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Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Postprison Adjustment (From Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities, P 33-66, 2003, Jeremy Travis and Michelle Waul, eds. -- See NCJ-205850)

NCJ Number
Craig Haney
Date Published
This chapter examines some of the psychological costs of imprisonment for inmates and their implications for adjustment in the community after release, concluding with some programmatic and policy-oriented suggestions to minimize disruptions in the transition from prison to home.
The discussion begins with an overview of current conditions in America's prisons. It notes that the rapidly expanding inmate population and the resulting high levels of overcrowding in prisons across the country have adversely affected conditions of confinement, jeopardized prisoner safety, compromised prison management, and greatly limited prisoner access to meaningful programming. Coupled with these deteriorating prison conditions has been the dramatic change in the rationale for imprisonment. In de-emphasizing the goal of rehabilitation while emphasizing punishment and incapacitation, the availability of quality treatment programs has declined. Thus, in the first decade of the 21st century, more people have been subjected to the adverse environment of prisons for longer periods and under conditions that promote greater psychological distress and potential long-term dysfunction among inmates. Imprisonment per se can create habits of thinking and acting that are dysfunctional outside the prison walls. Life within the institutionalized regimen of prisons tends to produce the following psychological adaptations among inmates: dependence on institutional structure and contingencies; hypervigilance, interpersonal distrust, and suspicion; emotional overcontrol, alienation, and psychological distancing; social withdrawal and isolation; the incorporation of exploitative norms of prison culture; a diminished sense of self-worth and personal value; and posttraumatic stress reactions to the pains of imprisonment. Although all who are imprisoned will adapt their behaviors to cope with prison life, individual inmates adopt differing coping and adaptive mechanisms. Inmates who are particularly vulnerable to the negative psychological impact of imprisonment are alcohol-addicted and drug-addicted inmates, mentally ill and developmentally disabled inmates, and inmates in supermax or solitary confinement. The psychological consequences of incarceration create significant impediments to successful postprison adjustment in the community. These effects may interfere with the inmate's transition from prison to home, impede an ex-inmate's successful reintegration into a social network and employment setting, and compromise a formerly incarcerated parent's ability to resume his/her role with family and children. This chapter concludes with recommendations that focus on policies and programs that can reduce the adverse impacts of imprisonment and better prepare ex-inmates for successful adjustment in their families and communities. The recommendations focus on prison conditions, policies, and procedures; transitional services to prepare inmates for release into the community; and community-based services to facilitate and maintain reintegration in the community. 15 notes and 68 references