The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

The Intersection of Traumatic and Stressful Life Experiences, Social Context, and Current Subjective Experiences among Older Adults in Prison

Sunday, January 20, 2013: 8:45 AM
Nautilus 5 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Deborah M. Courtney, LMSW, MA, Doctoral Candidate, Adjunct Professor, Fordham University, New York, NY
Tina Maschi, PhD, Assistant Professor, Fordham University, New York, NY
Purpose:  Research shows that youth and adults in the criminal justice system report a high prevalence of traumatic experiences. However, there is a gap in the literature addressing incarcerated older adults’ experiences of trauma, both historically through the course of their lifetime and the current distress related to such experiences.  Untreated trauma has been shown to be linked to decreased mental and physical health, decreased well-being, and increased recidivism rates. Furthermore, the potential re-traumatization from ongoing challenges and stressors faced by aging prisoners while incarcerated presents a number of social justice and human rights issues.  All of these factors support the importance of the current study, which attempts to address this gap in the literature.  Specifically, this study hypothesized that there is a high prevalence of trauma in this aging prisoner population, and that traumas that occurred in their past continue to have a negative impact on well-being. 

Method: This study utilized a cross sectional correlation design with existing data from a 2010 major study on older adults in a northeastern state’s prison system. Particularly, 667 aging prisoners, with a mean age of 56.5, completed an anonymous self-report, self-administered survey.  The Life Stressors Checklist-Revised (LSC-R) was used to measure both objective and subjective cumulative trauma.

Results: As hypothesized, a large majority of the participants (approximately 70%) have experienced a traumatic or stressful life experience, with many reporting multiple traumatic experiences. About half of the participants reported intimate violence first occurring in childhood.  In particular, 48% of participants witnessed family violence before the age of 16, with a mean age onset of 9.3 (sd=5.9).  The evidence also shows other significant childhood victimization experiences before the age of 16, including being physically attacked (34%), being inappropriately sexually touched (22%), being sexually assaulted (19%), and neglected (18%). Such direct victimization appeared to have the strongest lingering subjective affect, with higher subjective bothered scores, as compared to indirect witnessing of events.  The majority (between 60 and 75%) reported being moderately to extremely bothered within the past year by any one of the following direct victimization experiences; childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, being in war or combat, or being tortured or kidnapped. 

Implications: This data provide evidence that there is a high prevalence of traumatic experiences among aging prisoners.  Moreover, traumatic experiences can continue to result in personal distress many years down the line.  These findings support the importance of assessment and intervention strategies that are trauma-informed. It is imperative for the lens in which we view this population to shift from solely criminal justice to incorporate the following: mental health, psychology, social services, gerentological social work, social justice and spirituality.