Reformation or abuse? How does prison cause psychological trauma?


Here is the introduction video for my project!

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come fourth later in uglier ways.” – Sigmund Freud

How does prison influence the mental state of its inmates? 

Mental illness in prison can come in many forms. People may develop some form while incarcerated, while on the other hand, others may enter the system with preexisting conditions. Regardless of initial details, prison is an extremely stress-inducing environment with the ability to worsen or create mental illness within anyone. While a worldwide issue, my research was limited to the United Kingdom and the United States. This allows for this issue to be considered from two different viewpoints while preventing an unnecessary amount of outside factors. 

Open this link to vote before continuing…

What is Trauma?

Trauma is an emotional reaction to a devastating event. It appears differently in everyone but typically consists of both short and long term symptoms. Short term experiences may be shock and denial while long term reactions can cause emotional (flashbacks, unpredictable feelings), social (strained relationships), and physical symptoms (headaches and nausea). (5) In a case study analyzed in this class, it was found that trauma can manifest itself similarly (with common symptoms) but is very different in each persons experiences. For example, a child named Hans experienced PTSD from a fire he survived as a child and showed signs of PTSD even though they were tailored to his experience directly.

Prisoner’s may develop trauma as a result of many different events. Lack of resources/support, general environment, solitary confinement, racial and cultural issues, and more. 

What does this mean?

Now that we’ve established what trauma is and what it can look like, it’s important to consider the experiences that cause it.

Lack of Resources

“Prisons are not specifically designed as places in which to deliver care; prison is an essentially ‘anti-therapeutic’ environment whereby the dominant discourse is one of discipline and control.” (1)

In 2007, a research team (based in Great Britain) gathered data about connections with primary care services, the role of in-reach services, and more (1). They found over 90% of prisoners had one (or more) of the five psychiatric disorders studied. These consisted of: psychosis, neurosis, personality disorder, hazardous drinking, and/or drug dependence. In addition it was discovered that behavioral problems, indicating some form of mental illness, were incorrectly responded to with disciplinary repercussions. In Abnormal Psychology, we focused on the importance of the blurred line that defines normal vs abnormal. 

Normal vs Abnormal

Why is it important to make sure you avoid using “normal” and “abnormal” when describing mental illnesses and disorders? What’s considered normal is unique to virtually every group of people, especially differing from region to region. The common behavior of one group may not be the same in another so the very definition of normal is already confused. Normal also implies that there is one method, or way, for things to go which is simply not true for everyone. Limiting usage of these terms will avoid any confusion or misinformation. 

While on the topic of lacking resources, another study found that there were more unmet psychological needs for BME (black and minority ethnic) groups (3). The reasons for why are unclear but one can speculate that racism is a root cause. In addition, it was discovered that language difficulties make it harder to identify mental illness and cultural factors may inhibit some groups from seeking help for mental health issues. Prison is definitely not notorious for its accommodation, but there was a clear divide within different races and what treatment they received. More often than not, BME prisoners were simply handed medication while their white counterparts received psychological treatments when presenting mental health issues. More incarcerated individuals report mental health issues than those who receive treatment (2). Stigma definitely has a large influence in prison and it is important that it does not go overlooked. Their mental health is not cared for and that is something that needs to change…

Check out this Padlet and add a quick note!


The US Department of Justice states that correction systems’ main goals are: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. Nowhere on this list does it specify suitable conditions for these goals to take place–despite needing to. Developing a mental illness is more prevalent than one may automatically believe.

In New York City, 967 participants (491 young men and 476 young women) out of the original 1410 reported mental health issues (2). For women, the statistics came out to almost 2 out of 5.

It was also determined that more mentally ill people can now be found in New York City (and US jails) than in mental hospitals. This experiment examined the circumstances of incarcerated individuals in New York jails. It is clear that prison deteriorates the psychological state of prisoners instead of reforming them.

Prisons all across the world share similar common practices of abuse, ranging from abuse of power to what can be considered modern day torture– solitary confinement.

“Human rights agencies characterize it as torture…80,000 – 250,000 people are estimated to be subject to solitary confinement…”

Portrayed in the media as simply locking the prisoner up and ‘throwing away the key,’ solitary confinement is much more serious and threatening than it may appear. Human rights agencies characterize it as torture and in the US alone, 80,000 – 250,000 people are estimated to be subject to this practice (4). The IMU is the official name for solitary confinement, an abbreviation of intensive management units. Regardless of nickname, solitary confinement often results in long-term psychological distress and immediate effects.

This study found that as a result of the IMU, 19% had SMI diagnoses, 18% documented self harm, and 22% had made a suicide attempt (4). This same research concluded that two additional symptoms were as prevalent: anxiety and loss of identity.

Sensory hypersensitivity was discovered in 16% of the respondents who mentioned things such as sounds, smells, and more. One of the most common references was to the sound of doors opening and closing (which aggravated many respondents). One fourth (25%) of prisoners mentioned a loss of identity.

It is clear the corrections system in the United States does not achieve what it claims to however, this is a worldwide issue. Countries across the globe suffer with inefficient correction systems, expelling people with more psychological damage than they entered with. My goal was to inform you of this issue and together we can shape the future of mental health in prisons.

What Can I do? What Can We Do?

When tackling a large issue, it can seem overwhelming– impossible even. But, it doesn’t have to be. Altogether, we can work to reform the way the world treats our prisoners. Writing to politicians, attending and organizing protests, working to get the United Nations involved are all things we can do as the next generation if we work together. But to get to this point, we must start with the small steps.

