Kerry Fehr-Snyder, The Arizona Republic
The long-term trauma of being held hostage is similar to that
suffered by prisoners of war and combat veterans, experts in
criminology and psychology say.
But former POW John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, is
not so sure. He said the long-term consequences for the two
corrections officers who were held hostage may be even worse than for
those in combat.
"It's hard for me to equate the two situations," he said. McCain
was held captive and tortured for six years during the Vietnam War
after his plane was shot down in 1967.
"When I was in combat . . . I always recognized that (being taken
hostage) was a possibility. When you're in combat, you live with that
possibility every day."
Corrections officers, on the other hand, are not prepared for such
situations, McCain said.
"It's a totally unexpected situation . . . and is extremely
difficult for them and their families," he said. "Every Arizonan's
heart goes out to them. It's a terribly tragic situation."
McCain said it will be difficult for the guards to recover
psychologically. After he was rescued, McCain said, the debriefing he
received was "not as much as you might think. I just wanted to get
Beverly Mirise, a clinical psychologist at St. Joseph's Hospital
and Medical Center, said that the debriefing is a tricky endeavor
that involves special skills.
"Sometimes with bad debriefing, you can do more harm than good,"
Still, she acknowledges that despite the best efforts, the guards
face "a greater-than-average risk of suffering psychological effects
days, weeks, months or years later."
First and foremost among them, she said, would be post-traumatic
stress disorder, which affected many but not all Vietnam veterans
returning from the war.
The ordeal of being held hostage also can lead to the Stockholm
syndrome, named for four Swedes who became sympathetic to their
captors after being held captive for six days in a bank vault. It is
considered a common survival technique for people.
Psychologists have speculated that Elizabeth Smart may have done
that when she was kidnapped at gunpoint from her home in Salt Lake
City. Heiress Patricia Hearst, who participated in a 1974 bank
robbery with her kidnappers, is cited as another example.
Mirise said she would not rule out the syndrome in this case,
especially for the female officer, because she might have believed
the inmates showed compassion by releasing the injured male officer
"She may . . . develop some sympathy for them" depending on
whether she was kept by herself, in isolation and socially isolated
during the standoff.
The syndrome was first studied after World War II in connection
with Nazi concentration camps. At the time, it was called
"identification with aggressor."
"It is a survival mechanism," Mirise said. "If under threat, you
will do whatever it will take to survive."
In the Stockholm bank robbery, captors held guns to the hostages'
heads and even strapped explosives around their waists. But after the
ordeal, some hostages testified on behalf of their captors and even
raised money for their legal defense. The hostages were not able to
explain why they displayed a strange association with their captors,
identifying with them while fearing those who sought to end their
Mirise called it a "mental aberration."
But criminologist Jack Levin, director of the B. Rudnick Center on
Violence at Northeastern University in Boston, said it is unlikely
the corrections officers at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis
were sympathizing with their captors, both of whom are violent
criminals housed in a high-security unit. They seized a watchtower
Jan. 18 after a melee in a prison kitchen and took the officers
The drama ended Sunday when the final officer was released and the
two inmates surrendered.
"It's not like she didn't know the living conditions there," Levin
said of the female officer, who was held the longest. "It's not like
she would have some kind of revelation, some kind of epiphany."
Mirise said that at this point it is really difficult to know
whether the officers will develop psychological problems.
"It probably has a lot of do with one's own physiological makeup,
temperament, biology," Mirise said. "It's difficult to assess how she
(the female guard) will fare."
Northeastern's Levin was not optimistic about the crisis
triggering long-term change in the prison's funding or staffing,
problems shared with prisons nationwide.
"There are dozens of riots in prisons every year, but we in the
public couldn't care less," he said.
"We dehumanize the prisoners. We put them behind bars, we lock
them up and throw away the key."
Levin predicted the public will quickly shift its attention.
"Americans respond to extraordinary events," he said. "When
Elizabeth Smart was snatched out of her bed, we get the Amber Alert.
When 13 people were killed at Columbine, we get more programs against
bullying. After 9/11, we get the Patriot Act.
"But I'm not optimistic that people will want to spend economic
resources on something they really don't care about."