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What is post-incarceration syndrome? Ohio researcher calls for recognition of mental condition

Chazidy Bowman Robinson headshot
Chazidy Bowman Robinson

Chazidy Robinson's journey into criminal justice reform began in 2018, fueled by her personal experiences as the former spouse of an incarcerated man.

Robinson is now a researcher and advocate. She's part of a movement to formalize a diagnosis for the struggle that he and many other system-impacted people go through.

The name is post-incarceration syndrome

The term refers to a wide range of psychological, emotional, and social difficulties that can arise after being imprisoned. This can include anything from post-traumatic stress, to depression and anxiety, to relationship issues, and more.

Robinson, executive director of the SOAR 4031 Foundation, sat down with ComVox Producer Mary Evans and shared about why this illness is important to her, and the importance of being properly diagnosed while inside and when leaving prison.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mary Evans: How did you start this advocacy work and what made you so passionate about caring and advocating for system impacted people?

Chazidy Bowman Robinson: My advocacy work in the space of incarceration began in 2016, when I met my then husband who was incarcerated. I met him, he was already doing a year into his nine year sentence, and we had this beautiful love story of that.

He was incarcerated, and I had no idea that prison was even like this. Not to say that I had not been affected by incarceration, it just didn't affect me personally.

And so when I met him and I started going to visit, just being in a relationship with someone and it became personal for me.

And I was just wondering, did everybody else in the world realize that these things were happening to people? It became a personal quest for me.

I come from the world of advocacy. I guess I could say I was born into it. My mother, she was a laborer and she built bridges, and she worked construction in the '80s when women were not supposed to hold those positions, and Black women weren't supposed to hold those positions.

The American Psychological Association reported mental illness affects 64% of people in jail, 54% of people in state prison and 45% in federal prison.

And so I was taught from a very young age that black men in coal mining and being raised on picket lines and in union halls and fighting for your rights, when I thought it was boring and I really wanted to go home, but it was it was really being taught to me how to fight for equality at a very, very young age.

And so meeting my husband and going through an eight-and-a-half year journey just made me realize that this is my true purpose in life, is to really be a voice for people who don't have one.

Mary Evans: You've been working with the University of Cincinnati to work on a diagnosis to be put in the ICD-10. And for those who don't know, ICD-10 is a medical book where all the medical diagnosis lie. So if you go to the doctor and you get a medical bill and it has this number with the decimal, usually that's a code for whatever the diagnosis is.

So you've been doing this research with the University of Cincinnati. And could you tell me a little bit more about that?

Robinson: In 2023, my husband was scheduled to get out of prison. And in 2018, it just really kind of dawned on me, like, he's getting out.

And I'm going to different conferences. I'm in a lot of spaces where they're talking about criminal justice and restorative justice, but I didn't really hear anything that was telling me how to acclimate him into my home and what mental health look like. I wasn't hearing it.

And when I was asking these questions, I wasn't getting any answers, and that bothered because I was concerned, because I was in spaces with other women, and I was listening to these horror stories about when their loved ones were coming home, while I was also watching shows on TV, like 'Love after Lock Up' and they were glamorizing my life that I know didn't look like that.

Or I was in groups about prison wives and they were glamorized and being with someone who was incarcerated, but no one was telling me what to do.

I began this quest about how do I deal with him? How do we deal with these men and these women when they come home? How do the children deal with their parents? How do we do this?

Formerly incarcerated people are commonly diagnosed with one of the five disorders:
- Institutionalized Personality Traits

- Post-traumatic stress disorder

- Antisocial personality traits

- Social sensory deprivation syndrome

- Substance abuse disorder

These are the main components of post-incarceration syndrome.

And so I come across a man by the name of Terrence Gorski, and he was talking about post incarceration syndrome. And it was the only thing that made sense to me.

It was the only thing that I could really relate to was one where I was dealing with, and one that I felt like was spoke to the things that I was hearing, other people who were like me and what I felt like relate to my husband about the traumas that he was dealing with and the psychological issues that he was going through, and what other people that had came from was going through.

In 2021, I spoke at University of Cincinnati about it. I was speaking about mental health and D. Rachel Nolan. She pulled me to the side. She said, "hey, do you want to do a research study around this? Because I think we should talk more about it" because nobody was talking about it.

We formed a focus group compiled of formerly incarcerated people, incarcerated people, their support group, and whatever that look like, whether it be a child, a mom, a significant other. And we just form these questions and put this research study together. We have been running these research studies around post-incarceration syndrome, and the idea is to get it deemed as a disorder so that people who are coming home from incarceration 1) can really have something to identify with 2) can get diagnosed properly with the traumas of incarceration, and 3) can identify the triggers that trigger them and they can reintegrate back into society, into the home place, in a proper way.

Evans: For how much longer in the research process do you think you guys will be in before that actually becomes a diagnosis?

Robinson: With our approach, I don't want to say we have a long way to go, I feel like it's going to go a lot faster than what we anticipate.

So one story before we go.

Last night, I had a gentleman who is one of our clients. He drove all the way to my house from Dayton and he said, "Listen, I don't want to go back to selling drugs. I just did 15 years. I'm working and two and a half jobs. I just need you to help me think through in my mind: How do I make this stop in my brain? How do I make my thoughts become clear? I don't want to go back to what I was doing. How do I make it stop?"

And I'm just asking like, what do you hear? What is it that your support system is doing? What is it that I'm doing that they're not?

He said that "they can't understand what I'm hearing. I hear it, I hear the keys, I smell the metal. And I'm trying to tell them. And they see me and they only see me, but you see me." And that's the part that we are trying to get in the community and trying to get families to educate families and get you to understand. You see your husband, you see your boyfriend, you see them physically, but inside that's a whole different person. And you have to learn who that person is and you have to hear them when they're talking to you.

To learn more visit picsisreal.org

Mary Evans is a Dayton, Ohio-based activist, abolitionist, and journalist. She holds a BA in the Business of Interdisciplinary Media Arts from Antioch College. In 2022 she was awarded the Bob and Norma Ross Outstanding Leadership Award at the 71st Dayton NAACP Hall of Freedom Awards. She has been a Community Voices producer at WYSO since 2018. Her projects include: Re Entry Stories, a series giving space to system-impacted individuals and West Dayton Stories, a community-based story-telling project centered on the people and places of Dayton’s vibrant West Side. Mary is also the co-founder of the Journalism Lab and helps folks in the Miami Valley that are interested in freelance journalism reach some of their reporting goals.