The Effects of Incarceration on Mental Health


Although jail time might seem like a distant possibility for most people, incarceration rates in the United States are steadily rising. One study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 41% of young adults have been arrested by the time they are 23. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that 6.6% of people serve time in prison at some point in their lives, and the statistic rises to a shocking 32% for African-American men. More than half of inmates are diagnosed with a mental health disorder.


As state mental hospitals continue to close and mental health services remain financially out of reach for many people, this number may rise. Moreover, prison itself can exacerbate preexisting mental health issues and create new mental health challenges among those who had never experienced them.

Mental Health Care Behind Bars

Jails and prisons are required to provide basic health care for inmates, but the quality of this care varies greatly. Often, prison-based mental health care focuses on stabilizing, rather than treating, inmates. A person experiencing hallucinations or psychosis might get medication to control the most severe symptoms, but people with anxietyissues , depression , Post traumatic stress , and other mental health conditions that don’t cause radical changes in behavior may go untreated. Prisoners rarely, if ever, get therapy or comprehensive treatment, so mental health issues that were previously controlled with medication and therapy may get much worse during incarceration.

Prison and Trauma

Even for the most hardened criminals, prison can be a scary place. The DOJ reports that 70,000 prisoners are sexually abused every year, and assaults, fights, and other acts of violence are common in a prison setting. But violence isn’t limited to inmates; prison guards work in a high-stress environment that can increase their likelihood of becoming violent. With little hope for reporting abuse by guards, some inmates may endure verbal abuse, threats of physical violence, and even severe attacks. Women inmates are at an increased risk of being sexually assaulted by jail and prison guards. This ongoing climate of trauma can create anxiety, depression, phobias , and PTSD in prisoners who previously had no serious mental health issues.

Lack of Support

Prisoners are, by definition, cut off from the rest of society, and their access to supportive friends and family may be limited. Many jails have instituted mail policies prohibiting letters and magazine subscriptions, and these policies can eliminate prisoners’ ability to communicate with and receive support from loved ones. Phone calls from jail can be costly, and prisoners from impoverished backgrounds may have families who can’t afford to cover the costs of collect calls, however infrequent. There’s little hope for getting any support in prison, as many prisoners are concerned more with gaining respect and avoiding fights in a relentless pursuit of safety. Support from loved ones can play a critical role in helping people overcome mental challenges, and isolation can increase a person’s risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Getting Out

Most prisoners have ignored basic rules of society, so it can be difficult for prisoner rights issues to garner much public sympathy. But many prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes that are the result of Substance Addiction . And even inmates incarcerated for violent crimes do not typically serve life sentences. Most prisoners are ultimately released, and the mental health issues they develop in prison can increase their risk of reoffending and make it difficult to reenter society as a productive, nonthreatening citizen. Almost 70% of people who have been incarcerated are arrested again within three years, and the dire state of mental health care in prisons could play a significant role in this high rate of recidivism.

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