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A small Black boy cries in a doorway illuminated by police car lights
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi (Source: Depositphotos)

As a young teen, I envisioned becoming a police officer. Their uniforms looked cool and the flashing lights on their cars were grand and festive. They were the good guys in the spaghetti western of my adolescent mind.

That desire evaporated when I was 14 years old. My mother called me at a friend’s house asking me to come home because the police were in our house.

My mom got me a cab. My stomach was in knots the entire ride. I assumed the cops were there for me.

We lived in a violent, drug-infested neighborhood. It was the only place my mother could afford. She went to work every day and I went to school. I didn’t hang out on the block nor did my mom have friends in the neighborhood.

When I got home that night, a patrol car was out front and all our neighbors were watching.

Our front door was wide open. The light from the house illuminated the sidewalk.

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Inside, the floor of our living and dining room was cluttered with our possessions. Everything had been thrown around.

My mother was sitting in a nightgown, her eyes red from crying.

She handed me money for the cab. On the way out, I noticed our front door wasn’t merely wide open — it had been busted in half.

I later learned the police had used a battering ram to break down our door. They entered my mom’s bedroom, bearing guns and flashlights, and woke her. They had a warrant for someone who neither my mother nor I knew.

I spent that night on the loveseat that we had shoved against our broken door.

Societal numbers

Dig around in the childhood of someone convicted of a crime, from any place and any demographic, and you will certainly find chronic trauma.

Traumatized children are the seeds of society’s malevolence. Untreated, these children may become the predators of tomorrow.

A 2017 U.S. Department of Justice report found that about 37% of people in prison had a history of mental health problems, and a vast majority of these mental health problems were a direct result of early childhood trauma.

Prisons are filled with people who society failed a long time ago. Parents, teachers, social workers, school counselors, police officers or lawmakers could have helped them but didn’t. Protecting children is the most crucial duty of any adult in a community.

My findings

As a child of trauma in a high-crime neighborhood, a life of illegality often seemed like the only option to respond to what was going on in my head. My actions reflected the turmoil and chaos going on inside me. Maladaptive, criminalistic behavior became my language — my way of expressing myself — because I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate how I felt.

I know from my 30 years of incarceration that I am not the only one.

Today, I am a board-certified peer specialist and a certified recovery specialist in a Pennsylvania prison. Certified peer specialists in Pennsylvania receive an intense level of training. My state is one of a handful that has a well-established education program for peer specialists. I had to perform 75 hours of training to gain certification, and must perform additional monthly educational units to maintain my status.

At the start of COVID-19, I was assigned to the intake and quarantine block at my prison. We were on lockdown for 22 hours and off for two hours. But I was allowed to leave my cell to talk with guys who needed help. I met with my peers in a small, private room. Because of the lockdown, everybody wanted to talk to me, if only to leave their cells.

Over two years, I spoke with more than 100 inmates. At the height of the pandemic, the men who came through were emotionally raw and surprisingly eager to open up.

I am not exaggerating when I say at least 95% of those men told me they had been molested as children.

I was shocked for two reasons. First, because they trusted me enough to share that information. Second, because they spanned the gamut of humanity: white men, Black men, Hispanic men, rural, urban, middle class, poor, drug dealers, drug addicts, Type A personalities, Type B personalities and everything in between. I felt like I was among kindred souls who had walked the same path as me.

“Poverty, unemployment, inferior schools, social isolation, widespread availability of guns, and substandard housing all are breeding grounds for trauma,” writes psychiatrist Ah, Bessel van der Kolk in his bestselling book, “The Body Keeps the Score.” “Trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt people.”

My proverbial cliff

My history of trauma started well before that chaotic incident with the police.

Around age 5, someone began shooting at another person while I played on the front steps of our apartment. It wasn’t so much the gunshots that frightened me. What I remember most was the looks on the adults’ faces when they rushed my friends and me inside.

When I was 7, I was forcefully raped by a family member. A large part of my soul died that day. My mother was downstairs with family friends and had no idea what was going on just above her head.

The next trauma lasted a number of years. It began after we moved in with my grandfather, a raging alcoholic and master of emotional abuse.

Sometimes my mother would call and ask him to pick us up so we wouldn’t have to ride the bus. He’d come. But my piss-drunk grandfather would torment us as he sped through the streets. I remember him side-swiping cars and nearly killing us in the process.

I would cry in the back seat. My mother would plead for him to slow down, and he would laugh dementedly.

By the time the police knocked my door down as a teenager, I was already mentally and emotionally disengaged. That night pushed me over the proverbial cliff.

The shooting robbed me of my peace. The rape robbed me of my identity. My grandpa’s abuse robbed me of a role model and of my confidence. And what the police did to me and my mother robbed me of my sense of security.

l hadn’t so much as jaywalked up until that point. But sometime after, I dropped out of school, started using drugs and continued down a road that led me here, to this Pennsylvania prison.

The shooting robbed me of my peace. The rape robbed me of my identity. My grandpa’s abuse robbed me of a role model and of my confidence. And what the police did to me and my mother robbed me of my sense of security.

I currently run two mental health groups, one for those serving life sentences (including me) and one for the Special Needs Unit. Our conversations address common topics of empathy, coping skills, self-identity and values — issues many people learn, by experience or instruction, early in their lives.

But for these men, some in their 40s, 50s or 60s, it’s as though they are learning foreign concepts they had never encountered in any meaningful way.

This is because of the trauma they’ve faced, and what it robbed from their humanity.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Shawn Harris is a writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania.