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Letter: Incarceration has a traumatic impact on entire family

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Detainees transported from Medium Security Institution, the city jail commonly known as the workhouse

"Hey, we going downtown," yells one detainee as sheriff's deputies transfer a group of detainees into buses and a van that departed the Medium Security Institution, the city jail commonly known as the workhouse, and brought them to the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis on Thursday, June 17, 2021. Photo by David Carson,


Regarding Tony Messenger's column "Old West prison contains lessons for broken criminal justice system" (Jan. 7): The injustices of our criminal justice system are perpetrated not only against those imprisoned but for family members as well. We wind up creating a generation of children who grow up to be societal problems.

Incarceration of a family member is one of the 10 adverse childhood experiences described by Felitti et al. in their groundbreaking article, “The Adverse Childhood Experiences” study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 1989. Family members, especially the young, are traumatized by incarceration of a family member and can go on to have a great many problems.

Medically, the consequences include neurological, memory and anger issues, hallucinations, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, somatic disorders and flashbacks. They can produce adverse adult behaviors including substance abuse, mental health issues, obesity, suicide attempts, self-injury, sexual promiscuity, dissociation, perpetration of domestic violence and repetition of the original trauma.

Socially, they can lead to homelessness, prostitution, violence, criminal behavior, inability to sustain employment, re-victimization, including rape and domestic violence, long-term dependence on social services and an inability to parent. Poor parenting can contribute to the cycle of self-perpetuating, intergenerational trauma.

These childhood traumas can also shorten a life span by 20 to 25 years. Further, those most and disproportionately affected are members of marginalized communities, primarily African Americans.

We need to rethink and reform our criminal justice system, not only for those incarcerated but for their families and for ourselves. The sooner we do so, the better.

Terry Weiss, M.D. • St. Louis 

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