Psychological Effects of Long Term Incarceration

long term incarceration

Chrystal Garcia
University of California, Merced


The prison system has been used as a form of punishment and deterrence for centuries. Many people do realize that conditions in prisons are often times inhumane and cause negative psychological effects on inmates. In recent years, psychologists and researchers have begun to take a closer look at these effects and what causes them as well as what we can do as a society to eliminate them. Studies have found that anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder are common in those who have lived in prison for a long period of time and who are accustomed to prison life. These negative symptoms and disorders follow the individuals even after they have been released and can prevent them from living a successful life upon their reentry to society. Rehabilitation programs have been suggested as a solution to this problem and research is beginning to develop more effective ways of helping released inmates. There is still a great deal that we have to learn about the negative effects of prison as well as how to effectively treat them.

For years prison has been viewed as the home of the world’s criminals and outcasts. Many would argue that prisons are a great value to society because they serve to keep dangerous criminals away from the “normal” population. However, in recent years the question has arisen of whether the prison is more harmful than it is helpful. Prisons today can be seen more as a “‘warehouse’ geared solely to neutralizing social rejects by sequestering them physically from society” (Wacquant, 2001). The purpose of the prison system has become to punish inmates harshly and to make as much profit as they can by arresting more people and advocating longer sentences. Expanding sentences is a form of inhumane punishment that many people advocate without truly understanding the consequences of it.

As Craig Haney, a researcher from the University of California, Berkeley states, laws that prolong sentences are “more the product of political manipulation than reasoned response to actual threats to public safety” (1997). Laws such as the “three strikes law” and “career criminal” statutes that serve out lifetime sentences to those who continue to be arrested for petty crimes are harmful to those that fall into this category. Most inmates that are labeled “career criminals” are given life sentences for nonviolent crimes (Haney, 1997). They are forced to live in an environment with violent offenders under rules that they are not accustomed to. Being forced into this new violent environment has many negative psychological effects on the inmates that may follow them even after they are released from prison.

Psychological Changes

Living in this hostile environment means that they must learn to conform to the rules not only of the prison itself, but also of the other prisoners that make up their new society. As a result, these nonviolent offenders may experience anxiety and changes in their personality as well as changes in their judgment making. The length of the prison sentences in these situations is important because those with long sentences are “unable to avoid witnessing some traumatizing events” (Munn, 2011). These events leave them psychologically damaged and change the way they view other human beings.

In one interview, an inmate describes the struggles that they must endure under the social rules that are enforced in prison. He uses the example of watching another inmate being killed. They are torn between what to do as a moral human being versus what to do as a “solid inmate” (Munn, 2011). These situations force them to put aside their humanity and make a decision based solely on the consequences that they must face if they choose to take action. This phenomenon was described prisonization (Goffman, 1960). Morris and Morris (1962) explained that this was “the continuous and systematic destruction of the psyche…and the adoption of new attitudes and ways of behaving”. Prisonization changes the way the inmates process situations and make decisions. This survival technique helps them in prison; however it hinders their ability to form relationships when they are released.

Considering the situations that are presented in this stressful environment, it is logical that these inmates have been found to suffer many negative psychological effects. Aside from their loss of humanity, research has revealed that these former inmates have experienced feelings of depression, thoughts of suicide (Bonta and Gendreau, 1990; Fogel, 1993), hypervigilance, and distrust (Hilliard, 1976; McCorkle, 1992). After being in a hostile environment for a long period of time, inmates are left with a paranoia that continues to haunt them after they have left the confines of the prison. These feelings have been likened to symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, which can also be found in veterans of war (Jamieson and Grounds, 2001).

Leaving prison for an environment that is so different outside of its walls can lead to overwhelming feelings of confusion and frustration that causes the former inmates to further distance themselves from society. The structure that they were forced to abide by in prison is no longer present and because they were not exposed to anything outside of this structure, they leave unprepared for the changes that have occurred in the world and the challenges that they will face upon their release.

