CJ 725 Forensic Behavior Analysis Blog
In March 2000, the Dundalk neighborhood of Baltimore, MD was terrorized by a string of spree murders and subsequently, a fugitive manhunt, hostage situation, and one of the country’s longest one-man standoffs. I lived in Dundalk and was seven years old in March 2000. My memory of those few weeks has remained vivid for twenty years. Something that was once a personal source of confusion and trepidation has become a paradigm for the broken mental health system in this country. Joe Palczynski, Dundalk’s spree killer, is just one of the endless individuals who was failed by the mental health system and went on to live a life plagued by the correctional system.
Despite growing up in a loving household free from abuse, Joe Palczynski’s tendencies suddenly turned violent and unpredictable in his teenage years, just days after a severe head injury. Palczynski’s family immediately took action to have him hospitalized and evaluated. Nevertheless, he was not given sufficient treatment, experiencing years of constant medication changes aimed at treating bipolar disorder, which were never quite successful. Over the next decade, Joe attacked seven teenage girls and found himself in his first standoff situation in Idaho after a string of assault and battery incidents. Despite all of these run-ins with the correctional system, Joe Palczynski’s mental health was never the focus, even though his behavior had a clear origin. Palczynski never received any significant inpatient treatment, counseling, or a consistent medication regimen. His bipolar disorder was never properly treated and, thus, his violent tendencies continued. This culminated in 2000 when Palczynski kidnapped his ex-girlfriend, Tracy, and murdered the three individuals who were attempting to provide her a safe-haven from his violence. Over the next few weeks, his behavior became more unpredictable and dangerous. He held Tracy captive before deciding to run from the police, murdering a pregnant woman and injuring her toddler during a carjacking. He went on to kidnap another individual, forcing them to drive him back to Dundalk, where he ultimately arrived at the home of Tracy’s family. Twenty days after he kidnapped Tracy, Joe took her family hostage in their own home. After four days of this standoff, in which Joe’s only demand was for the police to hand over Tracy, the family escaped by placing sedatives in his food. The Baltimore police ultimately ended this month of terror by shooting Palczynski twenty-seven times. Officers involved described Palczynski as “unpredictable and prone to severe mood swings” saying “he could be docile at times…then his rage would go off the charts” (Apperson, 2000). Joe was repeatedly characterized as having “previous run-ins with the law- many of them driven by mental illness” (Apperson, 2000).
Palczynski, often referred to simply as “a former convict with a history of mental illness,” is tragically not a unique case (Clines, 2000). “At any given time, 3.9 million [Americans with severe mental illness] go untreated…As a result, incarceration has become the norm for those with severe mental illness. Forty percent of them are incarcerated at some point in their lives” (Snook, n.d.). Joe Palczynski suffered from untreated bipolar disorder, believed to have been the result of severe head trauma experienced during an automobile accident as a teenager. Since this onset, Joe spent brief periods in mental health facilities and years in and out of prison, usually due to domestic abuse incidents and other violent behavior. With proper support and treatment, those with serious mental illness are no more violent or dangerous than any other individual; however, untreated “mental illness is associated with increased risk of violent behavior, with most of the evidence [pertaining] to bipolar disorder” (Volavka, 2000). This fact does not excuse violent or criminal behavior, but does provide a clear explanation and solution. Joe Palczynski’s history of undesirable behavior had a clear link to his bipolar disorder. The root cause of his criminal and violent actions- his mental health- was not properly addressed or treated for over a decade, despite a diagnosis and acknowledgment by both law enforcement and mental health professionals. “Individuals with psychiatric diseases…like bipolar disorder are ten times more likely to be in a jail or prison than a hospital” which, in cases like Palczynski’s, leads to spiraling mental illness and escalating criminal behavior (Snook, n.d.). The tragedies and violence that took place in Dundalk in March 2000 seemingly were preventable, if only the mental health system did not fail to provide the treatment Joe Palczynski required.
Apperson, J. (2000). Police reveal tale of terror. The Baltimore Sun. https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/crime/bal-pal14-story.html
Clines, F.X. (2000). Suspect’s death ends siege; hostages are safe. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2000/03/22/us/suspect-s-death-ends-siege-hostages-are-safe.html
Snook, J. (n.d.). America’s crime problems being fed by a broken mental health system. Treatment Advocacy Center. https://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/fixing-the-system/features-and-news/4112-americas-crime-problems-being-fed-by-a-broken-mental-health-system
Volavka, J. (2013). Violence in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23470603
When it comes to sexual abuse I always lean towards the military. I have been serving for over 6 years and sexual abuse is something I have seen first had as well as experienced in the military. I have had many soldiers come up to me telling me they needed to talk because something had happened from both genders. Sexual assault over the years has only risen in the military among all branches, the statistics show that the under reporting rate, as well as the reporting rate is rather high. The actual number of reported incidents of sexual assault has also increased in the past two years, up 26% from 4,794 to 6,053(Kime, 2019). Showing that only a third of all cases are reported, most woman don't report because 43% them stated that they had a negative experience when doing so.
Females and males in the military fear reporting because of the shame of what their peers, or commanding officers will say. I know as the years have progressed sexual offenses of any kind are not tolerated and more offenders have been punished. But the stigma of the military is that we are built tough, for any gender it is a very hard topic to come out and say that something of that nature has happened it is almost embarrassing.
