Research Roundup: Incarceration Can Cause Lasting Damage to Mental Health



Prison Policy Initiative: Katie Rose Quandt and Alexi Jones - May 13, 2021


We often talk about the disturbingly high numbers of people with mental health disorders locked up in prisons and jails. But less attention is paid to the ways in which incarceration itself perpetuates this problem by creating and worsening symptoms of mental illness. Research shows that, while it varies from person to person, incarceration is linked to mood disorders including major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.


The carceral environment can be inherently damaging to mental health by removing people from society and eliminating meaning and purpose from their lives. On top of that, the appalling conditions common in prisons and jails — such as overcrowding, solitary confinement, and routine exposure to violence — can have further negative effects. Researchers have even theorized that incarceration can lead to “Post-Incarceration Syndrome,” a syndrome similar to PTSD, meaning that even after serving their official sentences, many people continue to suffer the mental effects.


Incarceration Itself is Inherently Harmful to People’s Health

Many of the defining features of incarceration are linked to negative mental health outcomes, including disconnection from family, loss of autonomy, boredom and lack of purpose, and unpredictability of surroundings. Prof. Craig Haney, an expert on the psychological effects of imprisonment and prison isolation, explains, “At the very least, prison is painful, and incarcerated persons often suffer long-term consequences from having been subjected to pain, deprivation, and extremely atypical patterns and norms of living and interacting with others.” And as Dr. Seymour L. Halleck has observed, “The prison environment is almost diabolically conceived to force the offender to experience the pangs of what many psychiatrists would describe as mental illness.”


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