Challenges after Prison

For prisoners with long term sentences, the possibility of seeing the world outside of their cells can be both exciting and daunting at the same time. The monotonous life they live in the strictly structured world of incarceration may sometimes feel to them like a nightmare that they are unable to wake up from. The chaotic fast paced world they face when they finally leave their nightmare is often times more intimidating than anything they have ever had to deal with. Observations of prisoners who were close to their release times revealed that they often experienced anxiety, restlessness, irritability, and inability to sleep; researchers found that these emotions were caused by the fear of being unprepared for the outside world (Lipton, 1960; W.B. Miller, 1973; Sargent, 1974). With the lack of rehabilitation programs in prisons, these fears come true for many former inmates.

As was previously mentioned, those with long term sentences must change the way they socialize with others and the way they make decisions to survive. These skills that they learn in prison are not acceptable when they re-enter society. They must re-learn how to behave and even how to talk. Something as simple as using less profanity or interacting with the opposite sex is difficult for them because they did not use these skills for so long that they forget them (Munn, 2011). For many of them, the problem is not that they have forgotten how to use their social skills; it is that they were never able to use them before and so they never learned how.

Many of the inmates that served long term sentences were incarcerated at a very young age. When they were supposed to be learning how to socialize with women and build meaningful relationships with others, they were instead learning how to survive among criminals. Relationships with women seem to be especially difficult for men to accomplish. Interaction with women was very limited when they were in prison. For those who were incarcerated at a young age, they did not even have previous experiences to use as a basis for their interactions. The perceptions they had of women were based on magazines that they had access to in prison and the images they were fed from these magazines gave them a distorted image of what they should expect when they were released (Munn, 2011).

They were also very guarded in their interactions with women as well as with anyone else they formed relationships with. This guardedness was due to the fact that they were aware of the label that they carried as ex-convicts. Societies view those with this label as dangerous and are less forgiving of their mistakes. Their awareness of this stigma makes it more difficult for them to allow themselves to lead a normal life and to trust others. Constant fear of being punished or sent back to prison for their mistakes keeps them in a state of anxiety and often times isolation (Munn, 2011).

Munn’s research coincides with the discoveries that Haney made in his research on the history of psychology in prisons. The connection that he believed there to be between psychological health and the environment of the prisons can be seen in the results of Munn’s study. The prison system affected the inmates in such a negative way psychologically; that they’re ability to function in everyday society and even their way of thinking, feeling, and expressing themselves was affected when they were released. The control that the prison system and those who are in control of it exercised over them when they were incarcerated continued to be present in their mind even after they were given the freedom to make their own decisions and live their lives as they pleased. With all the challenges that they must face upon their release, former inmates become overwhelmed and their inability to re-integrate into society leads them to recidivate. Researchers have suggested rehabilitation programs as a solution to the problem of recidivism as well as to help the prisoners with psychological problems they may have endured before or during their prison stay.


Prisoners who develop psychological problems in prison or who are traumatized by their experiences throughout their sentence are a great risk not only to society, but also to themselves. Their frustration with being unable to connect to those outside of prison or with the psychological effects that their incarceration caused leads them to become isolated, depressed and even suicidal. Psychologists have contemplated the use of rehabilitation programs to assist inmates who are soon to be released transition from prison life to their new lives out in society.

Rehabilitation programs in prisons have been a topic of controversy for psychologists since these institutions began expanding years ago. When prisons were first being established, rehabilitation was one of the main goals the system wished to accomplish. Early attempts at rehabilitation programs however proved ineffective (Schlesinger, 1979). As the years progressed, the increase in gang violence within the prison and led to anti-rehabilitation sentiments and stunted further research and efforts for the institution of effective programs (Gottschalk, 2006).

