Prisons – Stress is Costly at So Many Levels

State prisons are where we send our most troubled citizens. And what happens to them while they are in prison costs us a lot of money. The vast majority of prisoners are released after just a few years and sometimes their prison experience leads them to come out as worse neighbors and less productive citizens. Wouldn’t it be nice to take our most troubled people and use our best science to lessen the burden they pose to society? Do we have the capability? Yes! Do we have the will? Maybe!

Prisons are pressure cookers of dysfunctional and sometimes dangerous people. They are often crowded and full of stress and are a breeding ground for trouble. Some people end up in prison due to a serious of unfortunate events. If they are lucky enough to be at a low security prison they may avoid some of the worst stressors. But higher security prisons are full of most difficult and the most dangerous people. In other words – they are not nice places! When you spend years in such a place you don’t leave feeling refreshed and ready to get back to work.

Prisons come in all varieties. Some are like nice office buildings up front with the actual living and working area for prisoners in the back. Most are very clean and they have little clutter. As you get further back into the living and working areas, most prisons take on a more congested feeling. The accommodations become more Spartan. It is reminiscent of the congested living quarters on navy ships. There’s lots of concrete, metal, and bunks, in a very small space.

Visitors walking for the first time through prison gates often experience a very eerie feeling as heavy metal gates close behind you. It suddenly dawns on you that you’re actually locked in and can’t just walk out, until they let you out. Many prisoners experience this over and over but in a much more intense fashion. They won’t get out for years. They’ll be locked in there all night and all day. Exposed to all the other inmates and all their idiosyncrasies. Forget for a moment what they might have done to deserve incarceration, and think of them as fellow human beings. They respond to stress just like you and me. There is little doubt that there are psychopaths with nerves of steel or gang members just doing their time. But I’ve talked to thousands of men and women who have just arrived at the prison, and for most, the experience is terrifying. For most inmates, their arrest, jail time, and prison time will be the most stressful events they’ll ever experience. Many liken it to going to combat – but without the sense of camaraderie or noble purpose.

Prison stressors include loss of family, separation from career path, financial devastation, and near total loss of autonomy. Your food and job are chosen for you. And since officers must supervise every job, there are often not enough officers to supervise extra work details and many prisoners sit around bored and restless. And anyone knows that if you stick a bunch of people together without enough to do, the result is often … well, let’s just say that it is better to keep them busy.

The pressure cooker effect of prison causes some to become desperate and breakdown resulting in severely disruptive behaviors including aggression and self-mutilation. Peripheral effects include staff burnout. Staff turnover is a common problem in today’s prisons.

So, do we have the capability of changing this pattern without breaking the budget? And finally, do we have the will to do so? The answers to those questions – yes, and perhaps.

The knowledge base of how to change aberrant behavior is beginning to coalesce. Brain science is fast approaching a critical mass. Epigenetics and neuroplasticity have shown us that we can reshape and re-program our brain. Most areas of medicine now recognize the central role of lifestyle choices in achieving wellness. The new medicine looks at toxins, gut health, and the balance of nutrients, hormones and neurotransmitters. The boundaries between physical and mental health will blur as we recognize the brain as an organ and an integral part of the body. The idea of ruling out a physical health problem before moving on to a psychiatric diagnosis will be much more complex and yield tremendous results. As this new medicine reaches the most dysfunctional people in our prisons, imagine what we can achieve.

Health science is looking at belief, the placebo effect, the spirit and the soul with renewed interest. When a Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson, demonstrated that the Relaxation Response – sitting quietly for 12 minutes a day repeating a simple phrase – can substantially alter your genetic expression, even the skeptics among can see that the power of belief and the mind-body connection are forces for good that we can harness in integrative treatment plans.

As for the will to make these changes – the responsibility is on the professionals. We must do the difficult work of demonstrating the value of these interventions. While consensus is not easy and the tough job of marketing is essential, it is the professionals who need to demonstrate that balancing the neuro-endocrine system, detoxifying the body and supplying it with a balance of nutrients, actually helps real people and can do so at a price that our society is willing to pay. Administrators, and the lay public, have become wary of the many promises made by professionals.

But a new day is upon us. The decade of the brain has shown us how the brain reshapes itself throughout our lifetime. This exciting new science is giving us exciting new tools such as SPECT scans, fMRI and QEEG. We‘ve mapped the genome and have begun to decipher epigenetic patterns so that tomorrow we will know how to re-program failing body-systems. We are learning the value of hyperbaric oxygen for brain rehabilitation. And as these relatively new areas of science mature, we will find the reason and the will to use them wisely. In the very near future, the general public will pay less for health care and will get better results. We will image the brain and analyze the genetic code allowing us to create interventions that are truly individualized. Those that run afoul of the law will truly stand a chance of coming out of prison better than when they went in. We will do less harm, and more good, at a bargain price.

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