The Psychological Effects of Incarceration
- How can we deal with it?
- How can we deal with it?
Prolonged adaptation to the many deprivations and frustrations of life inside prison carries a certain psychological cost. In order to help previously incarcerated person adapt successfully to the free world a range of structural and programmatic changes are required to address these issues. Among other things, social and psychological programs and resources must be made available in the immediate, short, and long-term, to insure continued successful adjustment. These services are needed even in the preparation for release, and during transitional periods of parole or initial reintegration.
It is important to be understood that there are natural as well as normal adaptations made by prisoners in response to the unnatural and abnormal conditions of prisoner life which definitely changes one's life. They are a set of pathological changes that if taken to the extreme will become chronic and deeply internalized. These changes, institutional transformation, although gradual over time becomes very significant especially in persons who have been incarcerated for a long period of time.
When a person first enters the prison system they find that they are now being forced to adapt to an harsh and rigid institutional routing. they are deprived of their freedom, privacy, and subjected to a stigmatized status and material scarcity.The conditions are stressful, unpleasant, harsh, and fearful. However as one in the course of becoming institutionalized start to adapt to his or her condition a transformation starts to happen in their life. They generally become more accustomed to the restrictions that institutional life imposes. The various psychological mechanisms that must be employed to adjust (and, in some harsh and dangerous correctional environments, to survive) become increasingly "natural," second nature, and, to a degree, internalized. This internalization is more prominent in persons who entered the institutional settings at an early age before they have formed the ability and expectation to control their own life choices. Because there is less tension between the demands of the institution and the autonomy of a mature adult, institutionalization proceeds more quickly and less problematically with at least some younger inmates. Moreover, younger inmates have little in the way of already developed independent judgment, so they have little if anything to revert to or rely upon if and when the institutional structure is removed. And the longer someone remains in an institution, the greater the likelihood that the process will transform them. These transformational changes are:
- DEPENDENCE ON INSTITUTIONAL STRUCTURE AND CONTINGENCIES.
As some inmates may had depended heavily on institutional decision makers to make choices for them and to rely on the structure and of the institution to organize their daily routine so they lose the capacity to initiate behavior on their own and the judgment to make decisions for themselves so that when they come into the free world they cannot stand on their own. They may have also created a dependency upon the institution to control their behavior so there is no self-imposed personal limits to guide their actions and restrain their conduct. If and when this external structure is taken away, severely institutionalized persons may find that they no longer know how to do things on their own, or how to refrain from doing those things that are ultimately harmful or self- destructive. Thus there is a tendency for them to continue in behaviors like crime, drug abuse, prostitution, stealing and many others which may eventually cause them to be re- incarcerated.
INTERPERSONAL DISTRUST, AND SUSPICION.
While in prison many prisoners learn to project a tough convict demeanor that had kept others at a distance. They had used this to convey a message that they had the potential for violence, so that the likelihood of them being dominated and exploited throughout the duration of their sentence would be minimal or not at all. When they are no longer incarcerated they carry these same kinds of attitudes that may make it hard for them to have a successful reentry to society.
OVER-CONTROL, ALIENATION, AND PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTANCING.
Prisoners who labor at both an emotional and behavioral level to develop a "prison mask" that is unrevealing and impenetrable risk alienation from themselves and others, may develop emotional flatness that becomes chronic and debilitating in social interaction and relationships, and find that they have created a permanent and unbridgeable distance between themselves and other people. Many for whom the mask becomes especially thick and effective in prison find that the disincentive against engaging in open communication with others that prevails there has led them to withdrawal from authentic social interactions altogether. The alienation and social distancing from others is a defense not only against exploitation but also against the realization that the lack of interpersonal control in the immediate prison environment makes emotional investments in relationships risky and unpredictable when they come into the free world.
- DIMINISHED SENSE OF
SELF-WORTH AND PERSONAL VALUE.
Prisoners in prison are typically denied their basic rights to privacy, and lose control over mundane aspects of their existence that most of us who are free have long taken for granted. After having lived in small, sometimes extremely cramped and deteriorating spaces (a 60 square foot cell is roughly the size of king-size bed), have little or no control over the identify of the person with whom they must share that space (and the intimate contact it requires), often have no choice over when they must get up or go to bed, or when or what they may eat. Some feel very much infantilized and the degraded conditions under which they live serve to repeatedly remind them of their compromised social status and stigmatized social role as prisoners. A diminished sense of self-worth and personal value may result. In extreme cases where the person may come to think of themselves as "the kind of person" who deserves only the degradation and stigma to which they have been subjected while incarcerated. I have worked with some of these previous incarcerated individuals and find this to be true.
- POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS REACTIONS TO THE PAINS OF IMPRISONMENT. Many of the dysfunctional consequences of institutionalization are not always immediately obvious in persons once the institutional structure and procedural imperatives have been removed. This is especially true in cases where persons may have retain a minimum of structure when they re-enter free society. However, the most negative consequences of institutionalization may first occur in the form of internal chaos (in their mentally and physically), disorganization in the way they handle their affairs and coexist with others , stress, and fear. Institutionalization has taught most people to cover their internal states, and not to openly or easily reveal intimate feelings or reactions. So, sometimes the outward appearance of normality and adjustment may mask a range of serious problems in adapting to the free world.
This is see most prevalent and true of persons who return to the free world lacking a network of close, personal contacts with people who know them well enough to sense that something may be wrong. Eventually, however, when severely institutionalized persons confront complicated problems or conflicts while in the free world, especially problems in the form of unexpected events that cannot be planned for in advance, the myriad of challenges they confront in their everyday lives outside the institution may become too overwhelming. When this happens the facade of normality begins to deteriorate, and then we really see persons begin to behave in dysfunctional or even destructive ways because all of the external structure and supports upon which they relied to keep themselves controlled, directed, and balanced will they were institutionalized been removed leaving them naked and vulnerable.
- IMPLICATIONS FOR THE
TRANSITION FROM PRISON TO HOME
Parents who return from periods of incarceration still mentally and physically dependent on institutional structures and routines cannot be expected to effectively organize the lives of their children or exercise the initiative and autonomous decision making that parenting requires. Those who still suffer the negative effects of a distrusting and hyper vigilant adaptation to prison life will find it difficult to promote trust and authenticity within their children. Those who remain emotionally over-controlled and alienated from others will experience problems being psychologically available and nurturant. Tendencies to socially withdraw, remain aloof or seek social invisibility is so much dysfunctional in family settings where closeness and interdependence is needed. So this will had a negative effect and is most likely to doom most social and intimate relations with others, as will their inability to overcome the diminished sense of self-worth.
How can we deal with it, how can we help?
There would be no significant amount of progress made in easing the transition from prison to home until and unless significant changes are made in the way prisoners are prepared mentally and emotionally when they are about to leave prison and re-enter the free world. There must be appropriate community based services and organizations in every borough that can handle these situations effectively. The psychosocial and socioeconomic needs of the re-entries must be taken care of efficiently.A serious concern is the way ex-convicts are treated in society when they return from prison.
- A more serious look must be made by Prison authorities of the pains and suffering that a life in prison may have impacted on persons and provide them with the necessary services which may help them as they prepare for re-enter to the free society. If prisoners prior to reentry are told of the likely effects prison life may have had on them and challenges they may encounter while trying to adapt to life in the free world it may make a difference. This process must begin well in advance of a prisoner's release.
- There will be need for occupational and vocational training and assistance in finding gainful employment. I have seen many ex-prisoners fall back on a life of stealing to survive, sometimes merely to eat. It also means that prisoners who are expected to resume their roles as will need pre-release assistance in establishing, strengthening, and/or maintaining ties with their families and children, and whatever other assistance will be essential for them to function effectively in this role (such as parenting classes and the like).It is also imperative that the prison authorities, parole/probation boards have some knowledge as to whether there is any home or family members that persons can return to and be accepted. They must help in the reintegration.
- Prisoners who have manifested signs or symptoms of mental illness or developmental disability while incarcerated will need specialized transitional services to facilitate their reintegration into the free world. These would include, where appropriate, pre-release outpatient treatment and rehabilitation plans. that are relevant for their condition and effective managed care.
- Prisoner should not be released directly out of super-max or solitary confinement back into the free world. Super-max prisons must provide long periods of decompression, with adequate time for prisoners to be treated for the adverse effects of long-term isolation and reacquaint themselves with the social norms of the world to which they will return.