Although most prisons have resorted to focusing solely on incapacitation and deterrence, there are still hopes of developing effective rehabilitation programs in the future. A survey conducted of prison wardens shows that there are still those who advocate programs that not only help to control inmates, but also to help them overcome their psychological issues that prevent them from having healthy, normal relationships with others (1993). One of the factors that was found to influence the success of rehabilitation programs was overcrowding (DiIulio, 1990; Jacobs, 2003). Overcrowding makes inmate control difficult and in turn makes attempts at controlled programs ineffective.

The issue of overcrowding has been present for several years. Increased sentences and incarceration for minor offenses are leading to an ineffective system of punishment, inhumane conditions and little benefit for society. Research indicates that more people are being incarcerated for petty crimes and less crime is being prevented (Johnson and Raphael, 2007). For rehabilitation programs to be effective overcrowding must be eliminated and prisons should be reserved for the most violent offenders.

With this discovery, a new support for rehabilitation has emerged (Berman et al. 2005). Legislation in support of prisoner rights has made it possible to re-evaluate the possibility of re-integrating programs as part of the prison system (Simon, 2008:10). There have already been programs established that attempt to help prisoners after they are released from prison. The first few months after they are released are crucial and are often indicators of whether or not the former inmate will succeed outside of prison. One of the major factors involved is money. Many of these individuals do not have support from families and are left alone. They may experience homelessness and revert to a life of crime to survive.

Transitional cash assistance programs have been experimented with to evaluate how effective they would be in terms of recidivism (Mallar and Thorton, 1978; Rossi, Berk, and Lenihan, 1980). One program failed and was found to have no effect on recidivism as well as a negative effect on former inmate labor. Researchers believe that these effects were due to “idleness”. The lack of daily activity causes boredom and increases the likelihood of criminal activity (Rossi, Berk, and Lenihan, 1980). Cash assistance programs could be modified to provide help for the individual for a limited period while they find employment.

Finding employment is another form of help that could be provided for released inmates. Programs that teach basic skills would increase the chances of employment and allow for a more successful reentry to society. They would form relationships with co-workers and have income to minimize their financial problems. Transitional employment programs such as the National Supported Work Program and the New York Center for Employment Opportunities have had a positive impact on the prevention of recidivism (D. Bloom et al. 2007). Aside from helping with financial transitions, there are also programs that provide assistance for the inmates who are still in prison and who are soon to be released.

Recently developed programs are built on the idea that reentry begins while the individual is still in prison. A multiagency federal initiative called the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative provides grants to prisons and local agencies to create programs that “provide holistic, complete and coordinated reentry services that begin prerelease and continue through the parole terms of releasees” (Raphael, 2011). Prisoners are given assessments before they are released and are helped with reentry plans as well as provided with connections to community resources.

Researchers are still evaluating the impact of these programs. Further research is needed to modify rehabilitation and transitional programs to create and effective system that helps former inmates reenter society while taking into account the psychological effects that prison has had on them.


The rehabilitation of prisoners and their successful transition from prison life to life outside of prison is beneficial both to the former inmates and to everyone in society. The former inmates who are given a chance for rehabilitation have enough help with the transition to society to ease the fear that the negative psychological effects they have developed in prison will control their lives. If they are not taught how to live in society and deal with everyday problems or given the resources they need to survive, the anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms will take control and they will be overwhelmed. This will increase the probability of recidivism and the individual will find himself back in prison.

Aside from helping the individual, prisoner rehabilitation would also have a positive impact on society. Crime rates would decrease and the released inmates would be able to become productive members of society and positive figures in the community. For families and loved ones of released inmates, the help would allow them to once again form a relationship with the individual that they might not have had a chance to create if the former inmate was stressed and overwhelmed.

The struggles of former inmates are sometimes overlooked by those who see only criminals who deserve to be punished. Society must change the way we view these individuals and realize that by helping them, we are helping ourselves. By attempting to understand the psychological impact of being locked in a prison, communities and authorities can begin to find ways of keeping the order while making the punishment humane and minimizing the negative effects on inmates.