A visual testimony to countless tales of trauma

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VINELAND — Inside of the Saint John Paul II Retreat Center here, colored T-shirts hung on clotheslines, with each color representing a different form of trauma.

This visual display at the Camden Diocesan Prison Ministry Conference was part of an initiative called The Clothesline Project. Marsha Smith, a social worker at Camden County Correctional Facility and director of the Second Chance Program at the jail, said the project “bears witness to those who are incarcerated and struggle to break free of the violence they have endured.”

This violence, she explained, is a critical component of their risk factors for incarceration and significantly impacts their recidivism. 

When offered the opportunity to visually create a display with a message of their choosing in order to “break the silence,” pains from the past surfaced as dark as the ink scrawled across each T-shirt. 

“I was left alone with my uncle, a monster,” read one. “No one believed me before,” read other.

Smith explained, “Many of these men and women have undergone trauma, and that must not be ignored because they are behind bars. Most have never told anyone about violence and trauma that they’ve faced, but you can see it right across their faces. By giving them a chance to be heard, they are also confronting what they’ve endured, which is taking a step toward healing from their pasts and setting their sights on the future.”

Conference attendees silently made their way around the room, reading the message on each T-shirt. Not all of the messages were somber. “My struggle is not my identity, God is with me,” read one expression.

Statistics show a grim picture of the correlation between trauma, incarceration and recidivism. The prevalence of severe mental disorders, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder related to childhood trauma, are significantly higher in incarcerated individuals. And a Bureau of Justice Statistic study found that inmates released from state prisons have a five-year recidivism rate of 76.6%.