A Prison Warden's Victory Over PTSD

After years in the military and law enforcement, he opened up about his struggles with trauma and learned that God was listening

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Posted in , Mar 31, 2022

Randall Liberty; photo by Katye Martens Brier

The heavy steel doors clanged shut behind me. In front of me were row upon row of cells holding the most hard­ened criminals in the state. I felt them staring at me, sizing me up. What they didn’t know was that I’d been here before.

The first time I’d set foot in Maine State Prison, I was seven years old, visiting my father, who was serv­ing time for burglary. For many years, I’d told myself I was different from him, from the 900 men imprisoned here. But now, walking in on my first day as warden, I knew there was a lot we had in common.

I too had grown up desperately poor. Plastic had covered the broken windows of our trailer, useless against the bitter Maine cold. One winter, due to frozen pipes, we went without wa­ter. A $200-a-month welfare payment had to cover all our expenses, includ­ing feeding four boys. I was the second oldest.

Dad never swore at us kids or hit us. But he was more interested in drinking and carousing than holding down a job. If there wasn’t money for something, he’d steal it. He was in and out of jail.

He had epic fights with Mom. She held the family together. When Dad was in prison, we piled into the car and made the hour-and-a-half drive every week to visit him. He hugged us and told us he loved us, but there was no fatherly advice, no admonitions not to follow in his footsteps.

The Christmas I was seven, an inmate dressed up as Santa, and my older brother, Ron, and I sat on his lap. A photographer took our picture, and I held on to it.

I loved my parents. But there was no point in crying to them about how hard life was. I just had to suck it up. Not even God wanted to hear how I felt.

I’d been taught that my Heav­enly Father loved me, but I saw that he helped those who helped them­selves. People like Ron, who left home in ninth grade. He joined the Army, the military police. He visited me my se­nior year of high school, pulling up in a new Ford EXP sports car. What a way to escape a life of poverty! I enlisted at 18 and, like Ron, became an MP.

 

I served as a military policeman at a U.S. Army prison in Kansas. I didn’t look down on the prisoners. They’d made bad choices; this was the conse­quence. In the early 1980s, contribut­ing factors like mental illness, addic­tion and PTSD weren’t talked about.

After three years, I transitioned to the Reserves and came home to Maine. I got hired as a corrections of­ficer in Somerset County, where I’d grown up. Once I even guarded my dad. He badgered me for favors, like hot water for his coffee.

“I can’t do that,” I told him. “It’s your fault you’re in here, not mine.”

“C’mon,” he said. “I’m your dad.”

I didn’t bend. I couldn’t make excep­tions for prisoners. Besides, incarcera­tion was meant to be a punishment.

Over the next 20 years, I rose through the ranks, working as a rescue diver, K-9 handler, drug investigator. I loved the adrena­line rush of law enforcement. Busting down doors. Searching for drowning victims—including 19 I recovered too late to save.

That threw me. But I couldn’t dwell on it. I’d been pro­moted to chief deputy of Kennebec County. There was no place for feel­ings. If you showed any sign of pain or weakness, you put lives at risk, includ­ing your own.

That was a message I drilled into the men under my command in the Army Reserves. In 2004, my unit deployed to Iraq. I took a leave from my job, said goodbye to my family. “I’ll be back before you know it,” I said. Silently I prayed to come back in one piece.

I was a sergeant major, leading a 10-man team embedded with nearly 800 Iraqis in Fallujah. We patrolled con­stantly. Twice I hit roadside bombs. I was in firefights and saw civilians die, caught in the crossfire. The worst was losing 30 men in a helicopter crash.

I found comfort in my faith, but still, the grief was crushing. I used my one 15-minute weekly call home to reach Ron. Despite his being a veteran, there was a disconnect. The war was too re­moved from his everyday life. I gave up. As I’d learned long ago, there was no point in sharing my feelings.

I came home in 2005. I was in one piece, but something was off. My heart raced when I walked down Main Street or got stuck in traffic. Im­ages from the war haunted me. Other memories. The drowning victims I’d been unable to save. I told my wife, Jodi, I didn’t want to talk about Iraq and was glad when she didn’t press me. If I pushed everything down and did my job, I’d get past it.

By 2007, I was sheriff of Kenne­bec County. One day I was in my un­marked Chevy Silverado, Jodi beside me, driving our son, Caleb, home from camp. A driver swerved in front of us, then gave me the finger. Something snapped inside me. I flashed my lights and pulled him over. Stormed up to his car wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

I flung open the car door. Grabbed the driver by the shirt to yank him out. But his seat belt caught. His face was panicked. What am I doing? Neither one of us said a word. My grip loos­ened. I walked back to my truck. That was stupid.

