Rabb graduates from the Pivot program after his release from prison. He stands between Alyssa Lovegrove, academic director of the Pivot Program and the managing director Josh Miller. Photo: Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business

Trauma’s role in justice

Released, one man reflects on trauma’s role in his criminal justice journey

By Yusef Rabb
By Yusef Rabb

Rabb is from Washington, D.C. where he works as a consultant and educator with multiple re-entry programs.

On May 9, 1991, I entered the judicial system as an 18-year-old man-child from South East Washington, D.C . 1991 was one of the more volatile years in what was called the crack-era. As a young man, I was trapped in an environment where, before my young mind could recover from one traumatic experience, I was faced with another. I began losing playmates at 15-years-old. My homie Boo got shot by an adult in the backs of his legs, his back, and then point blank in the back of his head. The head shot left his mouth twisted. Forget about broken homes, this intergenerational drama broke a community. To survive I had to become hyper-vigilant towards anyone or anything that could prevent me from making it home each night so that my family could still their worries.

They treated me as my prison jacket instead of me.

On that day in 1991, I was falsely accused of murder. Despite my plea of innocence, at 18-years-old, I was ushered into the adult system and sentenced to 26 years to life. To my amazement, I encountered waves of people who had obviously shared most of my traumatic life experiences in prison. This helped me to conceptualize my initial overwhelming feeling of woe. Therapy came by way of my shared experiences in prison with other vetted prisoners. Each of my experiences with prison psychologists was very distrustful. 


They treated me as my prison jacket instead of me. I also found myself associating their help with the unnecessary administration of compliance inducing drugs. It was always traumatic to have to see them, which was usually during intake. On the intake form there is an emphasis on suicide. Being trapped within a system that seemed so expectant of trauma is still traumatic for me. The safe spaces for me were through the mutual discovery and support that many were experiencing much worse than me which helped strengthen my resolve. In a concentrated sea of despair, I no longer felt hopelessness approaching it – it lived with us. I found a way to dilute my trauma through sharing in others’ stories. After discovering rather quickly that many people were illiterate, I found an opportunity to connect. I read motions, legal mail, and letters from loved ones with my guys. This mutual sharing bonded us. Writing and reading is still the way I deal with my trauma


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