcrowded as they had just mass arrested over 800 homeless individuals that night from a local park (mostly on vagrancy charges). The holding cell had no beds, just a toilet and sink. I ended up having to sleep next to the toilet. Constantly being moved around and staying in cells without beds caused hours of sleeplessness. No sleep (nor food as they would not provide me with vegan meals) is extremely draining on the body and mind and can break down an inmate, further affirming the feeling of being less than human.
While inside a county jail in Cache County, Utah I was placed with someone who asked me directed questions that I later found out in legal documents was working with the government. This person would often get violent and even choked me when I refused to “accept Jesus Christ”. In this jail I was also moved into another cell with a black inmate. The white guys tried to move me and I refused because the alternative was a gross old white man named “grandpa”. I was cornered, choked, punched and nearly beaten up for not complying. At one point the guards tried moving me back in with the inmate who was working with the government, which I refused to do (I didn’t know for certain he was working with the government at that point he had just given me so many red flags that I knew something was up) to which they threatened to forcibly remove me with taser shields. This is the jail I also quickly learned to not use the restroom when someone else is eating. All of these things increased my already heightened anxiety and fear.
Fortunately for me, I was released during my initial incarceration after about 4 months as the grand jury had expired and we had filed our 3rd motion for release. But unfortunately the government decided to charge me with criminal contempt of court (something they had only ever done twice before in United States history). So the whole process started over again. There was also a large falling out within my local animal rights community as friends of Nicole “Nikki” Stanford (formerly Viehl), who was the other individual subpoenaed to the same grand jury, whom I had called out for choosing to testify, created threats and general animosity towards me. They defended her with the typical statements of “she didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know” and that she had the defendants blessing to testify. This caused a rift in our community as some individuals felt ignoring the situation instead of dealing with the confrontation was the best route. This was extremely damaging to me emotionally. I felt I had lost a large amount of support because I wasn’t willing to deal with the people who refused to address the situation. I remember leaving a collective house crying, telling a few activists that I couldn’t be a part of an unsafe community that allowed people like her to be a part of it.
I spent the next few years on pre-trial probation while I was fighting my charge, in which I ultimately took a non-cooperating plea deal. During that time an officer was allowed to search my home, car and myself at any time without a warrant, and could and did show up unannounced to do so. This added even more stress and anxiety as I was in constant fear that a probation officer would come over and for some reason decide I was doing something which violated my probation and put me back in jail. Although there was no reason for them to do so the worry was still there. This worry turned out to be not far from the reality. After writing a comment on a blog in favor of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) I was brought to court with the prosecutor and officer claiming this was an association with the ALF (something that my probation strictly prohibited). Luckily I had a great lawyer who got me out of it claiming that my support was simply free-speech and didn’t constitute an association. This was still obviously not the best way to start things off. As time went on I was assigned new officers and I was eventually sentenced to 10 months in prison. Things were starting to shift towards me self-surrendering as soon as a date was provided.
During this time I fell in love and started dating my now wife Mariana, online. As soon as it was becoming clear that I was going to go back to prison soon, we decided that we should meet in person. She bought plane tickets from Colombia to Utah and was just finishing up a week away with her family before she visited. While she was away with her family I saw some men looking into my window one morning. I opened the door to see what they wanted and was immediately surrounded by a dozen armed agents all pointing weapons at me. Then they started piling out of my backyard and I was arrested. In the year prior I had given an interview to a clothing line that happened to sell Vegan and Straight-Edge apparel. The court claimed that this was in direct violation of my probation which prohibited me from associating with “ALF, ELF, and VSE (vegan straight edge) animal groups [sic]”. This was obviously a tactic to break me by my probation officer who knew that my partner was set to visit in just a couple of days.
This incapacitated me emotionally, mentally and physically. I spent that night in my jail cell crying. I was transferred from facility to facility at that point. Something referred to by some inmates as diesel therapy. Wikipedia describes Diesel Therapy as “…a form of punishment in which prisoners are shackled and then transported for days or weeks. It has been described as ‘the cruelest aspect of being a federal inmate.’ It has been alleged that some inmates are deliberately sent to incorrect destinations as an exercise of diesel therapy.” During my entire experience being incarcerated I was moved to and from at least 7 different facilities. The process of being stripped down and searched being repeated every time I was moved, even if it was a move from one cell block to another in the same facility.
