PrisonLIFE Experience: Psychological Aspects

Prisoners and Vulnerability

Prisoners are detained because they offended some of the fundamental norms of society, which is why their rights are limited, but this also decreases the empathy of the public towards them. Despite the significance of the crimes they committed, it should be acknowledged that the majority of prisoners were sentenced for non-violent crimes that are often related to drug addiction. Most offenders are eventually released but their psychological problems (which develop or worsen during their prison sentence) are associated with the increased risk of repeating the offence.

Additionally, prisoners are often characterized by weak physical and psychological health, alcohol and drug addiction, and mental disorders. At the same time, their access to health services is limited both in the community and in detention. On top of that, additional factors such as poverty, unemployment, debt, poor education, and poor status in society, can further deteriorate mental health. How does the experience of prison life affect such a vulnerable group?

Prison Life and Mental Health

Time spent in prison represents a unique experience associated with a greater risk of mental health conditions. One of the main stress factors is the limitation of freedom. Freedom of physical movement is limited by physical barriers such as walls, bars, cells, narrow roads, and corridors but also by surveillance and control of everyday activities. Prisoners live by strict schedules and have limited time for sleeping, eating, and performing physical activities. The prison life experience is also often characterized by monotony and lack of stimulation. Confronted with such living conditions, many offenders reach out to illegal substances to cope with boredom.

Another equally important factor is isolation and detachment from society, most notably from family and friends. Separation often increases the distance and makes bonding difficult, because the necessary security measures of the institution affect the communication and maintenance of interpersonal relationships. Separation from children is particularly stressful for parents, where, in addition to guilt and anxiety, there is also the fear of losing the relationship between parents and children.

Destructive Outcomes and Personality Structure

The loss of freedom, autonomy, and lack of sense of purpose creates a fertile ground for the development of addiction and helplessness as well as increased stress, frustration, and anger. In addition, long periods of loneliness and isolation from the outside world, followed by worry contribute to the intensification of tension. Such created or increased (existing) tension can be a constellation of emotions such as intense guilt, anxiety, depression, fear, anger and aggression. Depending on the ways a prisoner copes with such emotions, some of the possible outcomes can be destructive behavior and tragic outcomes.

Depending on the personality structure, destructiveness can be manifested towards oneself or toward others. When prisoners are self-destructive, their dominant emotions are depression and anxiety, and they often result in withdrawal and isolation from others, various forms of self-harm or even suicide. Persons who are destructive toward others typically feel anger which manifests as impulsiveness and aggression that occasionally results in violence. Hence, destructive outcomes, either through self-harm or harming others, are a motive to examine both the personality structure and adequacy of the treatment.

Mental Health and Recidivism

One of the aspects of the work on improvement of prison life quality is research focusing on causes of destructive outcomes depending on the personality structure as well as individual prison life experiences and adequacy of treatments. Prisoners inclined towards violent behavior can be stabilized by improving their mental health while they are imprisoned, and this can reduce recidivism in the long run. A focus on the disciplinary aspect of behavior delivers positive effects of prison life and nurtures a system that recognizes that treatments should prepare convicts for the return to the community.

Nikola Drndarević


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