Being someone who was once sexually assaulted in the military I honestly didn't want to tell anyone after it happened I was afraid of what people would say. But if it wasn't for my battle buddies they gave me the strength to stand up and say something. It was not a easy task and for the longest time I believed it was my fault, it took over a year before I trusted anyone again. But from it I learn all the right words and actions to take in case it ever happened to any other soldier.
Alcohol plays a major role almost 62% of assaults geared from it, many junior enlisted men and woman are at higher risk for sexual assault. For many people they may not understand why but for the ones who are in or served we understand how hard it is when you start out. It is just like any job you want to put your best foot forward, and your afraid of failure. The same goes in the military you want to show everyone including your family that you can do this, and sometimes you are placed in a situation as a young soldier that you don't know how to get out of. Unfortunately it is still happening to this day with no end in sight.
There are many treatments that help sexual assaulted victims because frankly many of them experience (PTSD) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, social awkwardness, depression, or suicidal thoughts. It is a hard road for anyone to have to deal with if you do not have the proper support chain to help you get through it. I am blessed to have had that chain, and now am the support for others it is a rather rewarding feeling. Even though it came with terrible circumstances it helped me to understand psychology and respect it so much more.
It is often said that a sexual assaulted victim is victimized twice once by the criminal justice system and the other by the perpetrator(Bartol & Bartol, 2021). Self blame is also very real and one that took me so long to get over, but once I realized that I was not the problem I was able to become a advocate for others in the military for many that is not the case.
Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2021). Criminal behavior: a psychological approach. Boston: Pearson.
Kime, P. (2019, May 2). Despite Efforts, Sexual Assaults Up Nearly 40% in US Military. Retrieved from https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/05/02/despite-efforts-sexual-assaults-nearly-40-us-military.html
One day while at work I was standing in a lobby when I noticed a woman in her early 30s who was rushing through the door and appeared panicked. As she passed through the lobby she began crying, short of breath and fell to the ground while talking on her cell phone. When she fell I ran over to her to provide assistance in any way I could. I asked her if she was okay and if there was anything that I could do to help her. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and told me that a family member had just overdosed on heroin. At first I was shocked and felt so bad for her and then tried to help her back to her feet and then escort her to her office where I was met by her friends who consoled her and care for her during that awful time for her.
While I understand that addiction is a very complex dilemma to be in and the problems that addiction alone presents can be quite traumatizing. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health heroin was listed as the primary drug of abuse in 50.3% of treatment admissions. Heroin is a highly addictive opiate that caused 2,000 overdoses in the state of Massachusetts in 2016. With the drug being so addictive and extremely difficult to break the habit which could be predicated by the fact of trauma that the victim is enduring. Not only is heroin and other opiate usage dangerous, but the circumstances and dangers of that lifestyle are traumatic as well. Addicts are susceptible to perilous situations including homelessness, dangerous environments, dangerous people, and some even resort to crime to pay for their habit.
The toll that living on the streets has shown to be traumatic for the body and mind as well. According to the Boston University School of Public Health homeless individuals are more susceptible to premature deaths that can be attributed to poor sleep, lacking hygiene, and an abundance of other complications that come from living out in the elements. With many addicts resorting to living on the streets there becomes only a few ways to acquire money for their addiction.
One way of sustaining their habit is prostitution. In one article by (Silbert, Pines, & Lynch, 1982) it was estimated that between 40-85 percent of prostitutes were suffering from some form of addiction. As stated before addicts are exposed to many dangerous and traumatic situations. Using prostitution to fuel the source of their addiction can lead to many emotional, psychological, and physical traumatic events. Having to live with what they have resorted to do for their addiction can be troubling, and depressing which drives them to feel the euphoric numbness of the opiate. One study by (Farley, 2018) noted that women who participate in prostitution have a 99% greater risk for physical violence than any other highly dangerous job.
Though the affects of drugs are severe and life threatening, we must also address traumatic events that can arise as a byproduct of addiction. Risk factors involved with drug addiction are very dangerous and present a complex and difficult lifestyle. Effects of these epidemics are not centralized to the user, but as stated above can be traumatic for family and friends as well.
Farley, M. (2018). Risks of Prostitution: When the Person Is the Product. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 3(1), 97–108. doi: 10.1086/695670
MA Heroin Treatment Stats. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://adcare.com/massachusetts/heroin/
McInnes, K. (n.d.). Homelessness, Its Consequences, and Its Causes: SPH: Boston University. Retrieved from https://www.bu.edu/sph/2016/02/28/homelessness-its-consequences-and-its-causes/
Silbert, M. H., Pines, A. M., & Lynch, T. (1982). Substance Abuse and Prostitution. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 14(3), 193–197. doi: 10.1080/02791072.1982.10471928
I'm very closed off when it comes to my experience with childhood trauma; only a handful of people know what has happened in my life. For this post, I won't go into detail about what has happened specifically over the course of my life, but rather how it has impacted me as an adult. I will say, my trauma relates to substance abuse and instability, though not in the way one may assume.
A psychiatrist not too long ago told me I seemed detached from my past, and he's not wrong. As I've gotten older, I have taken inventory of all the emotional, social, and mental changes my childhood has caused. In essence, I don't know how to cope or communicate my emotions effectively; I've adapted in perhaps not the best of ways.
These drawbacks, however, have given me inspiration. I know it's not just me that has gone through trauma that has shaped the personality, and that has encouraged me to educate a more neurotypical community and advocate for those like me.
