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Five and a Half Years Personal Experience Leads ASU Professor to Write Book About PTSS in Prisoners

Aug. 28, 2012. Daniel Murphy tells people he has two Ph.Ds. One is a Ph. D. from Iowa State University. The other is what he calls a small ph.d. – a prison house diploma.

Murphy served five and a half years in a maximum security federal prison for trying to grow medical marijuana when he was in his mid-30s. He had worked as an environmental law consultant specializing in Superfund landfill cases prior to his arrest. That experience led him to pursue a master’s and doctorate degree with an academic focus on criminology, health care in prisons and post-traumatic stress related to the prison experience.

Murphy is an associate professor in the Department of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University where he teaches courses on introduction to criminal justice, corrections and criminal justice theory. He has been a member of the faculty since 2003.

“I am in the unique position of talking from both sides of the razor wire – from living the experience and from the applied pursuit of knowledge,” Murphy said.

His most recent publication, “Corrections and Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms,” examines the relationship of pre-prison experiences and adjustment to prison as well as the relationship between prison experiences and post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS). It was written for prison and governmental policy makers as well as prison administrators, criminologists and professionals in the criminal justice field.

“The motivating factor behind this book is my personal experience,” said Murphy, who said he developed post-traumatic stress disorder while in prison. “The very nature of prison is conducive to the variables that can lead to post-traumatic stress.” 

Murphy surveyed 208 inmates from a Mid-western state six months or less following their release about their experiences prior to incarceration and in prison, and how factors such as their age when first arrested and first imprisoned, education and pre-prison criminal behavior contributed to or mitigated post-traumatic stress. 

“More than 50 percent of people in prison today are first-time, non-violent offenders who know nothing about living the convict code,” he said. “Prison is a subculture unto itself. It’s a society with its own language, its own economy, its own norms, values, rules and regulations above and beyond the official rules of the warden and the system.” The nuances of the convict code are so vast that they would be impossible to document, Murphy said.

Events that occur almost every day in prison can lead to post traumatic stress symptoms, from the hyper fear of being assaulted, being a victim of assault or witnessing assaults, Murphy said. “There is no autonomy, no decision making, other than the rules of the convict code. This institutionalization in which you become part of the prison culture is another aspect that adds to post-traumatic stress,” he said.

By recognizing when a prisoner begins to show signs of post-traumatic stress and understanding the problems that can arise when someone enters prison suffering from PTSS, steps might be taken to reduce the recidivism rate of prisoners and lead to their successful reintegration into society, Murphy said.

He advocates for intervention programs for prisoners who are developing PTSS and post-prison programs to help those released from prison better cope with the stress, anxiety, fright and painful memories related to their prison experience. 

“With the change in economy and a change in prison philosophy to the reintegration of prisoners into society, we need to identify those who have post-traumatic stress symptoms, we can set up programs to assist them while in prison and mitigate their reentry process,” Murphy said. “That could increase the likelihood that they will successfully reintegrate into society and decrease the likelihood that they will be repeat offenders.”

Murphy’s research interests include an analysis of the prison experience and health care behind bars. His articles and research have been published in peer-reviewed academic journals including The Prison Journal, Journal of Criminal Justice Education, The Journal of Offender Rehabilitation and Justice Quarterly.