Good news! You’ve already taken the first. Simply informing yourself about this issue is one of the key parts to starting. You can continue making change by informing those around you, making donations (whether monetary or in any other form), opening discussions with friends/classmates/teachers–just simply spreading the word!

The Equitas Project; nonprofit committed to disentangling mental health and criminalization. Donate and learn more here

Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (MHASC) seeks to end the cruel practice and focusing on improving mental health in prison. Get involved here

Penal Reform International (PRI) works globally to promote humanitarian forms of criminal justice systems. Donate here


It is extremely important to note that my project focused on prisons located in the USA and the UK. However, this does not deny the situations in other countries as well. It is important that we all reflect on our own community and determine what must be done. For myself, I will focus on Charlotte, North Carolina as my local community and the United States as the larger community. I will donate and provide service for those who have been neglected by the criminal justice system, when considering mental health, which you can all do as well! Continue to the end of my presentation to discuss how you will take action…

What Will You Do?

In the comments below, share one way you think you can help combat this issue and collaborate! Try responding to others or asking open ended questions, there are no wrong answers! Also feel free to leave any notes about my project!



Providence Day School '23


  1. Wow! You really went above and beyond in your research for this conference, this is so detailed and precise! I definitely think you picked an underrated topic, the incarceration system of these supposed ‘great nations’ seem to have more detriments than benefits—and it’s not talked about enough. And to answer your last question, I will be sharing this project with my family and friends so as to spread further awareness. Well done!

    1. Hi Sonia!
      Thank you so much for looking at my project! That’s great, thank you for helping combat this issue!

  2. Hi Emmi- this project is so impressive!! You made it very accessible to the readers by defining your terms and being specific in your language. By taking advantage of the design features of Word Press, you made your quotes stand out, and your poll was interesting and engaging. I really enjoyed learning about this important topic, and I hope that our society and world can begin to adapt in order to address this issue.

    1. Hi Amalie!
      Thank you for your feedback and taking time to look at my project, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Hey Emmi- I really liked your project I thought it was very appealing to look at and very well made. I really liked the quotes you used and I thought that they looked good as well. You made me feel as if your topic was a very important one and I think you did it justice to how important it really is. Overall I really enjoyed reading your project!

    1. Hi Isaac!
      Thank you! I’m excited that you liked it, thank you for your feedback!

  4. Hi Emmi- your website is awesome. I struggled with getting around with WordPress, but your page looks so clean and professional. Your topic was very original too, and something that really made me think. Your poll was also very interesting, and I really liked your website as a whole.

    1. Hi Frank!
      I definitely had some issues with WordPress as well but I’m glad you liked how my project turned out! Thank you for looking at it!

  5. Hi Emmi! Your research was really interesting and I think it addressed a topic about prisoners’ trauma which most people don’t consider important but need more attention. The statistics indicating that almost half of the imprisoned people suffer from trauma after their imprisonment was shocking. Relating it to existing projects was helpful to have more detailed information. I think you did a great job!

    1. Hi Seoyoung!
      I definitely agree that this is an overlooked topic and theres lots of shocking data. Thank you for looking at my project and your feedback!

  6. Hey Emmi! I was very interested to read through your page, and you presented you research extremely well. Your use of meaningful statistics really drove home the point of your project, and really legitimized your points. The one that struck me the most was about the ratio of mentally ill people in New York. If one of the supposed goals of prisons are rehabilitation, shouldn’t we find more mentally ill people in proper care facilities? I thank you for bringing attention to such an important issue and providing great resources to make a first step.

    1. Hi Emma!
      Thank you so much for your feedback! I really like your question because it opens up more of a discussion about proper care facilities that I couldn’t really touch in my project. Since I was mainly focused on how prison impacted inmates, I was able to find a lot of information that I couldn’t include within my research (so as to avoid going off topic). Many people are thrown in jail instead of having their mental illnesses/struggles considered and it causes way more harm than it seems. Providing people with the proper care instead of casting them aside and simply putting them in jail is definitely something that can be done to prevent this issue, however it would take a lot of reformation to the justice system to accomplish this.

  7. Hi Emmi! This presentation was outstanding! I love the statistics you included and your polls! What surprised me the most was the huge amount of New York prisoners suffering from mental illness. Your project definitely inspired me to rethink my views on the prison system and this is something I’d love to educate myself on more!

  8. Hi Emmi! This project is so awesome! I’m so impressed with how you made it look so professional. I also really liked your topic (it is something that is very important but is not often talked about). I loved how you included quotes and statistics which made it seem a lot more “real” to me. Great job!

  9. Great presentation! This is a really interesting topic that I think is widely overlooked. I thought that your solutions, being to donate to the Equitas Project, become involved in the MHASC, and promote humanitarian forms, are really good solutions that could benefit local communities. This said I think that there is a big stigma attached to criminals and how their treatment is rightfully overlooked due to their past decision and circumstances. As you mentioned, there are a lot of statistics that prove mental health, self-harm, and suicide as prevalent issues for prisoners and should be looked after as their conditions affect future behaviours and actions. So, in order to contribute to the solution you have provided, I think that the stigma around prisoners has to be broken and awareness around how prison conditions impact mental health so that we can ensure that people feel comfortable supporting and contributing to foundations, etc. In all, this was a really well-done project and an interesting topic, great job!

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