According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, complex trauma, "describes both children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events—often of an invasive, interpersonal nature—and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure. These events are severe and pervasive." In general, it may seem obvious that persistent trauma would impact children in several ways, but it is incredible just how many areas trauma can reach into. I have outlined these in the infographic to the left.
But what happens when these children grow up? We turn into adults with a history, one that may constantly worm its way into our present. The areas impacted by trauma that I mentioned don't just affect the child in the face of trauma, but the adult they become in the wake of it.
Harvard psychiatry professor, Dr. Kerry Ressler, says "Early childhood trauma is a risk factor for almost everything, from adult depression to PTSD and most psychiatric disorders, as well as a host of medical problems, including cardiovascular problems such as heart attack and stroke, cancer, and obesity."
From my own experience, all of this makes sense. When you are faced with a trauma, you jump into survival modeeven if you aren't in any true danger. When this is a persistent feature in one's life, it seems fair to assume this may carry on across the life span. To me, treatment needs to focus on healing the traumatized child still within us. Only then can we proceed with learning to function as an adult.
I see a therapist every other week. I adore this class because I absolutely devour anything and everything that has to do with crime and mental health. I have the kind of anxiety that is incredibly beneficial in preparing for a break-in, a house fire, and the seediest parking garage you’ll ever be forced to navigate. I’ve been on my own for almost half my life and like to think I know some things. Here’s the thing, though – none of that prepares you for abuse you don’t know is happening.
Years ago, I got into and then out of a relationship that I considered to be one of the less enjoyable I’ve had. The way I had acted and treated myself during that time stuck with me, and I felt incredibly weak and ashamed. I was so angry, and I couldn’t stop being angry.
It was only during a series of guest speakers a few weeks ago that I realized I had missed plenty of signs, and that I had been in an abusive relationship. I was blaming myself for someone else’s actions, because I “should have known better.” Because I was smarter than that. But it’s not about intelligence – it can happen to anyone.
Here are some things I wish I knew, some things I knew but thought didn’t apply to me, and what self-care is and is not.
A disclaimer: This is colloquial, and I use humor as a coping mechanism. It doesn’t mean that I don’t understand how serious this topic is; it’s just my way of telling my story.
Things I Wish I Knew
- Your friends should like your significant other.
Sounds obvious, right? Well, what if you haven’t always had great friends? Or they just don’t know him like you do? Or they did like him, but now they don’t?
Yeah… they should still like him. My friends didn’t, not after a while. I cared because it was inconvenient, but it didn’t affect me day to day. Those social circles mixed seldom. Later, my friends told me they used to invite me to things last minute so that he couldn’t “weasel his way into coming.” Direct quote.
But they did like him originally, so what happened? Well, they picked up on a red flag that I buried in the sand, pun intended (you’ll see). Long story short, he emailed one of my friends and asked her to help him set up a proposal on the beach (see?!). When I said “yes” – not if, when – he would have all our friends and family and a justice of the peace emerge from the trees and say something along the lines of “Great! We can do it right now!” He wanted to surprise marry me, not propose. My friends told me it sounded like he was trying to “trap me.” I chocked it up to him being overly caffeinated and overzealous.
- If you can’t seem to see your boyfriend’s side of the argument but still manage to cry at literally every new episode of Queer Eye, you aren’t a cold person.
This was his main argument when I couldn’t find my way to seeing his side of things. It wasn’t that he was wrong, or I was standing up for myself, or had lost patience with him. It was that I was cold and didn’t care about his feelings. I just didn’t feel things like I should, I block them out, and that’s why I wasn’t understanding him. Mind you, I have almost dehydrated myself watching Queer Eye, so it isn’t a lack of feeling. It was probably a moment of clarity, but I listened to him instead of myself. I thought that I was a cold, uncompromising girlfriend, and I needed to try harder. For him. For us.
Things I Knew but I Thought Didn’t Apply to Me
- Your significant other should support your dreams, not try to talk you out of them… or into theirs.
There are a few things I was always upfront about when starting a new relationship: I’m not sure I want to get married, I don’t want kids, and I will not stay in New England. He was agreeable to those terms at first, but as you already read, he had other plans. He just needed to convince me and then it would all fall into place.
He hated my job. He hated that it would take me away from New England eventually and that I wanted to go, so he would say things like “What am I going to do if we move?” or “My family is here – we can’t leave my family.” He would tell me I should pursue other fields or stay here until he gets a degree. He didn’t have one and it would have taken years, but I could work on my masters in the meantime. Just put the job off for a little while.
Towards the end, he kept bringing up children. I had never budged on this. I did not want kids, and to be honest, the thought of raising children with him was terrifying. But he kept pushing, saying that I would be a good mother, and that he owed it to his family to have children, and he couldn’t imagine it with anyone else. He would get angry and pick a fight when I wouldn’t engage, so I would list names I liked occasionally to stave off the aggravation. And that’s how I thought of him at that point – an aggravation. And I still didn’t leave.
- Manipulation is abuse.
- Nostalgia isn’t good enough to keep going.
- It takes more than one attempt to leave.
I never had any bruises and he never threatened to hurt me or himself. I had my own apartment, friends and family that did not like him, and financial independence. And I didn’t leave.
We had some good times when we started dating, but it took a turn after about six months. We were apart and he was insecure, and I was starting to realize how much better I felt alone. But I stayed because of those first few months. I would get angry and we would fight, but then I would remember that I was just being cold. I hadn’t always been cold, so maybe we could get back to that. I just had to try harder to see his side.
