Imprisonment and its Psychological Effects on Inmates

Academic Paper, 2018

11 Pages, Grade: 1.0



Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Prison Climate

3. Psychological Consequences
3.1 Dependence on Institutional Structure
3.2 Interpersonal Distrust, Suspicion and Psychological Distancing
3.3 Incorporation ofExploitive-Aggressive Prison Norms
3.4 Decreased Self-Esteem and Personal Value
3.5 Post-Traumatic Stress Reactions as a Result ofPrison Conditions

4. Coping with Psychological Consequences

5. After Prison Release

6. Conclusion

7. References

1. Introduction

An individual coming into prison represents a form of sanction that society inflicts on the individual for the deviation of its moral and juridical laws. While a deprivation of liberty causes several consequences for the imprisoned people, both during detention as well as after release, it is not seldom that the psychological consequences are the most serious ones (Rus, 2012). The circumstances ofliving in a place where one's safety and human dignity is likely to be threatened on a daily basis are usually challenging to the maintenance of a sound mental condition (Alexander, 2011). The size of the challenge varies from prisoner to prisoner and occurs in many different forms. The special social environment a prison consists of is likely to cause the process of 'prisonization' to happen within the prisoners. It's causes and impact are subject to this term paper.

Furthermore, in most cases the psychological consequences do not only affect the prisoners themselves, but also their families. For instance children of incarcerated parent are in a real risk to develop mental problems which may manifest as acting-out behaviours, including but not limited to also aggressiveness or drug-abuse. Other than that, they can turn the opposite side of the spectrum and show acting-in behaviours. Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story, as these effects are likely to direct children into criminal behaviour as adolescents or adults as well. Because of that, the potential that they will be incarcerated later in life is quite probable (Edmonds, 2012). The reference to the outside social environments of prisoners will be drawn in several parts of this term paper.

Firstly, the focus will be on the prison climate, which gives an impression of the special circumstances prevailing in penal institutions. Further, the various visible and hidden psychological consequences which derive in large parts from this climate will be examined in detail, before moving on to possibilités and chances to cope with them. The following part 'after prison release' elucidates post-prison adjustments, before the conclusion formes the end of the paper and creates the link to social work. The paper is intended to give an overview and does not particularly differentiate between the legal terms of prison, penal institution and so on, as it is conceived for a rather general audience.

2. Prison Climate

Interpersonal relations occupy a very important role within the heterogeneous group of prisoners. According to Michelle Alexander (2011), the prison environment can be viewed as a socially constructed phenomenon with its own unique structure, behaviour systems and inmate codes, formed by the multiple occasions of human interaction. Its strictly hierarchical and the position of individuals usually depends on their experience, their particular criminal offense, on the length of their conviction as well as the structure of their personality. It is often gained or maintained through violent conflicts. In many cases, non-violent offenders are housed with dangerous criminals, even though prisons and jails have a duty to protect inmates against violence from other inmates. The pervasive presence of violence can be seen in physical dimensions such as fights, sexual abuses or even manslaughter as well as psychological dimensions like discrimination, bullying, insulting and threatening of each other.

Nevertheless, there is one aspect in which prisoners commonly unify: the construction of a force of counter-education against the therapeutically-educative efforts of the penitentiary staff. A (hidden or opened) hostile attitude towards prison staff is to some extent entailed by imprisonment, while at the same time loyality towards other inmates is developed (Rus, 2012). Unfortunately, the exertion of violence can not only be found between prisoners themselves, but also between prison guards and prisoners. Apart from this, to describe the prison climate it is to mention that few prisoners are given the access to gainful employment where they can aquire meaningful jobskills. In addition they are deprived of any kind of interpersonal affection, for instance if conjugal visits are allowed, any exchange of intimacies is usually forbidden. Alexander's explanations depict the situation in the United States of America, whose prison system is known to be the one of the extremest in the world, but nevertheless, the described circumstances are to some extent common in every prisons.

