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Home  >  Topics  >  SWAT

February 02, 2004
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Hostages Often Face Lasting Psychological Effects

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 home."

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," Mirise said.

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 earlier.

"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 captivity.

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 hostage.

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."






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