I broke up with him twice, but I let him come back for about a month each time. I finally broke up with him for good and we haven’t spoken since, but I have struggled with the amount of time I wasted after that initial break-up. I gave him more of me even when I knew there was something off. I gave up time and happiness that I will never get back.
Self-Care is Not
- Calling out of work to go to the beach alone and then lying about your day.
- Working upwards of 60 hours a week “for the overtime.”
- Considering cheating because it will be easier than breaking up.
Self-care is leaving and healing, and maybe writing about the experience for a class about mental health, who knows…
I have never worked harder than I did during this time in my life. I worked every weekend that summer, and when I finally needed some time off, I kept it a secret.
When I took a trip for work, I almost met an old boyfriend for drinks. I didn’t, but my friends told me they wish I had. They were actively rooting for it.
In the spirit of fairness, and quite frankly because this is public, I feel the need to say that I don’t believe my ex is a bad or malicious person. He is an insecure person, with a plethora of life experiences that have amplified that trait. I think we did care about one another at one time, but as it started to deteriorate, he grasped at anything that would keep us together. I hope we both look back on it and realize what it was.
So yes, there are cases far worse than mine. There are people who stay longer, suffer physical trauma to mirror the emotional, who never leave. But abuse doesn't have a threshold. I was manipulated, coerced, and shamed. I blamed myself – a part of me still does. It set me back. But it counts, and I count, and hopefully by sharing this example, another person will realize sooner than I did.
Amidst the ongoing pandemic, the necessary quarantining that global citizens are partaking in has taken a drastic toll on many people’s lives. Whether it be the people hunkering down in shoe box apartments in New York City, or single mothers balancing work, household responsibilities, and now homeschooling, or even the millennials woefully returning to their parents’ homes to live in their childhood bedrooms, it is safe to say that people everywhere can relate to the hardships that Covid-19 has so eagerly presented. That being said, in these moments of hardship it is imperative to pay attention to the citizens who are facing the most turmoil during these difficult, unprecedented times. My sister living in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, might be cohabitating with two other humans in an apartment that would be much better suited for one (preferably small) human, but she expresses daily her sympathy and profound respect for those who are balancing the chaos of the current state of the world and parenting. Likewise, it might not have been my dream as a 23 year old to be living in the room that I experienced adolescence, puberty, and a rather unfortunate Justin Bieber phase in, but I wake up every day in a safe place knowing that there are two people in the other room who I can trust, and who I know will provide me respect, space, and as much spaghetti as my heart desires. Not everyone is as fortunate. Currently there are hundreds of thousands of sexual assault survivors out there who are not able to have the privilege of feeling safe, either in their own homes or even in their own bodies.
The process of healing from trauma is already taxing due to the psychological, physical, and societal effects sexual assault has on a survivor. Now given the current climate it is extremely likely that these conditions will intensify said effects. Not only do the current conditions impede upon a survivor’s healing process, but these conditions can also increase the likelihood of future assaults. Despite this, public discourse surrounding this issue has been lacking, even with it currently being sexual assault awareness month. In order to address this, it is essential that as a society we look at the ways in which survivors are potentially being impacted during this time. Medical systems are currently over-run, making it difficult to access the intensive care that might be necessary. Reynolds (2020) states, “in March of last year, forensic nurse examiners in Washington, D.C., had encounters with 42 patients seeking treatment for sexual assault. As the novel coronavirus spread during the same month this year, they saw 24 patients, a 43% decrease from 2019”. Although the decrease could be associated with the overall decrease in crime, it is important to look at the fact that domestic abuse rates have increased, and sexual assault can be very much a part of domestic abuse. In addition to medical services, therapeutic services, whether it be talk therapy or trauma informed embodied approaches, are more difficult than ever to access and for survivors pursuing legal aid, assistance from law enforcement has the potential to be diluted due to severity of current Covid-19 related conditions (Me Too Movement, 2020). Sexual assault previously had the lowest reporting rate of all violent crimes (Bartol & Bartol, 2017, p. 378), so it is devastating to consider the impact the current climate might have on the rates of reporting.
The lack of necessary resources can be extremely dangerous for survivors, especially when combined with the fact that many survivors are being forced to quarantine in unhealthy households, which can play a negative role on survivors’ mental health. Toxic households have the potential to trigger negative effects of sexual assault on survivors. Additionally, dangerous living conditions can increase the chances of future assault and revictimization. Similarly, survivors in toxic workplaces, or in low wage jobs, are at an increased risk for heightened post-trauma symptoms and revictimization as well. Despite all of these troubling realizations, there was no explicit funding for sexual assault survivor programs and advocates (Me Too Movement, 2020). As a society we must spread awareness about the realities of what sexual assault survivors are facing daily. Organizations such as the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) and the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) offer resources and confidential hotlines to survivors. We are all capable of helping this cause through small steps such as, sharing links to these organizations and staying informed about the effects of Covid-19 on sexual assault and domestic violence survivors. We have to keep the conversation going.
Bartol, C. and Bartol, A. (2017). Criminal behavior: A psychological approach (Eleventh Edition) Upper Boston: Pearson.
