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We Could All Be in the Circle: How Adverse Childhood Experiences Can Contribute to Incarceration

When we think about people who are behind bars for crimes simple or heinous, our minds take us to a place of judgment. We may view inmates as less than: less intelligent, less successful, less worthy of love and support. We may see them as “other.” The reality is, we may all be a few experiences away from potentially committing a crime.

A video that poignantly highlights the dynamics that could lead to incarceration is called Step Inside the Circle. It begins with a group of 235 men in blue uniforms in a yard of a maximum-security prison. Barbed wire and guards surround them. They tower over a petite blond woman wearing a black and white t-shirt that says There Is No Shame. She carries a megaphone through which she invites them to step inside the circle if they have experienced verbal or physical abuse and neglect, if they lived in a home without feeling loved, if they had given up on themselves. One by one and then in multitudes, they join Fritzi Horstman as together they chant “There is no shame,” over and over.

Horstman is a Grammy Award winning filmmaker and founder of the Compassion Prison Project who endeavors to offer those who might feel like throwaways a way out of the darkness of shame and self-deprecation. Many of these ‘tough guys,’ some with multiple tattoos, scars and wounds that can’t be seen, dissolve into tears.

A group of them move indoors and sit in a circle of chairs with Horstman admitting her own wounds that led to criminal activity. She was physically abused by her mother who she describes as a rageaholic, her father was an alcoholic, and she had been sexually abused by someone she didn’t identify. Because she was white and female, she says, she escaped the fate that they couldn’t. That opened the door for the participants to describe the wounds they have carried for much of their lives. One acknowledged being a traumatized child raised by a traumatized child. Another shared that he was unwanted and that his mother had hidden her pregnancy and when he was born, tried to flush him down the toilet. The other men were visibly moved, some wiping their eyes, some providing brotherly support and admitted that they were breaking the code by being vulnerable, claiming their trauma history. They discovered that it was a unifying experience and they felt less isolated as a result.

Looking at the faces of those in the circle, they were disproportionally Black or Latino. A few White men sat among their peers. Statistically, 1 in 3 black men and 1 in 6 Latino men is likely to spend time in prison in their lifetime, as compared to 1 in 17 white men.

ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) was the common thread that wove through the lives of these men many of whom are likely to someday re-enter society as returning citizens. Unless it is addressed and the affects treated therapeutically and compassionately, the wounds are likely to deepen, and recidivism is almost a certainty.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, ACE is defined as:

“potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years).

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For example:

  • experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect
  • witnessing violence in the home or community
  • having a family member attempt or die by suicide

Also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding such as growing up in a household with:

  • substance misuse
  • mental health problems
  • instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison”

ACEs impact on the lives of the survivors in a multitude of ways that include poor self-image, addiction, self-injury, depression, anxiety, risk taking behaviors, suicide attempts, eating disorders, difficulty formulating healthy relationships, perpetrating against others as they were preyed upon, and other forms of criminal activity.

A study was done by Kaiser Permanente and the CDC that resulted in a clear correlation between ACEs and violent and criminal behavior, stating, in one part of the study, “These results, which strongly link a history of sexual abuse to violence—inclusive of sexual violence—later in life, echo the results of meta-analytic research, which found that adult male sexual offenders were more than 3 times as likely to have had histories of sexual abuse in their childhoods, compared with a nonsexual (but criminal) comparison group.”

Ways to ameliorate the impact include:

  • Education about ACEs and their repercussions
  • Learn self-compassion
  • Address the trauma with a competent therapist
  • Work within family systems to evoke change in dynamics
  • Seek and receive career support to lift the person out of the poverty that may have contributed to the circumstances.
  • Addiction treatment and 12 Step meetings (available on-line as well as in person)
  • Reminders that the person can break the cycle of abuse and addiction
  • Peer support groups such as New Beginnings/Next Step
  • Journal about the experiences and then re-scripting the narrative about the life story
  • Meditation
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Remember the saying “I have survived everything that has ever happened in my life.”
  • Trauma Informed Yoga
  • Learn your signs of fight, flight or freeze mode
  • Choose healthy role models
  • Take a leadership role in the lives of others who are survivors of childhood trauma
  • Talk to survivors who have become thrivers
  • Know that you can make a fresh start

Your history is not your destiny.

We Could All Be in the Circle: How Adverse Childhood Experiences Can Contribute to Incarceration

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2020). We Could All Be in the Circle: How Adverse Childhood Experiences Can Contribute to Incarceration. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Apr 2020 (Originally: 19 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Apr 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.