Post Traumatic Prison Disorder and the Fight to Heal Our Communities

On November 8, 2021, John L. Buckalew, or Buck, was released from SCI Frackville after serving about ten years in prison. Five months later, on April 13, 2022, two women walking their dog reported to the police that they found a man “sleeping in his car.” When the police arrived, they found 34-year-old Buck dead in his truck, according to Buck’s family. As of the publication of this article, the police are still investigating the cause of his death. 

Buck spent his last 100 days of incarceration locked down in solitary confinement, after a situation in which he was forced to defend himself, according to an advocate who had become close with him. Buck already struggled with his mental health when he was sent to the hole, and the isolation only deepened that struggle. “I would have to say the RHU [solitary confinement] will exacerbate anyone’s mental health issues,” said Derrick Brodnax, an incarcerated Certified Peer Specialist at SCI Frackville, who shared a cell with Buck. 

John “Buck” Buckalew. Photo taken from Buck’s obituary.

Of course, no one will ever know what was going through Buck’s head in his last moments. But Shawanna Vaughn, the formerly incarcerated founder of the organization Silent Cry, Inc., has written a piece of legislation aimed at preventing people from dying like Buck did, or from spiraling deeper into the cycle of trauma and recidivism. And Silent Cry, Inc. provides holistic aftercare for mass incarceration, gun violence, and trauma. 

The piece of legislation, which has so far been introduced in Michigan and New York, is called: Post Traumatic Prison Disorder Act Shawanna W76337. The number is Vaughn’s prison number and Vaughn herself coined the term “Post Traumatic Prison Disorder” to describe the specific trauma inflicted on people in prison, and especially solitary confinement. 

Vaughn spent five years in Michigan prisons, including 32 days in solitary confinement. She personally experienced the specific effects from the trauma of prison, and she witnessed the effect it had on others. “When I left prison, I went in with people that were functional, that I knew from the street,” she said. “And by the time I left, they didn’t know their name. They were just in a haze. That’s unacceptable. So now, you come out and you’re a drug addict that prison made you.”

Shawanna Vaughn, founder of Silent Cry, Inc. and author of the Post Traumatic Prison Disorder Act.

Vaughn said that she developed the language and ideas for the legislation based on the responses to 300 surveys that she sent to people in prison. “Legislation has to be for us, by us,” Vaughn said. “It can’t look like one person. It has to be collective.” 

The proposed New York SB1598 acknowledges Post Traumatic Prison Disorder as “the negative psychological effects on people in prison…includ[ing] a dependence on institutional structure and contingencies, hypervigilance, interpersonal district, suspicion, alienation, social withdrawal and isolation.” The bill mandates the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) to develop an individualized ‘transitional accountability plan’ that would provide clinical intervention for Post Traumatic Prison Disorder for people in prison. 

If Buck would have received such an individualized transition plan to treat his Post Traumatic Prison Disorder, he may have still been alive today. Brodnax, the CPS and Buck’s former cellmate, watched helplessly as Buck was released from solitary to the streets with “no preparation for mental health services or anything else for that matter.” Buck’s family said, “It is our opinion that prison destroyed John, his sense of self, and provided no assistance for his mental health problems which he struggled with since he was 17.” 

Buck cycled in and out of prison since he was 18 years old, and his family believes that he never received the mental health help that he needed for his addiction and suicidal ideation. Instead, he sat in concrete cells in prisons around the state of PA—from Chester County Prison to SCI Dallas, SCI Mahanoy to SCI Frackville—for mostly nonviolent offenses and parole violations. 

Prisons remain vastly unequipped to evaluate and treat mental illness, and they were never designed to do so. Not only have prisons become warehouses for people with psychiatric disabilities, but the environment, culture, and torture of prisons create and exacerbate the uniquely traumatic type of mental illness that Vaughn calls the Post Traumatic Prison Disorder. 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 37 percent of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons have been diagnosed with mental illness. On top of that, many people struggling with their mental health remain undiagnosed. Solitary Watch recently reported that incarcerated people of color are less likely to receive a proper mental health diagnosis, less likely to receive mental health services, and more likely to be punished and placed in solitary confinement. 

Included in Vaughn’s legislation is trauma-informed therapy for incarcerated people and mental health evaluations 14 days into their incarceration. In some prisons, asking for therapy can be fruitless. Too often, therapists just come to the door, ask one or two questions, and keep it moving. In Vaughn’s case, when she asked to see a therapist, she was thrown into a suicide watch cell. “They came and got me and put me in paper clothes,” she said. “I didn’t say I want to kill myself or anything. I just said I’m depressed and I need to talk to somebody. They literally came and put me in paper clothes and sat me in a room by myself. And then the man came and he says, ‘Are you better now?’” 

Vaughn hopes to combat this cycle of trauma and heal communities through her legislation. “If we heal people, we heal communities,” Vaughn said. “We could stop gun violence if we heal broken people. That’s what it looks like: healing people from the inside and taking it home and building a better community. Because when you’re mentally well, you fight differently. We need to get to the root of the problem.”

Flyer provided by Shawanna Vaughn.

Now, Vaughn is running for Assemblywoman in the 70th District of New York to fight for her community and enact changes to foster healing. A main tenet of her platform is addressing the mental health crisis in the BIPOC community in the village of Harlem through culturally competent therapy and grassroots community work. Her plan includes working to end mass incarceration, providing treatment for people suffering from Post Traumatic Prison Disorder, addressing social economic disparities that fuel gun violence, and ensuring affordable and sustainable housing for everyone. 

As long as our political offices are filled with profiteers and pawns, the fires in our communities will only continue to be fueled. Meaningful solutions must be led by people who have lived the everyday effects of the dire struggles facing our communities. People like Shawanna Vaughn—whose legislation and candidacy for office present a real potential for concrete change and an opportunity for people like Buck to heal and live thriving lives. 

Donate today to support Shawanna Vaughn’s campaign for New York Assemblywoman.

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