Processing Trauma

The below is an account of actual events experienced during incarceration. They were not blogged early, due to concerns about possible repercussions. The power of the system to victimize is maintained in silence- the silence of fear.

Today, one year from the day I walked out of prison, I am using my voice to regain some power.

Standoff at Adam’s County Prison: An Inmate’s Perspective

April 2015

By Aurora Phoenix

[Standoff occurred Thursday April 9, Adams County Adult Correctional Facility, Gettysburg, PA. Lockdown lasted until Sunday April 12.]


The most pressing decision for the dreary April Thursday afternoon had already been made. The day shift officer had opened the “rec yard” door a few minutes earlier, allowing them to step outside & feel the air, preparatory to concluding whether or not to partake in outdoor recreation at 2 pm. Knowing the options were a full hour outside in the chilly breeze or no time at all, she ruefully declined. Now, a scant quarter hour later, she is ensconced with her block mates at their familiar tables, writing, reading or otherwise whiling away the afternoon, carbon copies of endless preceding afternoons. A yell over the officer’s walkie talkie stuns them all to instant alertness. “Shift commander call 125!” screams a female’s voice, terrorized, unrecognizable in its panic. Their CO’s eyes widen, spine stiffens as she blurts, uncensored, “I’ve never heard anything like that before.”


Knowing, without yet being ordered, that lockdown is imminent, they begin to collect their belongings, while debating the owner of the frantic voice. Communal knowledge identifies extension 125 as the lobby, though the voice in no way resembles the female officer they believed working the lobby today. As expected “All units lockdown, lockdown!” is barked fiercely over the radio within moments, along with a mysterious intonation, “Lobby clear,” reminiscent of TV cops shows. Officer A hurries them to cells, sharp-toned and agitated, reminding her charges that she is not ordinarily prone to rush them. Something is undeniably different.


As is her habit during lockdowns, scheduled & emergency alike, no sooner has the door clanked shut than she steps upon the metal disk that masquerades as a stool, hoping to glimpse birds to watch while minutes slowly tick by. Her tentative avian study is quickly side tracked as emergency vehicles approach along the road between the jail and the woods. A police car, lights flashing, stations itself at the junction of the road, at the far end of the prison, with what she supposes must be access to the parking lot. Although ordinarily loath to shout through air vents to communicate with fellow top tier residents, the unfolding situation compels her to share that news. Relinquishing her stool-perch vantage point to her bottom cell bunkie, she clambers up to her top bunk, where, prone, she can also peer out the window for at least a partial view. Morbid curiosity mixed with building anxiety fuel a fusillade of exchanged shouts.


Officer A, ordinarily seated behind the desk unless rounding, is frantically pacing the dayroom. On the road outside the window, police vehicles continue to arrive, marked & unmarked, sedans & SUVs. Officers begin to congregate as they exit their vehicles, & slowly the import the tableau clicks into place. Voicing her observations as they crystallize, the magnitude of the situation is unmistakable. A number of officers are wearing vests, & although the letters are indecipherable at this distance, they are clearly, surreally, bulletproof vests. Trunks are opened & rifles extracted. She describes the apparent assembly of a SWAT team.


Abruptly, responding to commands issued over the walkie-talkie, Officer A is yelling orders & hurriedly opening cells, the clank of keys & door layering over obscuring details in her message. ”Everybody outside to the rec yard,” registers, other details are lost amidst the noise & scramble. Feet on concrete before her cell door pops open, she hears her bunkie express fear of a possible bomb threat. She joins block members congregating in the rec yard.


Shouting orders, Officer A lines them up against a wall, commands them to sit, verifying they are all there. Clearly fighting to think coherently over her own mounting panic, Officer A abruptly orders them to move to another wall, angled with no straight line (of shot) from the outer exit door. They scramble quickly up, traverse a few feet and sit back down. In the melee, she bids the two young girls from her table, toward whom she feels somewhat maternal, to sit on either side of her. Unhesitating, they do so. As their line of eleven inmates settles in, Officer A orders everyone to move closer to the door, so no one is around the corner. Obediently scooting on their butts, they edge to their collective right. Huddled against the wall, literally hip to hip, knees pulled to chests, warding off both the dank concrete creeping cold and the building fear, they listen, whisper intermittently, & hush themselves to listen again. Officer A, frankly frightened, says nothing like this has happened in her 11 year tenure.


