Punishment and Redemption: Psychological effects due to prolonged prison time in the US

What Are the Psychological Effects of Prison?

It is no secret that the United States Industrial Prison complex is corrupt. With the harsh treatment and little priority for rehabilitation in the facilities, one may wonder what effect such brutality has on the mental health of inmates.

Reports have found that one out of every 100 American adults is incarcerated, a per capita rate five to 10 times higher than that in Western Europe or other democracies.

Most prisoners enter prison as indentured servants because of the 13th amendment. If they have Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, or similar resources, those are discontinued. On top of this, most federal prisons require prisoners to pay a copay ($2-5) for medical visits in an attempt to reduce the chances of fake visits. Prisoners generally pay for these services from the minimal wages they earn doing prison jobs; yet, the cost of the visits can deter them from seeking preventive and routine care. On top of this, having the largest incarceration rate in the world means the U.S spends billions of dollars on federal prisons nationwide.

So who’s helping the prisoners?

(The following mental health effects are derived from a World Health Organisation seminar in 1999). It suggests that some of the effects of prison are: isolation from families and social networks, austere surroundings, loss of privacy and poor physical and hygienic conditions, aggression, bullying, fear, suspicion and the attitudes of unsympathetic and uninformed staff, lack of purposeful activity, of personal control, of power to act and loss of identity; pressure to escape or to take drugs, shame and stigmatization uncertainty, particularly among remand prisoners, and concern about reintegration into the outside world.

Hence, because of this and the lack of coping mechanisms offered in prison, the psychological effects and mental illnesses inmates suffer are depression, PTSD, paranoia, suicidal thoughts and tendencies, delusions, and substance abuse. It is unfair that inmates experience pain and shattered emotions in prison rather than rehabilitation and healing. This is where we question the U.S prison system compared to other countries to measure the effects of punishment versus rehabilitation.

What Is The Difference Between Rehabilitation and Incarceration?

One in every five people who are incarcerated is serving time for a drug-related sentence. Studies have shown that of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in our country, 1.5 million of them are facing serious addiction issues. When someone is facing serious substance issues, the logical thing to do is to admit said individual into some sort of rehabilitation facility or program. But, if you are put into jail instead of treatment, how are you supposed to get better? Incarceration is intended to deter people from committing crimes again and to punish them for their offense. Whereas what addicted individuals really need is rehabilitation, not punishment. Rehabilitation goes further than just substance counseling, but also into teaching those who have made grave mistakes, how to function normally again in society. Jails’ focus almost solely revolves around punishment, which leaves little room for necessary services like rehabilitation and counseling. According to an article published in 2014 by the Business Insider, 76.6% of prisoners were re-arrested after five years of being released, making it one of the highest recidivism rates in the whole world. The article compared US prisons to prisons in Norway, which are almost solely focused on rehabilitation. Prisoners in Norway are allowed to spend many hours a day outside with other inmates and are not locked in their cells for long periods of time. It is because of Norway’s focus on mental health and rehabilitation that inmates are able to return to society and function normally. The US destroys inmates’ mental health by denying them basic human rights and interaction which ultimately explains why they are unable to function normally once returned to society, and end up back in jail.

Sister Hearts Decarceration Program

While we hear about the systems within incarceration, there is little to no attention given to the process of “decarceration.” Decarceration is the process in which incarcerated individuals are moved out of detention facilities and into programs that will help them recover from the traumas they experienced in jail, while also teaching them skills and connecting them with resources to be successful in the real world. Maryam Uloho is the founder of Sister Hearts Decarceration Program which was founded in Louisiana after she herself felt the struggles of what it was like to be released after spending time in jail. She found it impossible to get a credit card, housing, a job, and many other essential factors to life. SisterHeart aims to give women coming out of jail a place to stay, as well as a job at their thrift store which provides valuable work experience and an income. SisterHearts also works to help women recognize that they have experienced trauma. Once you realize that you have been through a trauma, for them being incarcerated, you will slowly be able to heal and deal with the lasting psychological effects of incarceration. Sisterhearts gives them the tools and support to do so in a safe environment among women who understand each other’s pain. Organizations like SisterHearts deserve and need so much more attention so that they can help as many people as possible, as well as educate the rest of the US on how damaging our prison system really is.

This piece is part of an on-going series from professor Betsy Weiss’s class, “Punishment and Redemption,” which is taught at Tulane University. These pieces will be published every Thursday on vianolavie.org. 


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