#MeTooVoter response to COVID-19 for Sexual Assault Survivors. (2020). Retrieved April 26, 2020, from https://metoomvmt.org/advocacy/metoovoter-response-to-covid-19-for-sexual-assault-survivors/
Reynolds, M. (2020, April 23). How the COVID-19 Pandemic Creates Obstacles for Sexual Assault Survivors. ABA Journal. Retrieved from https://www.abajournal.com/web/article/how-the-pandemic-creates-obstacles-for-sexual-assault-survivors
Earlier this semester, I completed a documentary review on Solitary Nation, an episode of Frontline which documented the experiences of inmates in solitary confinement in Maine State Prison. The episode, which was the seventh episode of the 32nd season of Frontline, first aired on April 22, 2014 and was directed by Daniel Edge. Ultimately, this documentary uses gruesome images and emotional case studies to show the need to drastically reform solitary confinement in the United States. It also documents the journey of the new prison warden, Rodney, in his mission to reduce the use of solitary confinement and implement other strategies to deal with violent inmates. I thought the film was incredibly well-done; however, it was limited in the fact that it only focused on a few inmates in one prison. After watching, I was prompted to read some broader, more recent research on solitary confinement in the United States today.
Conditions differ depending on the state and prison, but in general, solitary confinement means that the inmates are confined behind a steel door 22-24 hours a day with extremely limited human contact. There are an estimated 80,000-100,000 people in solitary confinement in the United States (Edge, 2014). Common factors of living in isolation include: limited access to rehabilitation or educational programs, limited mental health and medical treatment, and, in some cases, forms of torture such as permanent bright lighting, extreme temperatures, or stun grenades (“Solitary Confinement Facts”).
In terms of reform, there have been recent efforts to limit the amount of solitary confinement allowed. In 2017, some bills were introduced in Massachusetts, including one that restricted the use of solitary to 180 days a year rather than a decade (Zoukis, 2018). Additionally, in 2018, The American Bar Association passed a resolution for state officials to limit its use as a “last resort” and “for no longer than is necessary.. Typically not to exceed 15 consecutive days” (Zoukis, 2018). There have also been efforts to restrict the use of solitary on juveniles and the mentally ill, including the Solitary Confinement Reform Act introduced in 2018 (115th Congress, 2018).
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice eliminated the use of solitary confinement as a form of discipline, effective in 2017. However, this only affected 76 prisoners; the other 4,000 prisoners in isolation were reportedly there for the protection of themselves and others (Zoukis, 2018). The case in Texas is similar to an issue faced by Rodney, the prison warden, in the documentary. While he is trying to reduce the use of solitary in his prison, to do so ultimately means putting other prisoners and staff at risk. In one scene, Rodney is at a meeting with other prison staff and trying to pick an inmate to pull out of the isolation unit. The other staff members, particularly the ones who have to directly deal with these inmates, express their concern and fear of getting hurt, as some of them have been in the past. The documentary also states at the end that one inmate who they released from solitary ended up murdering another inmate after being back in the general population.
These scenes in the documentary demonstrate that while solitary confinement is certainly in need of reform, the actual process of pulling people out who have been in there for years can be very dangerous. Thus, in terms of reducing solitary, reformers face a dilemma in which they must decide between trying to help people who have been isolated for years or ensuring the safety of prison staff and other inmates. Furthermore, while I had originally thought of solitary confinement as merely a form of punishment within prisons, doing this research helped me realize that in many cases, the inmates are just too dangerous (or in too much danger) to have around other people. This is why some prisons, lacking the proper resources for psychological treatment, turn to what seems to be the only option: isolation.
Using solitary confinement for prisoners who are deemed dangerous is referred to as administrative segregation (Weir, 2012). In fact, prisons began using solitary as a means of protecting people in response to growing gang violence within prisons (Weir, 2012). However, segregation for safety purposes has never actually been proven to make prisons safer (Weir, 2012). Instead, it seems that placing people in solitary for years on end only makes it more difficult for them to return to the general population, because being there causes so much trauma. This is shown in the documentary I watched, which follows one inmate, Adam, as he enters solitary for the first time. In the beginning, Adam tells the director that he is confident he can handle solitary confinement, and even expects to enjoy the extra downtime. However, by the end of the documentary, Adam is regularly self-harming, starts riots in the unit, and is even shown pushing feces under his door and flooding his cell. Eventually, Adam is sent to the mental health unit in the prison.
While some progress has been made in recent years to reform solitary confinement in prisons, more still needs to be done to reduce its use, especially as a punishment. In my opinion, there must be more of a focus on mental health treatment for ‘problematic’ prisoners. Even in the documentary, prisoners who are sent to the mental health unit are shown to be in a much better place afterward. However, for many of them, they are only sent there for a few months after self-harming, only to return back to solitary immediately afterward. We need to start looking at long-term solutions that can help integrate these forgotten prisoners back into regular social interactions.
Edge, Daniel (Director). (April 22, 2014). Solitary Nation (Season 32, Episode 7) [TV Series Episode]. In D. Fanning (Executive Producer), Frontline. PBS.
115th Congress (April 19, 2018). “S.2724 - Solitary Confinement Reform Act.” Congress.Gov. Retrieved from: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/2724/text?format=txt
“Solitary Confinement Facts.” American Friends Service Committee. AFSC.Org. Retrieved from: https://www.afsc.org/resource/solitary-confinement-facts
Weir, Kristen (May 2012). “Alone, in the hole.” American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/05/solitary
Zoukis, Christopher (October 8, 2018). “Solitary Confinement Reforms Sweeping the Nation But Still Not Enough.” Prison Legal News. Retrieved from: https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2018/oct/8/solitary-confinement-reforms-sweeping-nation-still-not-enough/
A few weeks ago, I reviewed Sue Klebold’s memoir A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, about her experience as the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine High School shooters. While I was able to share the manner by which she communicated her ideas and insights, I wasn’t able to actually share those insights and ideas. Her recounting of the details of Dylan’s life, combined with what we learned about school shooters in general, paints a picture of how this particular child ended up committing one of the most infamous massacres in American history.
I’m going to start by reviewing what Bartol & Bartol (2017) have to say about school shooters (and shootings) as a group, though they also state there is no single school shooter profile. In general: School shootings happen most at high schools, with a student at the school acting alone as the shooter. The perpetrator often has faced peer or social rejection, endured bullying, has anger about the bullying, and lacks the social or coping skills to deal with these issues. They may show cruelty to animals, or alternatively a high degree of affection or attachment to animals. They often have an interest in guns and weapons, with easy access to firearms, and have often repeatedly made clear their violent intentions to others (usually peers). Attacks seem planned in advance, with the shooter expecting to be killed or planning to commit suicide in conjunction with the attack. (p. 311-312) Synthesizing the many factors, it’s argued that most school shooters have a history of social rejection, along with either psychological problems, an interest in weapons, and/or a fascination with death (p. 314). School shooters often show little attachment to their school. There are also certain traits that lead to a school itself being more or less at risk for a shooting event: an inflexible culture, inequitable discipline, tolerance for disrespectful behavior, and a code of silence (p. 315). With these many, many factors in mind, I turn to A Mother’s Reckoning.
Sue (as both she and her son share the same surname, I’m going to refer to them by their first names for the sake of clarity) begins by emphasizing that she and her husband, Tom, truly had no idea what Dylan was planning. From many angles, Dylan was the average kid any parent would want. He was kind, gentle, smart, and happy. He “was easy to raise, a pleasure to be with, a child who had always made us proud” (Klebold, 2016, p. 61). He was fiercely independent, insisting his mother teach him how to bathe himself at the age of 5 or 6, and how to do his own laundry at age 10. His negative traits weren’t out of the ordinary either, really: he was very sensitive to embarrassment, which sometimes led to anger; and he was perhaps a little too independent, where he wouldn’t ask for help even if he needed it - like when he had to take a break from baseball after pains he never mentioned became so bad they caused his arm real damage. He felt a need to be in control.
His parents raised their two boys as many others did, following “that close-knit, suburban family model” (p. 62). Sue acknowledges that before Columbine, she would have reacted to news of some horrific act by wondering what that person’s parents must have been like to allow someone to turn out like that. But she came to realize the truth was far more troubling. Dylan’s parents were “hands-on parents who limited the intake of television and sugary cereals. We monitored what movies our boys could see, and put them to bed with stories and prayers and hugs” (p. 61). They made sure to know who their kids were spending time with, and made sure they knew and felt that they were loved. In a video-diary-style recording, Dylan stated his parents had been good to him. Yet, despite a happy upbringing, Dylan still did what he did.
As Dylan entered adolescence, he became a bit more complicated. He still was the boy his parents joked seemed to be “on autopilot” (p. 65), but Sue notes that this may have been particularly dangerous in his case. For happy, easy-to-raise, and successful kids like him, it was easy “to fly under their parents’ radar precisely because they were the shiny pennies, hiding the terrible pain they were in from their parents as capably as they did everything else” (p. 65). I must say, that rings true to me - I’d personally say it was because I was so self-sufficient and trustworthy as a child that my parents had no idea when I was going through (relative) difficulty in adolescence.
As a teen, Dylan’s aversion to embarrassment became more severe, his self-consciousness more pointed. His grades fell to average. Even still, he seemed happy and had a handful of close friends. Sue would later find out through his journals though that by sophomore year he was battling depression and suicidal thoughts. He had friends, but felt as if he were a burden; he wanted love, but the girl he was interested in didn’t know he existed. Though posthumous diagnosis isn’t possible, “that Dylan was seriously depressed is not up for debate” (p. 160), and his behaviors might have also fit the criteria for other diagnoses such as avoidant personality disorder, schizotypal personality disorder, and/or borderline personality disorder. While in class we have made abundantly clear that most people with mental health issues are non-violent, Dylan’s depression and suicidality fits the school shooter pattern.
His parents didn’t understand the full extent of it, but high school wasn’t turning out to be a kind place for him. He started getting in trouble, and complained of how certain groups of kids were ruthless bullies, yet the school did nothing to stop them. One particular incident was uncovered where Dylan and Eric (the other shooter) were surrounded by a group, pushed around, called slurs, and had ketchup sprayed on them. Teachers did nothing. Sue suggests that for someone as sensitive to humiliation and loss of control as Dylan, these types of events may have made a big influence on him, and created a bond between the boys. Not only had Dylan experienced bullying in school, his school fit some of the factors that meant it was most at risk for a shooting by ignoring certain behaviors and otherwise unevenly enforcing the rules. Sue received a number of letters from people who’d gone to Columbine who were more surprised that a shooting hadn’t happened sooner than that one had happened at all.
By his junior and senior years, Dylan’s parents knew something was wrong. Dylan was behaving differently, getting in more trouble, not always acting like himself. He became more paranoid, forcing them all to flee a McDonald’s because he believed a group of teens on the other side of the store were laughing at him. (They weren’t.) But Sue and her husband didn’t know what the signs they were seeing meant. Sue “had no idea it was a life-and-death situation. I was just worried Dylan was unhappy” (p. 227). Indeed, up until he died, he had been going to school, working a part-time job, hanging out with his friends, planning for college - all behaviors of a normal teenager. Just three days before the shooting, he went to prom with a friend. Talking about the home video they took of that day, “It’s absolutely stunning how normal Dylan seems” (p. 235). These things outweighed their concerns about him. They’d never seen his rage, nor ever felt scared of him.