3. Psychological Consequences

The experience of custodial environment is very likely to leave marks on the psyche of the individual, on his or her behaviour, relations with the environment and especially relations with authority (Rus, 2012). While the effects of incarceration vary from individual to individual, and certainly not everyone who is incarcerated and deprived of their liberty is psychologically harmed by it, only few people are completely unchanged or unscathed by the experience. The extraordinary demands of prison life often cause, in varying degrees, a unique set of psychological adaptions (Haney, 2002). The process of adopting the mores and customs of inmate subcultures in order to be able to successfully participate in prison society and rules is called “prizonisation“. It is an educational process, by which inmates learn and internalise prison culture through social interaction. The transformation, like most processes of gradual chance, occurs in stages. Inmates will employ the necessary psychological mechanisms to adjust and in some harsh constitutions, survive, gradually and usually unconscious. Rarely prisoners are aware of the happening prisonization and even fewer decide on themselves to willingly let the change occur. The age in which persons enter an institutional setting plays a big role on the facilitation and speed of the process, as younger inmates commonly are less stable and independent in their personality and ability tojudge. The likelihood that the process will transform people depends on the length of the confinement. The longer it is, the greater the impact of prisonization (Naderi, 2014). The psychological adaptions appearing during the process of prisonization will be elucidated in the following sections.

3.1 Dependence on Institutional Structure

Correctional institutions expose its inmates to strict systems of boundaries, limits and a network of rules and regulations under which the true character of the deprivation of liberty comes to light. The freedom and autonomy to make own choices and decisions is certainly affected, which is a painful experience for most people. Indeed, some people never adjust to it. But usually, after some time, it comes to a “muting of self-initiative and independence“ (Haney, 2002, p.81) while the dependence on institutional structure and schedule increases. Eventually, it might seem more or less natural to be denied the autonomy over day-to-day decisions. This can and often does lead to an incapacity to rely on personal organisation and decision-making to guide the own actions. And if this structure later is taken away, many people that went through the process of prisonization find themselves unable to rely on internal control (Haney, 2002).

3.2 Interpersonal Distrust, Suspicion and Psychological Distancing

The high amount of interpersonal distrust and suspicion that is commonly found in prison can be explained as a result of the reigning 'right of the stronger'. Prisoners learn quickly to become ever­alert to signs of threat and personal risk, because the immediate environment they are exposed to is likely to be full of people which take advantage of weakness and exploit inattention. Many inmates record that their life-style is shaped by fear and to avoid victimization, they spend more time than necessary in the cell. A so-called 'prison mask' is often developed, which creates an unbridgable distance between themselves and persons in the immediate environement as a defense to exploitation and to avoid the risk of an emotional investment in interpersonal relationships. Some even bring it to the point of total social withdrawal, finding safety in living an isolated life in quiet desperation (Haney, 2002).

3.3 Incorporation of Exploitive-Aggressive Prison Norms

On contrary to the psychological distancing and isolation, investing in one's reputation for thoughness and striking out at people in response to minimal provocation is another psychological adaption to the inmate culture. The informal rules and norms often include extreme values that, at some level, must be abided. Force and domination may be glorified to the point that failing to exploit weakness is a sign of weakness itself. It is important to note that prisoners are unfortunately not given any alternative culture to submit themselves to and the deprivation of basic day-to-day needs as for instance to work or to love pulls them even closer to the illicit prison culture. The characteristics of this culture also influence the sexuality of male and female prisoners. Dominance and submission, mistaken for the basis of an intimante relationship are playing a major role, which often leads to distorted norms of sexuality (Haney, 2002).

3.4 Decreased Self-Esteem and Personal Value

Another psychological adaption to the prison setting is the in many cases occuring diminished sense of self-worth. For instance the typical denial of basic privacy rights, the lose of control over many everyday aspects, which seem natural to civil people as for example structuring a day according to individual decisions, can give prisoners the feeling of infantilisation. The living conditions they are exposed to can enhance the feeling of having a compromised social status and a stigmatized social role in society (Haney, 2002). Guilt is a common feeling in between prisoners, as the incarceration does not only affect their lives, but also the live of their family and relatives. The experiences many families are likely to go through such as great financial difficulties or mental health issues, while mostly already from disadvantaged communities, often lead to big feelings of guilt from the prisoners since they are bringing burdens to their social environment out of the prison. The negative self-image goes along with a low level of aspiration, a lack of concern for the future as well as the belief to be permanently labeled (Rus, 2012).


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Imprisonment and its Psychological Effects on Inmates
University of Ljubljana  (Fakultät für Angewandte Sozialwissenschaften)
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effects, imprisonment, inmates, psychological
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Anonymous, 2018, Imprisonment and its Psychological Effects on Inmates, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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