One facility was a privately owned prison from Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in Pahrump, Nevada. The blocks of this prison house 100 inmates each with 50 bunk beds in the middle, 25 tables in the front, and a few toilets and showers in the back. No walls, no privacy. During my stay in this facility, I was denied access to vegan food, threatened with charges of additional crimes, and placed in a Special Housing Unit (SHU) as a risk to security when supporters called in demanding I get fed, and denied access to any exercise, books, or television (as they had no more radio sets to give to inmates). I sat and slept, and this was the extent of my stay. At this CCA I also first witnessed someone getting stabbed over the television (for the few inmates who were able to obtain radios). I also witnessed someone hit someone over the head with a sock full of batteries. This led to a full on riot between two prison gangs which ultimately ended with a tear gas canister being lowered from the ceiling and sprayed on all of us.
During my stay at another facility someone had heated up petroleum jelly in the microwave until it was a liquid and threw it into someone’s face. This coupled with constant fighting and sights and sounds that you would walk the other direction from and pretend you never saw if you stumbled upon them added an overwhelming amount of anxiety and fear. Probably one of the most emotionally draining experiences for me involved being thrown into solitary confinement for 24 hours for wearing my hat flipped up. Solitary confinement is a horrible place that can take you to the ultimate point of feeling subhuman and I am fortunate that I wasn’t there for as long as some other people have to be. The Center for Constitutional Rights states that “Solitary confinement is torture” and “The devastating psychological and physical effects of prolonged solitary confinement are well documented by social scientists: prolonged solitary confinement causes prisoners significant mental harm and places them at grave risk of even more devastating future psychological harm.”
Researchers have demonstrated that prolonged solitary confinement causes a persistent and heightened state of anxiety and nervousness, headaches, insomnia, lethargy or chronic tiredness, nightmares, heart palpitations, and fear of impending nervous breakdowns. Other documented effects include obsessive ruminations, confused thought processes, an over-sensitivity to stimuli, irrational anger, social withdrawal, hallucinations, violent fantasies, emotional flatness, mood swings, chronic depression, feelings of overall deterioration, as well as suicidal ideation.” They also claim that “Exposure to such life-shattering conditions clearly constitutes cruel and unusual punishment – in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Further, the brutal use of solitary has been condemned as torture by the international community.”
For the most part I was pretty accepted in prison. People respected the fact that I didn’t testify. I had it a lot easier than many people, not to mention I had the support of people on the outside. I received books and letters, and it made my time that much easier. This should just help illustrate that even with all the support that political prisoners can receive, PTSD can still occur and it shouldn’t be taken as a lack of support from the community. I believe that for many without the support, PTSD can be much worse.
Flash forward to my release from prison. I was sentenced to 3 years of supervision after release. I was assigned a new Probation Officer. This is the point where I really felt my PTSD at its worse. I think the courts could sense it too. They required that I attend mandatory mental health counseling. Something to cover themselves I am sure. Although anything I said to the therapist would be given to the probation officer, so this wasn’t the ideal situation. During this time people would comment on how my mannerisms had changed. I would now cover my food while eating it. I’d flush the toilet multiple times. I would spit in the trash after brushing my teeth. I eventually got over many of my prison habits.
However the constant fear of going back was a daily occurrence that never fully dissipated. I would get severe debilitating anxiety multiple times a day. It got to its worst point when my partner bought tickets to visit me again. It was almost the same time of year as the last time she had bought them. I was still under the supervision of a Probation Officer. It all felt exactly the same and I was irrationally expecting the FBI agents and US Marshals to show up a few days before she got here, just as it had happened the last time. I think that was the peak of my PTSD. When I finally picked my partner up from the airport and was holding her in my arms that’s when I think the peak started to decline again for me. Even though she was with me during the next few months I still had the daily, pending fear that they would snatch me up. I think the fear and PTSD only got to its lowest point once I was off of supervised release (which thankfully I was able to get off of early). It still took me a while to actually feel like I was free. But I was able to quickly tell myself that I was and that there was no reason to worry about violating or being sent back anymore.
I feel that for the most part my PTSD is very minimal now. While writing this, however I actually got a reminding dose of its existence when I saw searchlights in the window of my new place and looked outside to see a cop car parked in front of my place shining a light around my house, and all of my neighbors houses. I had no idea why they were looking around, but this sent me right back into a panic attack that I was eventually able to overcome with the help of Mariana. I think that is the key too. PTSD may never go away for me or for other ex-prisoners, but having the courage to admit to our community and loved ones that we have these issues after prison, and not feeling like it makes us weaker by doing so. For them to understand that these issues happen, and to be there for support even after we get out of prison, and understand that just because an ex-prisoner says they are ok, it might not entirely be the reality all the time.