Looking back on the textbook’s suggested traits of school shooters, we’ve already seen above how Dylan does actually map onto many of them. Sue provides details that help us address some of the other considerations as well. Guns and weapons? Sue and her husband were vehemently opposed, but Dylan still asked for a gun for Christmas his final year. (They said no.) Making intentions known ahead of time? Dylan wrote an essay about a school shooting that disturbed his teacher enough that it was referred to the school counselor. It wasn’t deemed something that needed further attention. Planning? It was obvious that the attack had been in the works for a long time, and the plan carefully thought out. Dylan was also drinking at the end of his life, likely complicating his mental health issues, though had once said that marijuana was a waste of time and so perhaps wasn’t involved in drugs. While I’d argue that violent media doesn’t cause people to act violently if they’re not otherwise inclined, it seems Dylan was vulnerable to the violent games and movies he consumed outside the home. His parents didn’t yet know to monitor his internet usage. The attack on Columbine is almost a prototypical school shooting, but one way in which it stands out is that it was committed by two people together.
Outside Dylan’s journals, most of the information Sue got about Dylan’s frame of mind for the shootings came from a series of videotapes he and Eric had secretly made together. In them, it’s obvious to see how his anger and rage turned from being directed toward himself to directed toward others. In this case, the other shooter played a pivotal role in stoking Dylan’s rage and allowing him to break out of his own passivity and actually take steps toward the suicide he craved. Unfortunately, Eric was able to channel Dylan’s experiences and psychology into a violent act that would take not only his own life, but the lives of many others.
As we ourselves have often concluded in class, it seems Sue also came to the understanding that the massacre was the culmination of a number of different factors for Dylan, none of which on their own would have created such an act. As she says, “The rest of the world could explain away what he had done: either he was born evil - a bad seed - or he’d been raised without moral guidance. I knew it wasn’t nearly so simple” (p. 146). By the time of the shooting, facing his intense feelings of alienation, she says his journals show the only emotions Dylan could connect to were anger and hopelessness. But she focuses greatly on the lead-up to that day, hoping to shed light on what happened to her son in order to help someone else see signs in their own child while they still have a chance to intervene. As I often do, I’ll leave the author the last word on why understanding the process her son went through is important:
Dylan was vulnerable in many ways - unquestionably emotionally immature, depressed, possibly suffering from a more serious mood or personality disorder. Tom and I failed to recognize these conditions and to curtail the influences - violent entertainment, his friendship with Eric - that exacerbated them. Asking “how” instead of “why” allows us to frame the descent into self-destructive behavior as the process that it is. […] Asking “why” only makes us feel hopeless. Asking “how” points the way forward, and shows us what we must do. (p. 277)
Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2017). Criminal behavior: a psychological approach. Boston: Pearson.
Klebold, S. (2016). A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. New York: Crown.
A traumatic experience is a terrifying, perilous, or violent event that represents a risk to a child's life. Seeing a traumatic event that undermines the life or physical security of a friend or family member can likewise be traumatic. This is especially significant for small kids as their feeling of wellbeing relies upon the apparent security of their connection figures.
Traumatic experiences can start strong emotions and aversive physical responses that can continue long after the event. Children may feel dread, defenselessness, or fear, just as physiological responses, for example, heart palpitations, vomiting, or loss of bowel control and incontinence. Children who experience a failure to shield themselves or who lacked safeguarding from others to be shielded from the outcomes of the traumatic experience may likewise feel overpowered by the physical and emotional reactions.
Despite the fact that parents make a continuous effort to protect children, dangerous and traumatic events despite everything still can occur. This risk can emerge outside of the family, (for example, a cataclysmic event, car crash, school shooting, or even internet bullying) or from inside the family. (for example, abusive behavior at home, physical or sexual maltreatment, or the sudden passing of a friend or family member.)
In spite of the fact that people frequently make statements like, "He was so young when that occurred. He won't even remember it as he grows up," childhood trauma can have a deep-rooted impact in their life even long after the event is over. And keeping in mind that children are resilient, it does not mean they are made of stone. It's critical to perceive when your child may require proficient assistance with managing a trauma. Early intervention could prevent your child from encountering the continuous impacts of the trauma growing up and even in adulthood.
I myself have an interesting relationship with childhood trauma. Just over 20 years ago, my dad, manifested his passion for mountaineering chasing peaks, along with Marcus Tobía and part of the Proyecto Cumbre team (some of the biggest names and teams of mountaineering in Venezuela). My mom did the same from motherhood, with three small children and a fourth who was on the way (me).
So, pregnant with me, she received that first alarm signal. My dad was undergoing medical examinations, in preparation like every professional mountaineer does before an expedition. And just beginning the stress test the alarmed doctor asked him to stop: "You're going to die here! You have the highest blood pressure!" He said. Now I wasn’t born yet so I don’t know exactly what the doctor said but for the purpose of storytelling, I will tell it as my mother told it while I was growing up.