There are racing motors, sharp reports that sound like possible gunshots, whirring noises that could be an approaching helicopter. They listen, try to create a narrative from patchwork sounds, and shiver convulsively. Belatedly, Officer A flips through the box of the “locator cards” and calls roll, even though all are accounted for. Obediently, shades of long past elementary school, they listen for their names (last only, here) & by rote, intone “Here!” No idea how much time has passed, though long enough to become genuinely cold, the radio blares once again & tells all units that inmates can leave the rec yard and “shelter in their cells.” Bursting gratefully into the dayroom, they rejoice in the relative warmth, laughable, as it is never actually warm in the block.


Immediately upon reconfinement in her cell, she step-hops onto the stool & is greeted by a multitude of police vehicles, clogging the entire road. Counting at least 17, she cedes the stool to her bunkie and retreats to her bunk. As they watch, crime scene tape is strung across the road, blocking access to the front of the prison. Gradually, singly and in twos & threes, the occupants of the official vehicles, several carrying rifles at ease, return to their cars, pack up & pull away. They speculate amongst themselves about events, guessing, somberly, that the intruder (unanimously they use “he” in reference) was shot.


Once the official vehicles have all left, news vans arrive scattered over the couple hours. They pull up to the crime scene tape, lug out their video cameras, film & depart.


Shift change passes and the second shift officer, routinely reticent, responds to queries shouted through doors by stating simply she is unallowed to comment. Dinner comes and goes-they eat in their cells. No release to watch the news, debrief amongst themselves or call loved ones. Even their evening unit officer, generally much more free with information, shares nothing, other than to encourage them to listen to their radios. Tuning up & down the dial yields very little, although their cell neighbor stumbles upon a brief report. Apparently the suspect rode his bicycle to the prison, with an assault rifle, multiple magazines, another gun & a hunting knife & accosted the lobby officer at gunpoint. Somehow he ended up back outside, where he was indeed shot & has been transported to a hospital.


Hours drag by on lockdown, punctuated by half-hourly CO rounds, listless shifting from one uncomfortable position to another & attempted mental telepathy to uncalled family members. She prays that sons she was supposed to call don’t worry or believe she has simply forgotten.


Friday morning “Zero five-fifteen” count brings hope that with the ensuing breakfast, lockdown will end. Back in bunk, buried under covers, as is their universal routine to pass the 15 minutes between being counted and eating, she listens avidly to the now all too familiar sounds. Even before auditory confirmation as doors open and close singly, she knows they are still locked down.


Initially told that there would not be a newspaper, “for obvious reasons,” (censorship is alive and well in prison) it eventually shows up and slowly is passed from cell to cell. Front-page headline blares “Standoff at Adams County Prison,” and tells the tale. The lobby officer is heralded as a hero for somehow convincing the suspect to go back outside. Misleading, concerning, is the article’s statement that the prison, as well as county building, HAD been on lockdown for a few hours, but that it has been lifted. Clearly it had not been lifted for them! Frighteningly the article also confirmed that shots had indeed been fired by the “active shooter,” several into the air. The outdoor rec yards have fence rooves, and what goes up must come down.


In retrospect, her fear increases about what could have occurred. With each hour, she wonders whether this event that holds her even more hostage than is her norm has become national news. She asks various officers, none of whom seem to know. She is painfully aware of how shocking events go viral, over internet, Facebook, Twitter. Feelings hopelessly mixed, she hopes her family hears so the silence (now protracted) is explained, fears they will be worried for her, prays they would think to call and verify her safety.