Jodi and Caleb looked stunned. “Don’t you think you were a little hard on that guy?” Caleb said. I shrugged. I wasn’t in the mood for a debriefing. I pushed what happened out of my mind and drove home.

A couple days later, I was in my of­fice when Ron came in. “How are you doing?” he asked.

I broke down sobbing, shocking myself. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Jodi asked me to come talk to you,” Ron said. “You should see someone at the VA.”

The VA assigned me to Dr. David Meyer. I’d never been to therapy. I settled into the chair across from him and made small talk, trying to steer the conversation away from myself.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “In our sessions, I’m going to ask you to relive the trauma you’ve experienced. It won’t be easy, but you’ll gain more understanding over the emotions you’re feeling. Otherwise, it’s like a pressure cooker with no release valve.”

Dr. Meyer explained more about post-traumatic stress disorder, how it manifests as a variety of involuntary mental and emotional symptoms. I’d heard the term, of course. But I never imagined it applied to me.

Dr. Meyer dimmed the lights. “Tell me about one particular day in Iraq,” he said. His questions were probing.

I was back in Fallujah. The sound of gunfire. The sand in my teeth. Chaos. People dying around me. I couldn’t go more than 30 seconds without breaking down. But I kept at it, week after week.

It was like cleaning a garage stuffed to the rafters with experiences and emotions I’d never processed.

Dr. Meyer pushed me to unpack even more. “Your PTSD isn’t just from Iraq,” he said. “The poverty you ex­perienced as a child, the instability of your parents’ marriage, dealing with violence and death as a sheriff’s deputy. You’ve faced a lifetime of trauma.”

All the stuff I’d tried to escape…was a part of me. Dr. Meyer showed me ways to open up, to understand how one experience affects another. There was no judgment about being scared, angry, sad. I learned that feeling your feelings is healing, that emotion is the difference between merely surviving and truly living.

I shared more with Jodi. And with God. I poured out my soul to him. I’d thought God wanted me to be strong, to fend for myself. What I discov­ered was that he saw all of me—my strength, my work ethic, my problem-solving but also my pain, my vulner­ability—and loved the whole person.

Why else would he have a laid out a life of meaning for me, each experi­ence connecting to the next, like bricks in a carefully constructed pathway? The chaos of my childhood drawing me to the structure of the military yet also equipping me to handle the un­predictability of war and law enforce­ment. I asked God to guide me to what he wanted me to do next.

It wasn’t just my own life that I saw differently. I gained a new perspective on the men and women I worked with. As well as the people we arrested. Each of us was affected by trauma in our own way.

I brought in experts to educate my deputies about PTSD. We shared openly with each other. Several dep­uties began counseling.

I started a treatment program for inmates with substance abuse issues. And I created a separate pod in the county jail for veterans, focused on their particular circumstances. When we realized the sound of cells locking automatically sounded like machine guns firing, we began manually locking up.

With the leadership of Justice Nancy Mills, a county superior court judge, we started a veterans court, allowing veterans to avoid prison time if they participated in an intensive therapeu­tic program, including mental health and drug and alcohol treatment. Giv­ing out diplomas to the program’s first graduates was one of the most gratify­ing days of my life.

I earned a master’s degree in lead­ership management from Liberty Uni­versity, allowing me to more closely connect my faith and my work.

That day in 2015, when I walked into the Maine State Prison as warden, I brought with me a vision of prisons as doing more than simply warehousing inmates. We started referring to the men entrust­ed to us as residents. I talked to many who had a childhood like mine, which reinforced how blessed I was that God had a plan for that little boy who sat on the lap of an inmate Santa Claus one Christmas.

I kept a framed copy of that photo in my office to remind me how all my experiences had prepared me for this work and given me real empathy for each man now under my care. I want­ed to see the whole person, not just the bad things he’d done. What if we addressed the issues that had led him to get in trouble with the law? Doesn’t everyone deserve a chance to do bet­ter? Isn’t Jesus’ message one of atone­ment and redemption?

In addition to investing in mental health and substance abuse programs, we started vegetable gardens, with 3,000 pepper plants and 4,000 to­mato plants that first year. More than 60 residents became certified master gardeners. Our composting program saved more than $100,000 in trash disposal. Another 60 residents got certified as beekeepers, building their own hives in the prison woodshop.

And as I did at the county jail, I cre­ated a separate pod for veterans. They trained puppies to become service dogs for other vets through America’s VetDogs and for adults and children with disabilities through Little Angels Service Dogs.

We gave these men not only a sense of purpose in prison but also job skills they have used to build new lives for themselves on the outside.

Today I’m commissioner of the Maine department of corrections. It’s a humbling position for a boy who grew up visiting his father in the state prison. I still pray to God for guidance. For forgiveness. A chance to redeem myself when I fall short. It’s what we all deserve.

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