After this encounter with the doctor, my father got a bunch of tests to figure out what was wrong but the answer was worst than he could imagine. He needed a new kidney. This is when my whole family was forced to climb a whole mountain with cero preparation and no warning (a metaphorical one obviously) He had just started his own company with every penny he had saved up since college, had three children and one on the way. It seemed like the worst possible time for him to get sick but life doesn’t really care about convenience does it?
Only months after his diagnosis and weeks after I was born we got a burst of luck, and we crowned the first peak: My dad’s uncle expresses his willingness to help by donating one of his kidneys, and the transplant is done, and it is a complete success. But this is just the start (but you knew that since this couldn’t be my traumatic experience if it was over when I was a month old).
The path to follow since then has not been easy, but he faces a backpack loaded with the most valuable for those who suffer from a disease like this. Hope. His uncle gave him hope. But my dad has to take immunosuppressants for life. And if for just three days he stops taking the medicine, it turns out that his body would begin to reject the new organ, and you immediately return to zero, or to the base as mountaineers call their point of departure.
Now I can’t say I remember this but I do believe it shaped my relationship with my family for many years. The first 3 years after a transplant getting sick is a no-go. It is hard having school-age children that have school-age friends who are basically germ and snot producing machines. My mom had to make a choice and that meant my three siblings basically lived with our cousins those first three years, spending months at a time away from home. The worst part is that my dad was taking a cocktail of medications that are not only tough on your body but have serious side effects, one of which was irritability. Every time my siblings came home my dad would go into a screaming fit and get aggressively angry that they were being noisy and hyperactive.
I was three the first time my dad screamed at me that I recall (though I suspect there were many others before this one since having a child who doesn’t even sleep through the night and cries all day must be incredibly tough without those pesky side effects.) I was being homeschooled at this point because preschool is worst than a school for germs and sickness, I was outside with my mom learning my ABCs and there was a dog being walked near us.
My dad walked outside and screamed at me for not singing the song correctly and the dog got spooked, it jumped at me and bit my face, I had to get facial reconstruction surgery every year until I was 9 to make sure my face was not deformed. It made my dad so guilty he stopped interacting with me altogether. Wouldn’t come to school events, or kiss me goodnight, or even acknowledge I was home when I got home from school. My siblings had formed such a strong bond being in different houses all together they didn’t really acknowledge me either and so I started to feel lonely and sad. My mom loved me but she was so busy with my dad and keeping us alive that she didn’t have time to make me feel like I belonged in my own family.
I started to become anxious and had a lot of self-doubt. Why didn’t my own family want me? What is so horribly wrong with me that my dad won’t even talk to me? I harmed my friendships, my grades until it got to a point where I just thought I was a burden. I didn’t want to be a part of my family anymore. One night my mom talked to me about going to boarding school and I completely broke down. “You care about me so little that you just want to ship me off and never see me again?” she was confused because she thought this was an opportunity for me to learn new languages and see new cultures like my cousins had done. She never thought id remember my dad’s transplant or that I would be so traumatized by events that transgressed when I was barely a toddler but thankfully she got me help.
She took me to a psychologist who helped me understand my pain and to get through it. I owe everything I am today to having a mom who understood that I needed help. Some people are not so lucky. This is why it is so important to know the signs and get children the help they need, because thinking they won’t remember or that they won’t be affected for being so young is unfortunately not the case.
For a time in my early twenties, I lived in a small city in Missouri. Having recently graduated, the move there was based on convenience rather than desire. I spent a varying amount of time walking around the downtown, where I would sit about and wonder fickle and errant about topics that were of little concern or interest to anyone but myself. One day after work I was walking downtown when a person experiencing homelessness came up to me and asked for money. I gave him more than his usual, so it seemed, because he insisted on shaking my hand and talking to me. He introduced himself as Chuck and told me that he was a Vietnam veteran. I introduced myself and we got to know one another. After our meeting, I’d see Chuck downtown. Usually in the summers. I’d stopped giving him money and instead took him out to lunch or dinner. We’d talk. I suspected he had a problem with alcohol, but we’d never talk about it. Over time I noticed the track marks. He told me that he’d never found what he could do in America after he came back from Vietnam. He told me about his failed marriage that broke up while he was away, told me about his parents. How he couldn’t sleep and the kind of people he’d be with. At the time I didn’t understand much of what he’d gone through, especially in relation to how powerful the substance abuse cycle invigorates itself by the power of traumatic experiences, in Chuck’s case the Vietnam War and his succeeding lack of support upon his return. It is a common experience for veterans in the U.S., but felt especially poignant during certain conversations with Chuck.
The accompanying sketch is meant to be a memory of Chuck. Mostly, a depiction of my misunderstanding of Chuck’s needs and what he was not getting, even as I sat with him and did what I thought was a good deed. The figure in the picture is not Chuck. I never took a picture of him. But the figure reminds me of him, sitting as he is as Chuck first sat when he asked me for some money. Seeking something we both knew not what and like birds on a wire commiserating in broad and sometimes unclear terms indicative of a steadfast and puerile misconception of attributable trauma.
The intersection of crime and trauma is a tragic misstep of circumstance, and realizing this quickly dismantles the frightening image of the hostile criminal who acts on some whim in service of evil deeds and vile acts. The substances we deem illicit are branded upon those who use them so that the act itself is demonized, so that the people themselves are dehumanized, in order to suit an order that seeks to rectify crime not with practices derived from study, empathy and rehabilitation but with the fundamental error of ignoring the human needs of people impacted by, in many ways, the tragic misstep of circumstance.