Trevor is 61 years old. He lights fires when he’s drunk. He has 17 convictions for arson but is usually so drunk when he sets fire to something, he doesn’t even remember doing it. His lawyer asked me to conduct an alcohol and drug assessment on him late last year after yet another arson conviction.
Trevor’s mother was an alcoholic. As he was growing up, his parents fought and argued finally splitting up when he was just seven. During the conflict and confusion, Trevor was shunted between his parent’s homes before they both gave up on him and put him into the care of the state – at the age of nine. Over the next few years he lived in half a dozen foster homes, occasionally going back to stay with his mother for a few months, before she kicked him out yet again. He started drinking when he was 12.
Not surprisingly Trevor grew up feeling anxious and insecure. At age 16, he was sent to Lake Alice hospital where he was given shock treatment. That really pissed him off and a couple of days later, he set fire to his bed. That was the first one. Two years later, he ended up in prison – where he was repeatedly raped by an older prisoner. The abuse went on for three years. By the time he got out at the age of 21, Trevor was suicidal, filled with rage and didn’t trust anyone. He was deeply, deeply disturbed.
As soon as he got out of prison Trevor started drinking. He’s been in and out of prison ever since – 15 times to be precise. He drinks, generally commits some petty offence, lights another fire and watches it burn. That’s when the police come and arrest him. At the age of 61, he now has over 100 convictions and has spent 35 of the last 40 years in prison. He has no friends, no support in the community and says he feels safer in prison.
Each time he ends up in court, the judge usually wants to know why he lights fires – and they wonder if he’s insane. Sometimes an enlightened judge orders a psychiatric assessment. Just before I saw him in 2013, Trevor had been interviewed by a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist. I read the reports. They both decided he wasn’t insane – but neither of them made a diagnosis. They didn’t seem to know what was wrong with him.
I think I know what’s wrong with Trevor. In my opinion, he has Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is an enduring version of PTSD which results from prolonged exposure to interpersonal trauma. The trauma is exacerbated when it occurs in the context of captivity or entrapment and affects the development of the victim’s thinking and personality. Individuals with complex-PTSD generally experience a profound sense of emptiness, chronically low mood and social isolation – combined with intense anger and rage.
At the age of 61, Trevor experiences all of these and still thinks about what has happened to him every day. But he is polite and articulate. Talking about his life in a calm manner, he simply said: “What a lot or people have done to me is unforgiveable.” But when he gets out of prison, he drinks to help him forget about it. He lights fires when he’s drunk because that’s what he learnt to do at age 16 when he was disempowered, lonely and distressed. These days, it returns him to the safety of prison.
Trevor has now spent 35 years inside. During this time, he has never even been diagnosed with PTSD let alone had had any counselling or treatment for it. The psychologist who interviewed him in 2013 wrote:
“Mr Xxx was interested in receiving therapy with regard to his angry feelings, attachment issues and sexual abuse. Sexual abuse victimisation can be addressed by ACC sensitive claims. Therapy in these areas is likely to reduce his risk of reoffending.”
In my report to the court, I wrote:
“The Department should have provided counselling for Mr Xxx’s childhood trauma 40 years ago. Having then allowed him to be raped and abused in prison, the Department should have provided therapy every time he subsequently ended up in prison. If it had, it is possible Mr Xxx would no longer need to anesthetize himself with alcohol every time he gets out.”
The cost of insanity
Trevor is far from insane. He has both insight and intelligence. He knows he’s an alcoholic; he knows he lights fires when he’s drunk and he knows that makes him a risk to society. He also understands that society has to be protected from someone like him. He even knows the system sucks and he’s not going to get any help in prison. He told me the Corrections Department doesn’t have the resources to provide him with a psychologist to actually try and help him.
He’s absolutely right about not getting any help. But he’s dead wrong about the resources. It costs the taxpayer $100,000 a year to keep someone in prison. After 35 years, the Department has already spent $3.5 million just locking him up. If he lives another ten years and spends most of that in prison, Corrections will spend another $1 million on him before he dies. So you can’t tell me they haven’t got the resources to help him – it’s the system that’s insane, not Mr Xxx.