Hands of the prisoner on a steel lattice close up

Everything You Need to Know About Prison Psychology: The Psychological Impact of Institutionalization

Even though the U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population, it’s got 25% of the world’s prisoners

Most people can’t imagine being a prisoner. It’s even hard to imagine a loved one in prison. 

Think about it. You’d have no space of your own. No choice about what to eat or when to sleep.

For many people, what makes it worse is you’re separated from your family and friends. It’s traumatic.

So, you’re probably not surprised that psychological studies have discovered that prisoners develop a number of mental health problems.

In this article, you can discover how institutionalization affest prison psychology. 

1. You’re Not the Same Person

Have you ever heard someone say, “people never really change”?

Or maybe you’ve been warned, “don’t try to change people.” 

Many people assume that our personality develops during childhood. But then, we stop changing when we reach adulthood.

By this time, many people think that our personalities remain mostly the same for the rest of our lives.

However, research has shown that actually, people can fundamentally change according to experience. Most importantly, the experience of incarceration results in a number of drastic changes to human psychology. 

According to researchers, the long-term effects of imprisonment changed who you are as a person. Or, as one inmate put it after numerous years in prison, “you ain’t the same” as when you were sentenced. 

But, it’s not only long-term imprisonment which has this effect.

A 2018 study also found that prisoners underwent significant personality changes after only a few months in prison

That’s why it’s important to keep this in mind if your loved one gets arrested. If possible, try and secure a bail bond to at least let them settle things at home before their sentencing date.

The bail bond process can be a little tricky. If you’re facing this situation, contact Alamo City Bail Bonds to find out more on how it works. 

2. Indecision Due to Lack of Choice

In prison, you don’t get to decide anything for yourself. Somebody else determines everything for you.

Therefore, do you lose the ability to make decisions and choices for yourself anymore? The researchers say “yes.”

Researchers conducted interviews with over 20 former “lifers” (prisoners with life sentences) in Boston, Massachusets. They found that even small decisions become a challenge.

The former inmates continued to struggle with making choices about small and big matters throughout the rest of their lives.

The researchers concluded that the inmates developed so-called “institutionalized personality traits.” One of the most prominent of which was a “hampered decision-making” capacity.

3. Lack of Privacy

The loss of privacy has always been a fundamental part of imprisonment.

According to one former-prisoner, there are no limits to the removal of privacy from inmates. He writes, “privacy doesn’t exist in prison!”

From the day you arrive in prison, to the day you’re released, you’re monitored by the prison authorities.

If you’re stripped of your private life, this can have a number of consequences of your life after release.

You adjust to being watched while you do basic things, such as eat your meals, sleep at night and shower.

4. Paranoia About Other People

Furthermore, in prison inmates experience the constant fear of violence and abuse from other prisoners. You always have to be on your guard.

Therefore, it’s impossible to feel safe in such a volatile environment. You simply can’t trust anyone!

Therefore, upon release, the prisoners continue to struggle with relationships because of severe distrust.

According to one former prisoner, “you cannot trust anybody in the joint.” He added, “I do have an issue with trust, I just do not trust anybody.”

As a result, many former inmates experience chronic paranoia. This makes it especially difficult to form new relationships. Many even struggle to reconnect with friends and family after release.

5. Emotional Numbing 

The constant threat of violence and abuse in prison means that prisoners cannot show emotional vulnerability.

You always need to demonstrate your strength to dissuade other inmates from causing you any harm.

However, researchers have argued that results in a process of “emotional numbing” in which former-prisoners can no longer express themselves emotionally.

According to one prisoner, “It does harden you. It does make you a bit more distant.” 

As another prisoner puts it, “I, kind of, don’t have feelings for people” anymore.

Psychologists call this “extreme low neuroticism.” People who demonstrate this personality trait also test low for extraversion and low for agreeability.

Such traits make it extremely difficult to assimilate back into society following release. 

6. Dependent on Rules and Routines

Prisoners have to follow strict rules and routines which govern their everyday lives. 

Prisoners have committed a crime which is against the law. It is assumed that they are incapable of following rules in society. And therefore, stricter and harsher rules are imposed. 

This may improve the capacity of prisoners to follow rules. And yet, this also makes inmates dependent on these rules, which makes it difficult to give up after release.

Researchers have found that this can result in so-called “gate fever”. This refers to the fear of leaving prison after the sentence is up.

However, other studies produce results which shows that the prison environment helps to increase “agreeableness” in prisoners. 

According to the researchers, “such an environment places demands on inmates to acquire order to avoid both formal punishment and negative acts from co-inmates.” 

Therefore, prisoners learn to behave because the consequences of not following the rules of the institution are so severe.

What to Know About Prison Psychology

Now you know how imprisonment can affect the human mind.

The growing body of research on prison psychology has unlocked many insights into how incarceration influences human beings. The results are not only interesting for scholars, but it also has important implications for wider society.

Do we want prisons to concentrate on punishment or rehabilitation of inmates? 

The answer to this question should influence how we design the prison environment for the future. 

Do you want to discover more about how crime affects human psychology? Check out our blog post on the mental health of victims of sexual crimes.