Tag Archives: Torture

Prison as Trauma

Most people never get to go to an event about prison.  I went to two in one week.

The first was a phone-a-thon to ex cons.  It felt like a worthwhile use of my time and I would recommend doing something similar if you are depressed, angry, or frightened about some issue.  Like oh, let’s say … a presidential election.

Two nights later was an event I organized at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), and co-sponsored by Jewish Community Action.  It sounds complicated, I know.  What does torture in foreign countries have to do with prisons in Minnesota?

A lot, it turns out.

It was a small event, just 18 of us, but to us Jews the number 18 is a mystical one symbolizing “chai,” the Hebrew word for life.

I was a little concerned that the topic might be a tough one for Vince, my son, who had actually experienced some of the things we would discuss.  My childhood friend whose son is in prison came, and I was worried it might add to her worries.

Our first speaker was a CVT psychotherapist who described quite viscerally how trauma happens and what its effects are.  She had us close our eyes and imagine a baby.  Assuming he has a loving parent who holds him and meets his needs, he learns to trust people and look to them for help in times of need.

Trauma happens to almost everyone, eventually.  It could include abuse and neglect in childhood, a serious illness, the death of a loved one, or a car accident.  Normally, we turn to other humans for comfort.

Torture is intentionally perpetrated by one human being against another under “color of law.”  In other words, it’s authorized or at least there’s a “wink and a nod” from some type of government official.

Usually, there is no one to turn to for comfort because you are locked in a cell.  Your torturers may have your family locked up too; in fact one of the most common forms of torture is to force someone to watch or listen to a loved one being tortured.

Much of the abuse that takes place in US prisons every day—assaults, rapes, solitary confinement—would likely be legally ruled as torture if we ever investigated it fully, in my opinion.

Torture destroys trust.  Rebuilding trust is at the core of recovery.

The second speaker was a CVT volunteer who is a practitioner of Rolfing Structural Integration.  I don’t know jack about rolfing, but she does it for our clients for free and it helps them.  She talked about the physical fallout of trauma, which starts in the brain.  When someone feels threatened, the first thing they do is look for other humans for help, as the psychotherapist had said.  If they are being threatened by those other humans, the right side of their brains “light up” and they go into flight or fight mode like an animal.  I think we’ve all heard about that, right?  What I didn’t know is that the left side of the brain shuts down.  That’s the organizing, verbal, and thinking side of the brain.

And so people who have been tortured, for example, cannot put into words what happened.  On the witness stand they come off as not very believable.

One thing I also didn’t know which I found fascinating was that people kept in small spaces actually stop being able to see beyond the parameters of that space.  Someone kept in solitary for a certain length of time, when they get out, cannot see farther than six feet in front of their face.  They regain their vision eventually, but!

Vince was the third speaker.  He and I read excerpts from blog posts he wrote in solitary, where he was kept after being transferred to Moose Lake—because they didn’t have a regular cell ready.  They told him it would be temporary.  How long would you assume “temporary” meant? Six days, as it turned out. He described the cell and his experience in great detail. I felt myself getting outraged again.  We haven’t talked about it, but I wonder if it raised feelings for him too.

Dakota Bound

I’m on a road trip! No, not to New Orleans. Believe it or not, I am going to meet with three potential donors in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Yee haw!

Here’s the deal. The Center for Victims of Torture, where I work, does psychotherapy, physical therapy, and social work for survivors of torture and war trauma. We do it in groups in Jordan, for instance, because all the clients speak the same language. We do it on an individual basis in Minnesota, because clients come from 36 different countries and speak myriad languages which must often be translated, which doubles the time everything takes.

This is all good as far as it goes, except that there are an estimated 1.3 million torture survivors in the US alone. We do a lot of training to try to equip professionals outside of CVT to recognize and help torture survivors. But there’s also no way we can train every doctor, social worker, cop, or immigration officer that might come into contact with a survivor.

People have been talking about doing something with technology at CVT for years, but without funding that’s just dreaming. Part of my job is to find new sources of funding, and that’s what I hope I’ve done. I won’t bore you with the details, but there are three HUGE international development innovation funds that we hope to tap. To do this, we need to find partners who know how to reach patients in remote or difficult to access situations. That’s why we’re going to South Dakota.

It’s so important, when you’re trying to get people fired up about complicated ideas, that you have the right people on your team. My co-pilots on this trip are a colleague who is from Sioux Falls and whose father has opened some doors for us, and CVT’s clinical advisor for our international programs, who is Kenyan and a PhD psycholgist. He describes the needs this way:

In Nairobi, there are thousands of Somali torture survivors living in the slums who are not there legally, under the protection of the United Nations. They literally cannot leave their dwellings during the day, because the Kenyan police will round them up and shake them down for bribes. Which would you choose: Pay a bribe, or be sent back to Somalia where you may face certain death? They may not have iphones, but could we develop a text-based therapy intervention?

Among the survivors who are in Nairobi legally, there are many Congolese and people of other non-English speaking nationalities. Kenya is an English-speaking country. The refugee kids may have already missed years of schooling due to being forced to serve as child soldiers and living on the run or hiding. Now they spend 12 hours a day in school—regular school, plus an extra block of time added on to learn English. They have survived unimaginable horrors. Many of them need psychotherapy or physical therapy, but they don’t have time for it. Could we develop a game-like therapy intervention that would appeal to youth?

CVT also works in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp on earth, in northern Kenya near the Somali border. Its population is about the same as Minneapolis—about 350,000 people. Could we do tele-therapy with them—either mental health or physical? If so we could reach so many more people. We could also use videoconferencing to train our own and other organizations’ staff.


“Do they all have smart phones in Dadaab?” I asked. I have been to Nairobi but not Dadaab.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “We would have to do a survey to determine who has the old Nokias, how many have smart phones. The Chinese are making big inroads into the African market with cheap smart phones. Most Kenyans use their mobiles for everything. They don’t have tablets or desk tops or TVs or land lines. They’ve basically skipped over those generations of devices and they do everything on mobiles.”

I love projects like this. They’re big, messy, uncertain, and complicated. They require me to work with people with whom I don’t normally interact. They may have big payoffs. And in this case they require a road trip.