The Psychological Impacts of Incarceration

"Few people are completely unchanged or unscathed by the [prison] experience" - Craig Haney, social psychologist and researcher on the Stanford Prison experiment.

A recent research project at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, in which hundreds of prisoners were interviewed, concluded that being in prison “changes people to the core." Studies have shown again and again that environment in prisons has a huge impact, and of course, the longer people are incarcerated, the greater the impact of this environment may have.

Dr Christian Jarrett, editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog, found that “longer and harsher prison sentences can mean that prisoners' personalities will be changed in a way that makes their reintegration difficult." The impact of the restricted and confined environment, of feeling socially threatened, of lacking opportunities of free choice and privacy lead to problems in adulthood that are hard to overcome once released, and without the right support, become even more insurmountable.

Researchers in the UK have described prison as a place of “emotional numbing", becoming detached and lacking feelings for anyone. Trials carried out in 2015 already showed that both short and long sentences have an impact on personality and behaviour. These tests involved interviewing inmates who were serving an average of 19 years in prison. Inmates admitted that distrust, difficult relationships with other inmates and surviving in a hostile environment became increasingly ingrained into their daily behaviours.

It is widely accepted that ongoing and repetitive actions can induce behavioural patterns in people, making it difficult to change after years. There is a recognition among criminologists, researchers and psychologists that this contributes towards a paranoia that upon leaving prison can result in post-incarceration syndrome, making ex-prisoner's re-entry into society particularly difficult.

A person's life in prison, their daily routine, their experiences, the activities and opportunities they have access to and the prison environment must all be considered when thinking about the impact of incarceration on the individual. The Twelfth Report of Session 2017-2019 by the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee highlights a wide range of problems to be addressed. The report mentions that overcrowding, lack of personal space and several counts throughout the day induces stress in prisoners and staff, that living conditions and sanitation are poor with hot water often unavailable. In addition, the report states the quality of food is often inadequate and the growing population of rats make the risk of disease a real problem (not to mention the trauma this might cause). Clearly the risks associated with the lack of privacy, hygiene and anxiety make a significant impact on how an inmate feels both emotionally and physically.

While the end of a prison sentence brings the experience of this environment to a close (hopefully forever) the challenge of re-adjusting to life outside begins. They now have a new set of problems to face: the uncertainties of housing, finding work, re-building relationships accessing the services they need present a host of practical and emotional problems those being released from prisons must confront as they continue to process the psychological impacts of their prison sentence.