Allowed out to shower, she hears that a crucial incident team from the Department of Corrections is in the building, debriefing & supporting staff. No one has talked to them. No rounding lieutenant, no “treatment staff,” no attempt to process. Their regular block officers, barred from discussing it, express equal frustration with the administrative response to this unprecedented crisis.


Saturday dawns, lockdown continues. No rhyme or reason can be articulated. A half-hearted attempt to promote “safety” as the rationale fans more frustration. Visits, crucial weekly lifeline for many, are also cancelled. Family members may well make needless trips only to be turned away. Helpless, they stew in their worry and frustration, able only to occupy their own hands and minds. Today’s newspaper, font even larger, announces the suspect died Friday afternoon of his wounds. Name & age printed, he was 31, significantly older than the stereotypical mass shooter, (or attempter thereof). The prison reports he has never been an inmate and had no connection to any current inmates. The veracity of this statement is dubious and officers indicate his name is vaguely familiar.


Motive, backstory for the incident remain unknown. The news article & letters to the editor are replete with praise for the first responder, the corrections officer that talked him into leaving the building. Writers praise the avoidance of injury, as there are “churches, schools & homes nearby.” Stunningly absent in the extensive coverage is any acknowledgement that there could be impacts on the people who live here. The article describes the visit of the Critical Incident Stress Management team, their intent to return in 72 hours, and their availability to any officer as needed. Yet there is not a single mention or effort to address the experience of the inmates. With the exception of the few officers in the lobby, the experience of most CO’s was precisely the same as the inmates! In fact, perhaps less traumatic, as this is not their home.


The protective factors, namely talking about traumatic events immediately and openly, and having that experience validated, are not only not offered to inmates, but are, by virtue of the lockdown & cut off of communication from loved ones, systematically denied.


She and her bunkie, each in very different ways, with vastly different histories, play out their trauma in their dreams—each dreamt of prison trauma. Helplessness is already their store bought nutrient-free white bread and pretend, partially hydrogenated oil, “butter,” fed 3 carb-laden meals daily. In the face of any potentially life threatening event, increased helplessness, hopelessness are common sequelae: There is clear evidence about strategies to minimize the impact of this and decrease the likelihood of symptoms accruing in the wake of a traumatic event. These options are being appropriately offered to prison staff. The lack of this accessibility for inmates, who were equally as traumatized as staff, if not more so, leads to confirmation of the existing perception that they are not even considered human.


Concerned, for herself, as well as for the other inmates, she “drops a slip,” requesting services be made available. With trepidation she phrases it carefully. In many ways, she expects no response.


Sunday morning, 10:00, they are abruptly released from lockdown, allowed access to day room & recreation, though visits and programming are still restricted. Racing for the phone, she calls family. Out of state, they had no knowledge, no awareness of the chain of events, just building anxiety and worry over extended lack of communication. Glad she is able to provide relief, she quickly sketches the outline of the chain of events. Her children, unaware of the tragic sequence, will be shielded, she decides, to protect them as much as possible from additional distress. Her incarceration is already sufficient strain.


Slip submitted April 11, 2015

I would like to request that some type of trauma debriefing be offered to inmates, following the shooting incident of last Thursday, 4/9/15. We heard shots fired, observed the fear in the eyes of our CO’s, heard the panicked calls over the radio. We were just as exposed to the traumatic events as the block officers were. We have also been locked down for multiple days, without access to phone call or visits with loved ones, that could be protective and healing factors in coping with this event. I know not everyone would see a need for this though I think it could be very beneficial.


RESPONSE: We have no plans to bring any outside counselors in at this time. No inmates were directly involved with the situation, I have forwarded your concerns to mental health counselor. You may speak with her if you wish.


5 thoughts on “Processing Trauma

  1. What a horror. Your recounting of this story, in vivid and intricate detail, gave me a visceral reaction. You’re right – They are treated like they are not human. Like things done to them don’t matter. I should say you plural, not they.

    Liked by 1 person

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