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The Effects of Incarceration on Mental Health

Hands resting on prison bars

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 anxiety issues, depression, posttraumatic 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.


  1. Chaddock, G. R. (2003, August 18). US notches world’s highest incarceration rate. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0818/p02s01-usju.html
  2. Gann, C. (2011, December 19). Study: Significant number of young Americans get arrested. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/arrests-increasing-us-youth/story?id=15180222
  3. James, D. J., & Glaze, L. E. (2006, December 14). Mental health problems of prison and jail inmates [PDF]. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  4. Purdy, M. (1995, December 19). Brutality behind bars. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/19/nyregion/brutality-behind-bars-special-report-prison-s-violent-culture-enveloping-its.html?pagewanted=all
  5. Recidivism. (n.d.). Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Retrieved from http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp
  6. Sakala, L. (2013, February 7). Return to sender: Postcard-only mail policies in jails. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from http://www.prisonpolicy.org/postcards/report.html
  7. U.S.: Federal justie statistics show widespread prison rape. (2007, December 16). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from http://www.hrw.org/news/2007/12/15/us-federal-statistics-show-widespread-prison-rape
  8. U.S.: Number of mentally ill in prisons quadrupled. (2006, September 6). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from http://www.hrw.org/news/2006/09/05/us-number-mentally-ill-prisons-quadrupled

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  • Jennifer martin March 16th, 2013 at 6:09 AM #1

    How would your mental health be if you were locked up in a cell? Not too strong I guess

  • ben March 16th, 2013 at 11:38 PM #2

    more than half of all prisoners have a mental wealth disorder?no expert here but isn’t that too much to be true?and of they’re not providing mental health care how do they have these figures?they couldn’t possibly be diagnosing the inmates and then carry on without treatment,could they?!whatever be the case we need better conditions in prisons.its not supposed to be a holiday yes but it can at least stop being the hell it is now.

  • Freddie March 18th, 2013 at 4:00 AM #3

    The prison system in this country is sick
    We lock up these people who need help mentally
    and think that just because they are behind bars they will “learn their lesson” amd will not repeat the bad behavior again.
    Serioussly, most of these guys are just doing their time and learning about how to become an even better criminal
    Either that or their disorder is getting even worse and they continue to receive no treatment

  • alison March 19th, 2013 at 3:59 AM #4

    most people are not concerned about their mental health, just getting them off the streets

  • nicole pruitt pack June 13th, 2013 at 8:10 PM #5

    I have been incarcercerated for 3 years at leath correctional in greenwood, sc. I am currently out and doing wonderful, but there are things from my experience that haunt me. I went to lock up for a month while I was there and I watched a woman(my cellmate), die from diabetes from lack of insulin. The doctors and guards thought she was mentally unstable, when in fact she needed her meds, and the negligance of the staff there allowed her to pass away. The mental abuse from c.o’s at correctional facilitys is astounding! I still have nightmares from the things I’ve heard and seen. There should be another alternitinive to incarceration for non-violent crimes. The government is just creating more criminals, or giving petty criminals more education into being better criminals. FIX IT!!!

  • jeffrey August 28th, 2013 at 2:31 PM #6

    I was incarcerated for 10 months for second offense ouil (.11). Prior to my incarceration I was sent for an inpatient substance abuse evaluation. At the intake, I was assaulted and forced to sign release forms. I notified the staff, including 4 Dr.’s. One listened to my complaints and apparently took action. The physician in charge though, simply removed the paperwork and replaced it with unsigned copies. In jail, I was a trustee and witnessed the beating of a clearly mentally ill man, the horrific euthanization of a beautiful St. Bernard, and regular psychological abuse of inmates by two specific deputies. In all these situations, I was told basically “if you say a word to anyone, you’ll forever wish you hadn’t.” I broke the law but never imparted abuse on anyone like these deputies did to many. Thankfully, most deputies are not ill.

  • Tracey October 19th, 2013 at 11:33 AM #7

    Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles is said to be the largest mental health institution in the country (or maybe the world ?) my loved one has Alzheimers which is NOT a mental illness but the courts & jails have no separate classification. He was kept in solitary for 24/7, for 7 months straight, because it was the only way to “care for him” there. He was there b/c he was attacked and fought back.

  • Theresa October 27th, 2014 at 2:33 PM #8

    My boyfriend and I started dating a little over a month when he was first sent to Davies DeKalb County Jail in Pattonsburg Missouri. The first time I went to visit him the sight of the jail is just eerie. It’s in a small town in the middle of BFE in northwest Missouri. It was small, extremely small, it had to be first come first serve when you were visiting and only once a week, the visiting room was a closet that only 3-4 inmates/visitors were afford. My boyfriend would tell me how awful it was all the time, dirt floors, nasty unedible crap that looked like food, the staff were mean, cruel, and unorganized. I’ve never been to prison so I could at the last imagine. Anyways he wasn’t there too long until they sent him to Western Correctional Facility in St. Joe then on to Boonville where he served the remaining of his shock time. When he came home we were looking on the internet and came across Pattonsburg and reading an article of an inmates death due to harsh and neglected treatment. When I seen his face after reading the article is like he was replaying the things that happened in his head and he started to tear up. To this day, which has been over a year now, he hasn’t told me anything about prison, which I never ask, all I hear is about some buddies he grew closer to and wondering how he could find them. All this time there been major strains on or relationship. I’ve never cheated, but I get blamed for it, he doesn’t like being out in public too long, he gets nervous when alot of people are around, it’s even got to the point where he’s kept me from my friends and family. I’m still encouraging or trying to anyway to please seek help. But everything I say to him is blown off and ignored. I hate to leave him because I don’t know what would happen to him, but I don’t want to pressure him either for fear he bottles up more. I love him dearly and so do my kids, but, I just don’t know what else to do! Any advice is helpful and appreciated

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