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May 7, 2010

War, PTSD, Soldiers, and Prison

Stephen Crowley/NYT

Ever since published With 140,000 Veterans in Prison, We Can Do Better last Veteran’s Day, I have been aware of stories about the links between violence and suffering abroad with violence and suffering within US communities.

Two recent stories have surfaced – one from either side of the Atlantic – which illustrate two common scenarios for men and women returning from service in war or conflict. The first is clinical depression in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; the second is clinical depression in the form of addiction and aggressive behaviors.

New York Times photographer Stephen Crowley visited Mid-Orange Correctional Facility in Warwick, N.Y. to document the Puppies Behind Bars program. The program serves as rehabilitation for inmates in the form of responsibility, “softening up” and purpose in the direct service to outside communities. One of the growing communities to benefit from personally-trained service dogs are America’s war veterans.

But for the dogs, the above image is reminiscent of war photographs throughout the modern era. How many times have we seen marines sat up against a berm or compound-wall catching respite, shade, or sleep? Those moments are of silence, the absence of battle, and solitude in thought or dream. But in this photo, the compositional isolation of the two vets, not engaged, one not even glancing at his dog, is a cue to the social marginalization both vets and prisoners can be subject to on return to society. This photo is included in the New York Times slide show of Crowley’s photographs published in April of this year.

The Times Newspaper (UK) recently published From Hero to Zero reporting the fortunes of three ex-soldiers who have done time in prison. Addiction and aggression issues leading to such incarceration are often the result of either undiagnosed or untreated PTSD.  Estimates of the exact number of military veterans in UK prisons vary wildly and the lack of hard numbers is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for understanding and working to improve the prospects of the veteran/prisoner population. The Times itself notes conflicting estimates of three to eight percent of the British prison population are from British armed forces.

The TIMES Newspaper, UK

The soldier pictured above, former British Army private Michael Clohessy, sleeps with the sword he holds under his pillow. Such an image is likely to set off alarms — many people choose to keep baseball bats under beds for protection, but a sword? This choice of weapon (handguns and rifles are strictly controlled in Britain) speaks to Clohessy’s anxiety and the state-trained violence he took on as a British Army recruit. One can only guess at his exposure to harassment within the UK prison system. And now, pictured stripped of a soldier’s arsenal, Clohessy’s make-do weaponry brings him some solace, perhaps protection, but brings us concern and a troubling glimpse of a life riddled with PTSD.

The title of the Times piece suggests it all – From Hero to Zero. We freely project the character of a person based upon our knowledge of his or her publicly performed actions. But heroes are never heroes, and zeroes are never zeroes; they are stereotypes. Stereotypes are often benign but sometimes damaging and paralyzing to good judgment.

Our prisons are filled with a wide variety of people with a wide variety of faults, competencies, potential, and histories. For the most part, the authorities are aware of this, although there is some question as to public awareness.

Is it in our interest to think of the diversity of populations in prison? Does this affect how we consider prisons and prison reform?

What do we need to see (photography?) – as well as read – to think of prisons in more reflexive ways?

  • Books Alive

    Thanks for this important story. Someone in my circle of friends recently mentioned that a friend of hers has a service dog to help when the friend has an episode of distress. The dog senses when the attack is going to come and is able to calm the woman. I hadn’t thought of dogs being used for this purpose.

    Interestingly, the story you cite is by a graduate of Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. He is the Online Communications Mananger for the Innocence Project. Their website provides much information, for example, the US map showing the numbers of successful releases of wrongfully-incarcerated men. Texas leads with 40, Illinois next with 29, and New York a close 26. The Speakers’ Bureau will arrange for exonerated individuals to speak before groups to spread the word about the success and the need for this program.

    • Pete Brook

      Books Alive, Matt Kelley does consistently great work in communicating to the vast and engaged community at and beyond. I echo your recognition of his work. Matt and I have met in the past; I have written for aswell as here at BAG; and we are allies in the use of new media to raise fast awareness about pressing criminal justice issues. I agree his Monday maps blog posts are immediate, essential, and often shocking! Stay well, stay connected.

  • Malika

    When I listened to the audio track to the New York Times slide show, I was struck by the tone of Major Becker’s voice as he talks about losing “everything else” that he has in the last year and a half of his life. Crowley’s photos reflect this deep under current of disassociation (for both prisoners and vets), even if most of the words in the slide show convey hope. Very powerful piece post, thanks.

    • Pete Brook

      Thanks Malika. I think Crowley’s combination of images and audio interview works very well.

  • psychohistorian

    As someone with a TBI from a bicycle/car crash almost 4 years ago I get very upset at our country when I see stories like this that point to the disservice we are showing to the military that put their lives on the line to “protect” us. It is sickening to read of the percentage of vets in prison that have mental problems that our country hides because it would make war look bad.

    Are we a sick society or what?

    • Pete Brook


      Injury that is not physically manifested – be it mental health complications or executive functioning problems due to brain injury – is difficult for the general public to see or grasp. I have a close family member that works with TBI victims so I have come to appreciate many of the subtle damages with massive consequences that come about through head trauma. But for this family member, I wouldn’t have a a very wide understanding of the issue. I think societies will always need to work toward nuanced understanding of PTSD, TBI, mental health diagnoses.

  • bystander

    What do we need to see (photography?) – as well as read – to think of prisons in more reflexive ways?

    We need to see or read those things that will humanize the people who inhabit those prisons. And, very little of what gets offered does that. We have become so inured to authoritarianism (warrantless surveillance, military commissions instead of civilian trials, the ubiquity of tasers, torture, the notion of presidential authority to assassinate US citizens [see: Greenwald, Glenn]), that we take for granted that everyone alleged to be guilty is guilty, and everyone in prison deserves to be there by being other. And, other ain’t like me.

    • Pete Brook


      To share images with a wider audience is exactly what I endeavour to do with my website Prison Photography.

      Prisons are in many ways one of the greatest challenges to the notion of photography as a social tool to show people “images unseen”. Access is patchy and idiosyncratic.


  • DennisQ

    What is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among returning troops is actually the shock of realizing that they’ve put their lives in considerable danger . . . for nothing.

    These returning troops are more than stressed, they’re infuriated. And The Bag unwittingly contributes to these guys’ legitimate anger by offering a story that suggests that people do care. The idea of prisoners working with dogs which then enable vets to cope is all sorts of fuzzy-wonderful. Who could resist it?

    The lived experience of most returning veterans is quite different. Black veterans go home to being still Black – and unemployed and hopeless. I’ve even heard that veterans who joined the Army to become citizens have been deported. But in all these cases, these veterans were conned into thinking that soldiering in Iraq and Afghanistan serves some vital American purpose. When they come home, they realize they’ve been taken in.

    Instead of PTSD, we should call it NGAS, meaning Nobody Gives A Shit. They act out their depression and anger because they know they’ve been had.

    • Pete Brook


      Due to my personal politics, I have some sympathy for your position. To suggest that soldiers are simultaneously heroes but suckers isn’t a comfortable position for many members of the public though … and yet we know the Iraq War was waged upon a construct of lies.

      It is difficult to gage public feeling toward returning servicemen. In terms of media’s role in telling their stories, I agree there could be more of it. The reasons this piece came about in the first place was due to the unusual occurrence of two stories on veteran-prisoners in the same week.

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