Psychological Effects of Long Term Incarceration Draft 1

Psychological Effects of Long Term Prison Sentences

On Inmates

Chrystal Garcia




























For years prison has been viewed as the home of the world’s criminals and outcasts. It has been a place to lock up people that do not fit into society and its “normal” population. However, in recent years the question has arisen of whether the prison system is more harmful than it is helpful. The prison system was first built with specific goals in mind. It was meant not only to deter criminals from breaking laws and hurting others, but also to rehabilitate those who have fallen into a life of crime. Over the years the focus shifted from rehabilitation to deterrence and punishment. Recent research shows that this new focus may be inflicting negative psychological effects on inmates with long-term sentences.

As researcher Craig Haney found in his study of the prison system, the current manner of dealing with crime is extremely individualistic. The sole purpose of prison systems today has been to find more ways to punish those who are locked away in prisons and to arrest more people for the profit of those that own the prisons. This is causing a problem in society that cannot be fixed unless those who are committing the crimes are given the help they need. Prisons themselves are partly responsible for creating more crime because of the way they are structured and operated.

The push for longer sentences and laws such as the “three strikes” law have made prison life more difficult with overcrowding and mixing of inmates with minor offenses and those with major offenses. As Haney observed from his research, laws that increase the length of sentences seem to be created not for public safety, but for the profit of those that are in control. Many states have even created long term isolation units for those that they believe to be the most dangerous offenders. When these units were first being tested, a judge noted that they “may press on the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate”. These inhumane forms of punishment are causing more harm to the inmates and in turn to society.

Adam Hirsh, who studied the transformation of the prison system during the 19th century found that these inhumane forms of punishment came from the idea that crime was the result of individuals who were out of control. When they are locked away in prisons, they are made to follow a structure that subjugates them and allows those in charge to take control of their actions and with that, their psychological well being. It is believed that by taking control and stripping them of their rights, it is easier to force them to conform and learn that they must follow the rules of society. However, by doing exposing these individuals to this cruel punishment and isolation, they are adding more psychological problems and are making it more difficult for them to function when they are released into society once again.

Inmates have been observed to have anxiety due to a “failure to cope with prison life” (Lipton, 1960) towards the middle of their sentence. As they reached the end of their prison stay, many prisoners experienced more anxiety as well as irritability. Researchers found that this was due to the fact that they were experiencing fear of dealing with the outside world. They have been locked away from society and forced into a place where all the decisions are made for them and they are in constant fear of everyone around them.

Melissa Munn, a researcher from Okanagan College in Canada interviewed former inmates who were incarcerated for long periods of time. These prisoners had served between 10 and 30 years and told of their experiences upon being released. She found that the length of the sentences had a great effect on the psychological well-being of the individual because the longer they were in prison, the more traumatic events they experienced or witnessed. They witness murders and tension between gangs as well as the trauma of being isolated from their families for so long. Because of the trauma they endure while in prison, they have more difficulties reintegrating into society when they are released. One inmate tells of his constant fear when he was released of authorities watching him everywhere he went to see if he made a mistake so they could take him back. This came from his experience in prison where the guards are constantly watching the inmates and are distributing punishment for any mistakes they make.

Along with this fear of being sent back, former inmates must learn to live in a world that has gone through many changes since the last time they saw it. Prisons are so busy attempting to punish these individuals and force them to conform to the laws in the prison that they do not bother to focus at all on the need to teach them how to live in society. They are left with the emotional damage from prison as well as the damage they were already dealing with when they first stepped onto the prison grounds. As a prisoner in Munn’s study states, they got “emotional scars” that will never leave them.

In prison, these inmates live under a different set of rules from those that we live by outside of prison. A former inmate named Bobby for example, mentions in his interview that they must deal with dilemmas such as what to do if they witness another inmate being killed or hurt in prison. They must consider not only their moral views on the issue, but also the consequences that they will face based on the action that they choose to take. Often times they must set aside their sense of humanity to survive. The more time they spend in environments such as these, the more effects it will have on their lives in the future.

Many of the prisoners in the study revealed that they had trouble interacting and creating healthy relationships with others when they were released. This resulted from the fact that in prison, they were only able to interact with other inmates, many of which were ruthless or simply trying to survive as they were. Those who were incarcerated longer found it more difficult to interact with people on the outside because it had been longer since they were able to interact with anyone other than those who were inside the prison walls. They were forced to re-learn everything they knew about people and how to read them and behave around them. One example of this difficulty with interaction was situations with women.

In prison, the men in the study had little interaction with women. Most of them based their perceptions of women on magazines they had access to or on their previous interactions with women. For those who had been incarcerated since they were very young, their previous interactions with women were very limited. When these men were released, they found that the women that they were expected to show interest in were much older and different from those that they had known before their incarceration. They were unable to grasp the idea that they were no longer young and could no longer try to associate with younger women.

Relationships were also dangerous for these men. Since they were labeled as “ex-convicts” or criminals, they were seen as potentially dangerous and were allowed less room for mistakes than anyone else. The men claimed that they were well aware of the fact that any altercation they had with their spouse or anyone they had a relationship with would lead to harsher punishment for them because they carry the label of ex-convict.

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.


Bukstel, L.H., Kilmann, P.R. (1980). Psychological effects of imprisonment on confined

Individuals.  Psychological Bulletin, 88(2), 469-493.


Haney, C. (1997). Psychology and the Limits to Prison Pain. Psychology, Public Policy, and

            Law, 4(4), 499-588.


Munn, M. (2011). Living in the aftermath: the impact of lengthy incarceration on post-carceral

Success. The Howard Journal, 50(3), 233-246.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2311.2011.00663.x



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