The US Legal System Provokes Anxiety

The more I work with people involved in the criminal justice system, the more I witness and understand the profound affects of anxiety. I have heard many anxious provoking thoughts while clients are returning home from federal prison or as they are facing potential incarceration: “what if my family isn’t excited to see me”, “what if go back to the same thing”, “I don’t think I can do this”, “I’d rather be back in prison, it was easier”, “if I go to prison, who’s going to provide and take care of them”. There are no comforting words that can be said as one is experiencing these thoughts, particularly with the realm of the unknown looming. 

“I don’t think I can do this”

There are many opinions I hear regularly from people who have never been in their shoes, including “they have placed themselves in these situations”  or “they should have considered these things prior to committing a crime or being around the wrong people”. Maybe you are right. Or maybe their lifes were more complex and different than your experiences. Either way, these thoughts do not stop their anxiety from appearing or increasing. 

Consider the stress related issues for someone during pretrial. The sheer fear of not knowing what to expect concerning their case. Even if one has an effective and knowledgeable lawyer, no amount of assurance can be given when there are well known injustices associated with the US  legal system. In addition, the news may have a impact on the relationship with a current or potential professional and personal relationship(s). One would expect stress levels to be at an all time high during this time.

Even if one has an effective and knowledgeable lawyer, no amount of assurance can be given when there are well known injustices associated with the US  legal system.

Outside of criminal case related stressors, normal day to day issues can appear during this time period. There can be a multitude of family conflicts, preexisting mental health or medical issues, or any other issues. People who are not engaged in the criminal justice system usually encounter these problems with intense emotions, what if you were facing incarcerated, were actually confined, or recently released with some or all of these issues?

In addition to anxious thoughts increasing before and during trial, consider the stressors related to being incarcerated. The fear of being unable to spend time with family and friends. Or the limited time frame given to speak and inquire about the well being of loved ones. The inability to be present for milestones or for those who have passed away, because not everyone has the opportunity to go on furloughs and attend funerals even if the person is regarded as a immediate family member. Lastly, the ongoing fear of being treated unfairly, harshly, or even abusively with a limited voice to advocate for yourself can influence unshakable fear and trauma, which tends to linger well after one is released from incarceration.

One may believe life after incarceration is easier, because they do not have to worry about being confined  any longer, right?! Wrong. For some, this maybe the scariest part of their involvement with the criminal justice system. This is where family/friends,  substance use/mental health/medical issues, restrictions/requirements of probation, previous associates, employment, housing, medical, and a host of other task must be completed and addressed. If there is limited assistance and/or resources after being released from jail/prison, gaining access may become extremely difficult.

For someone who obtained a masters degree, developed a community network, and is aware of many resources; it is still difficult to navigate these resources, particularly due to housing and employment barriers. The most resistance and difficulty I find is not within my clients, but with the other professionals I have engaged with throughout my career . As a current social worker, I am aware of the barriers that exist. At times I become frustrated with attempting to navigate these barriers as someone who is well connected and knowledgeable about resources. Imagine the frustration and confusion of those with limited knowledge of how to access these resources, especially if the professionals they must interact with are the ones creating the barriers.

Imagine the frustration and confusion of those with limited knowledge of how to access these resources, especially if the professionals they must interact with are the ones creating the barriers.

The fears that surround being involved within the system is frightening for someone with limited interaction, especially for people of color. Think about the shared experience of the mini panic attack being described when law enforcement drives behind someone, even when they are doing the speed limit and engaging in no illegal activity. Picture having a previouus conviction and how this may influence one’s thoughts when facing as simple as a driving violation. Whether someone has obtained a misdemeanor or felony or is involve with the criminal justice system at any stage, the influence of anxiety is apparent and it appears to be increasing in my opinion. Particularly if one has a felony or “scarlet letter”, which depicts how the convictions looms over them influencing their relationships, employment, education, housing, etc.

Challenge: What thoughts or biases you have about people involved in the criminal justice system? What ways can you create a more inclusive space for them?

Call To Action: Write to your legislators about the excessive amount of housing, education, and employment barriers that exist in Ohio. Ask them how they are seeking to decrease or eliminate those barriers.

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