Earlier this month, I spoke to Canadian Senators from the Human Rights Committee. I shared what 20 years in the provincial and federal correctional systems have taught me.

Other speakers, in previous hearings, had presented their positions about particular concerns or in the interests of specific groups they were advocating for. I chose to speak about the need for education of staff in correctional settings on the damage that trauma in early life can have on physiological and psychological development, in particular, the brains growth and maturity process.

It is vital to understand that early adversity will shape the behaviours and lifestyle choices of individuals throughout their lifespan. I began with the following quote that describes trauma:

“Traumatic events breach attachments of family, friendship, love and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis,” from the book Trauma and Recovery by J.L. Herman.

Trauma-informed practice does not excuse anti-social behaviour, but it explains why people can be resistant, impulsive, un-motivated, seek immediate gratification and other behaviours of concern.

There is a connection between early adversity and mental health issues, addiction and diseases such as cancer. For more information on this visit ACE.org to see the substantial research on the Adverse Childhood Experiences study.

I was advocating for a Trauma Sensitive Correctional System, that would open the system to concern for all of the special groups, interests and issues that had been discussed. A Senator asked me two questions: What it would take to achieve this, and how I would go about that process?

The answer to the first question is transformational systemic change, which is no small order. It does not lie in new laws or policy changes. I have observed massive shifts in prison culture with a change in government, almost overnight, when the rhetoric of “tough on crime” and harder sentences are used to mobilize the fears of people to increase voter support.

Human beings are susceptible to a negativity bias that causes them to engage when they perceive their safety is in question. The fact that research over decades has proven that harsher sentences do nothing to prevent future criminal behaviour is of little concern: punishment is the answer.

This rhetoric gives license to those in the system who enjoy power-over and punitive approaches.

Transformational change will begin with strong leadership, as we educate new and old staff alike, and most significantly we must challenge the punitive behaviours of staff that are not allowed under the Commissioners Directives or the Correctional and Conditional Release Act.

It will grow as we educate the students of today who will be the professionals in the future who interact with prisoners as officers, nursing staff, teachers, social workers and so forth.

Dr. Alison Granger-Brown is a business administration instructor in University Canada West’s MBA program. She is also an expert in the custody and care of prisoners, who have experienced childhood trauma.