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.
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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.
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…
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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!