Imagine with me for a moment, a world where your conscious and unconscious minds are subjected to think on your past mistakes. Day in and day out, you are bombarded by the clanging symbols of your personal errors in life. To society, your mistakes may be considered of an egregious nature or they may be relatively harmless, but you are now incarcerated. The outside world sees you as a menace and you are no longer welcome to roam among the living. It’s a
world that has been intentionally designed to break you, as a person. It’s a world invested in making you pay the ultimate price, for your crimes against humanity.
Prisons are a dichotomy of rules and lawlessness. As a clinical psychologist and chaplain, I have had first hand experience of what it is to be behind the walls of a prison. I have spent an untold amount of time within the confines of both prisons and jails. Deep within these barbaric fortresses, there are few amenities and definitely no luxuries. It’s undeniably a surreal and a deplorable environment. Many of the facilities are considered to be “state of the art,” yet the advancements are seldom intended on improving the prisoner’s life, but rather they are focused on the containment.
Prisons are institutions unlike few others. These correctional facilities are designed to incarcerate and rehabilitate. It’s within the confines of these walls that these institutions frequently fail to rehabilitate and restore an individual, but rather they perpetuate an environment unfavorable to growth and maturation.
As a prisoner, you have no individual autonomy. Your freedoms have been vanquished and you are, for all intensive purposes, a ward of the state. You have no freedoms, no rights, no ability to make personal decisions. Essentially, you have no stakes in this thing that we call life. You are reduced to an animal in captivity and nothing more. It’s a deranged way of treating someone and it is inhumane. There is seldom any compassion, any empathy, and most commonly, a lack of a healthy community. It may not surprise you to learn that the rate of recidivism is an ever-growing population of people who offended and reoffend. Often, these individuals are at odds with life outside of the prison.
The psychological impact of incarceration can leave a dire impression on an individual’s life. These dire impressions are often invisible, but commonly witnessed through negative shifts within an individual’s personality. The severity of these shifts increases the longer the individual is confined within the walls of a prison. Prison life not only has an ability of transforming an individual’s personality, but it has a tremendous impact upon the wellbeing of the person. Research has clearly shown that the longer an individual is incarcerated, the greater the probability that they may develop significant mental health issues. Institutionally, prisons have been designed to isolate, punish, and of course, ideally rehabilitate, but they are the perfect breeding ground for psychological conditions. These issues are exacerbated by the environment with which this population lives. It is common for a majority of prisoners to feel stress and anxiety related to their personal safety and wellbeing. The longer someone is imprisoned, the more profound the psychological stress.
Prison life alone can exacerbate any underlying condition, but separate an individual from their primary social support system and you will add fuel to the fire. It’s the lack of healthy relationships and social support that will often do in an inmate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, “Social isolation and loneliness have been linked to increased risk for: heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety, addiction, suicidality and self-harm, dementia, and earlier death”. Remove an individual from their sense of community and you deny them the right to bond, connect, and commune with others. Undeniably, not all social support systems are healthy nor are they ideal ingredients for improving an individual’s life, but seldom are these perspectives even considered. Research has repeatedly shown that social isolation in itself, can prove the gateway to a number of psychological conditions.
While social isolation is one of many key risk factors behind inmates developing mental health conditions, it’s the individuals with which they are isolated from, that makes all the difference. As you can imagine, the level of intimacy and the relationship itself, can play a significant role in the feelings of separation. For some, they may have very little feelings of distress or anxiety about being separated. For others, they may feel a heavy burden related to the absence of significant relationships in their lives. Likewise, it is important to mention that one’s psychological diagnostics, can have a tremendous impact on how they relate to such a separation.
Social isolation maybe one of the key factors, but it’s the lack of personal autonomy, that can leave an individual with feelings of helplessness and utter despair. It’s the inability to declare oneself an independent thinker, that can prove the most intolerable aspect of prison life. When you compound the social isolation with an individual’s inability to prove autonomous, you create the perfect environment for a mental health condition. Personal autonomy is more than making individual choices for one’s life, rather it is also about having the freedom to think, ponder, hope and dream. It’s important to understand that prisons serve a purpose within our society, but remove an individual’s ability to think, ponder, hope, and dream and you ultimately remove their ability to thrive.
Prison systems are complex environments brimming with a plethora of negative consequences including: social isolation and lack of social supports, inadequate physical and mental healthcare, lack of meaningful and lasting relationships, the feelings of being constantly watched by guards and the eye in the sky, mandatory solitude, constant violence and the probability of violence occurring, overcrowding, the uncertainties about the future, and even the inhumane aspects of a prison, can create havoc with one’s perspectives and worldviews.
According to research by Timothy G. Edgemon and Jody Clay-Warner, “Not only do many prison inmates suffer from mental health difficulties, but incarceration itself increases the risk of certain mental health disorders” (Edgemon & Clay-Warner, 2019). Prisons are institutions of depravity, instability and a lack of opportunity. Research has clearly shown that the longer an individual is incarcerated, the more likely they are to develop a significant psychological condition. Unfortunately, prisons are less about rehabilitating and more about confinement.
Inmates are not only faced with a barrage of issues on the inside, but once out, they face countless challenges and hurdles that they’ll need to overcome. Just in case you were unfamiliar with the outcome, post-incarceration is a continuation of an inmate’s time served. Many will find it difficult to obtain a driver’s license, housing, financial assistance, and employment prospects. Therefore, many inmates fall back on a life of crime, because they feel as though they have no skills or options to live their life. As a natural consequence of living in prison, they may have obtained new tricks of the trade and may utilize these assets to survive and often provide for their own. Let’s not forget, that a countless number of inmates were exposed to the most egregious side of life, thus it is not uncommon that they may have developed a severe mental health condition. Sadly, they are seldom rehabilitated or granted an opportunity to move beyond the life that they are familiar with. As such, the rate of recidivism will remain high and prisons will often be their second home.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA