By Sophia Young
Incarceration may be a judicial and rectification process for the criminals and convicts, but when in prison, their and their families’ mental health is severely impacted.
The effects of incarceration on mental health are far-reaching and can be devastating for both those incarcerated as well as their families.
Numerous studies have shown that the experience of incarceration can lead to a wealth of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, the stigma and shame associated with being incarcerated can make it difficult for individuals to reintegrate into society following their release, further exacerbating mental health issues.
For family members, the effects of incarceration can be just as profound. The loss of a loved one in prison can lead to feelings of grief, isolation, and anger. In some cases, family members may also experience financial hardship as a result of their loved one’s incarceration.
The toll that incarceration takes on mental health is significant and should not be underestimated. Although the United States incarceration rate has fallen in recent years, it’s clear that more work needs to be done to address the issue—more than 1.8 million Americans were incarcerated as of 2021.
With a better understanding of the effects of incarceration on mental health, we can begin to develop policies and programs that will help reduce its negative impact. In this article, we’ll explore the mental health effects of incarceration, both for those incarcerated and their families.
How incarceration affects prisoners’ mental health
Civilians face many stressors that can lead to mental health problems. For prisoners, these stressors are often magnified.
If you believe that offenders deserve punishment, then you may view these mental health problems as part of the natural consequences that come with breaking the law. But this is not an accurate or helpful way to think about the issue.
The reality is that most prisoners are not hardened criminals; instead, they are people who have made mistakes and are doing their best to rehabilitate themselves. The last thing we should be doing is compounding their problems by subjecting them to an environment that is known to cause mental health issues.
Incarceration can cause mental health problems for several reasons:
First, prisoners are typically cut off from their support systems, which can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Staying in touch with a loved one in jail is rife with challenges, both logistical and financial. And even if prisoners can maintain contact, the experience of being incarcerated can be so traumatic that it’s difficult for them to discuss it with their loved ones.
Second, the living conditions in many prisons are deplorable, with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate access to medical care being common complaints. Even if they’re not facing direct violence, prisoners may constantly feel on edge, leading to anxiety and stress.
Third, the routine of prison life is often monotonous and lacking in stimulation, which can lead to boredom and depression. For many prisoners, the days blend together, leaving them feeling hopeless and trapped.
Fourth, prisoners are routinely subjected to degrading and humiliating treatment, which can inflict serious psychological damage. In some cases, prisoners may be verbally abused, physically assaulted, or sexually victimized by other inmates or prison staff—leading to PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
Finally, the stigma of being incarcerated can follow prisoners long after they’re released, making it difficult for them to find employment or housing. Despite technically paying their debt to society, they often find themselves ostracized and alone on the outside. Many prisoners end up returning to the same old habits that got them incarcerated in the first place, perpetuating the cycle of crime and punishment.
How incarceration impacts families’ mental health
Aside from the prisoners themselves, no one is more affected by incarceration than their families. The loss of a loved one to prison can lead to a wide range of negative emotions, including grief, isolation, and anger.
In addition, family members often suffer financially when a loved one is incarcerated. In some cases, they may be responsible for paying the prisoner’s court-related fees. They may also have to shoulder the burden of maintaining the household on a single income. And if the prisoner is the primary caretaker, the family may need to find childcare or pay for other expenses related to their absence.
The mental health effects of incarceration don’t end there. Children with a parent in prison are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. They may also have difficulty in school, both academically and socially. And the trauma of having a parent incarcerated can leave them at risk of developing PTSD later in life.
What can be done to help?
The cycle of incarceration and mental illness can seem impossible to break. Too often, we view prisoners as criminals and forget that they’re human beings with real emotions and needs. We need to remember that most prisoners will eventually be released back into society, so it’s in our best interest to help them rehabilitate while they’re incarcerated.
This means providing prisoners with access to mental health services, including therapy and medication. It also means improving the living conditions in prisons and ensuring that prisoners are treated with dignity and respect. Finally, it means breaking the stigma of incarceration by investing in programs that help ex-prisoners reintegrate into society.
Only by working together can we hope to break the cycle of incarceration and mental illness. But if we’re willing to put in the effort, we can make a difference in the lives of prisoners and their families.