The Effects of Incarceration on Mental Health

Hands resting on prison barsAlthough 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
  2. Gann, C. (2011, December 19). Study: Significant number of young Americans get arrested. ABC News. Retrieved from
  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
  5. Recidivism. (n.d.). Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Retrieved from
  6. Sakala, L. (2013, February 7). Return to sender: Postcard-only mail policies in jails. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from
  7. U.S.: Federal justie statistics show widespread prison rape. (2007, December 16). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from
  8. U.S.: Number of mentally ill in prisons quadrupled. (2006, September 6). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jennifer martin

    March 16th, 2013 at 6:09 AM

    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

    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

    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

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

  • Convict

    March 10th, 2017 at 5:23 AM

    Yes, and guess what ? Most of us are not held forever. People that think that punish, punish, punish
    is the answer. You make us more hateful, and we tend to take it out back on society. Imagine, even when
    you try to do the right thing and stay out of trouble, once you convicted you are always a convict. You are
    discriminated against in employment and housing, and never regain full civil rights. Deprive people of
    a way to make gainful employment, hope for the future, self-esteem, a sense of place in this society, is
    it any wonder for the high rate of recidivism ? And to those who say ” it will never be me, so who cares ?” One
    mistake in a lifetime is all that it takes to get caught is the systems web forever.


    April 9th, 2017 at 2:42 PM

    They really should be treating mental illnesses before they become a problem that can’t be reversed. So many people with mental illnesses and non- violent- crimes/ felonies that didn’t effect anyone else no have to live life as a felon. Which is ultimately the result of the system ignoring and not willing to give services to the ones who really need it. Bottom line is that the system is corrupt and continues to diminish. And as a result we end up paying the price for their error.

  • nicole pruitt pack

    June 13th, 2013 at 8:10 PM

    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

    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

    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

    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

  • humpty dumpty

    September 11th, 2016 at 4:02 AM

    I have battled with intense PTSD from multiple prolonged incarsorations as a youth all my adult life I recently in the last year began personal trauma therapy once a week and not all but a lot of my broken pieces are coming together I am engaged and am expecting a baby girl soon it is still terrifying but my quality of life and ability to have good lasting relationships has improved the anxiety in public is what is refered to as hypervigilance it is one of the hardest things to overcome and often leads to unintentional emotional or physical outburst I’m sorry for you and your loved one for what has happened and I can’t urge you both enough to seek out trauma therapy it doesn’t happen over night and maybe the first or even second therapist isn’t the right person but you will find the right one and it will help to heal over time look up PTSD CPT therapy and decide if it sounds relevant I wish you both the very best of luck and my heart goes out to you both PTSD is a disease that hurts not only the person struggling with it but all the loved ones who watch it break us apart.
    a broken man to a broken man

  • Brandon

    June 7th, 2015 at 3:14 AM

    This week I just got out of jail. I have a kid on the way. I almost didn’t get out. It was very expensive for phone calls. In the three months we spent almost a thousand dollars. I am still shook up little some. I have to rely on others helping me temporary. I was shocked an old warrant suspended my life on hold. Thank goodness I’m home now and can be here for my wife and our first kid. At times noises and people give me anxiety. I couldn’t sleep for two days because my mind worries. Writing this help.

  • Carl

    October 13th, 2015 at 9:43 AM

    Thanks need that perspective!

  • Reena E.

    June 18th, 2015 at 1:58 AM

    When a person is in jail, the only thing they could hold on to is their sanity. Its really difficult when you’re isolated from the people you love. Virginia Prison Calls should be provided to people who are incarcerated so that they would be relieved of the stresses of prison life and so they would go back to their family emotionally and psychologically healthy.

  • Krist

    July 17th, 2015 at 6:09 AM

    My boyfriend was in prison for four years. He is now out and I had no emotional or financial support when he was prison. I was very stressed that I couldn’t help him any longer. When he was released I have been there for him since day one. He is obviously not the same. He short, cold and hard. At times he shows little emotion. He holds a lot inside. I try to understand that he was away for four years and probably has some resentment for me plus not being around females causes lack of being sensitive. Thats hard for me. All inmates released and family members need some kind of support, counseling. They deserve a second chance. Examples are: work, be able to rent a place. They did their time. They get judged in everything. Things need to change.

  • Krist

    July 17th, 2015 at 6:13 AM

    Its hard for them. I cant say understand because I dont. It puts a stress on anyone released from prison. Its like post traumatic syndrome like being in war.

  • bernice

    July 29th, 2015 at 11:51 AM

    its very sad for the inmates and hard for the family, and its a freakin joke to correction facil they just laugh

  • Silvi

    July 31st, 2015 at 10:15 AM

    Its very important to read all consequences after jail. I had a boyfriend he went to jail 8 times, after jail they do worst, he bit me and now has full criminal record. I could not help him and unfortunately goes to jail again. The guy did not learn. Everything I red about prisoners in jail its true. He was that behavior, they are f* up if they went many times and did not do a good recover treatment . Its very sad….

  • Daryl M.

    October 25th, 2015 at 1:25 PM

    I am 54 years old and have spent over 22 years actually incarcerated in Maximum security prisons in California. I have been out since December 2014. I moved to Minnesota. I am severely effected in many ways from my time in prison. I have severe anxiety attacks. I want to die. I really do. I want to get some attention from authorities so I can get help. I am ready to explode. I am nonviolent but I must do something to get “their” attention so I can get APPROPRIATE help. I am so lonely, I miss my mommy, she is the only one who ever loved me unconditionally. Prison is horrible. I am left with emotional scarring for life. I cant keep a job, I am a kleptomaniac. My life in prison created this, I want to stop and cant. Please help me. Please help. If anyone knows of a professional who can help. You might wonder why I put my phone number on here. I am desperate. I need help.

  • GoodTherapy Admin

    GoodTherapy Admin

    October 25th, 2015 at 10:15 PM

    If you would like to consult with mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage,, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here:

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

  • Laura Cat

    July 18th, 2016 at 9:32 AM

    Hi. If you’re wanting to die, that’s what is called a psychiatric emergency. You need to go to your nearest emergency room, and they will most likely commit you to a mental hospital. There, you will get intensive treatment. On average, you’ll probably be there for about a week or less. They will also set you up with an appointment with a psychiatrist before they discharge you. Good luck, and life is worth living. This too shall pass.

  • Juan

    September 27th, 2016 at 6:21 PM

    When u find it let me knoe I use to be a good boy growing up in a extreme ruff Barrio untill I got lockt up doing years in jail county now a days u doo ur prison time in the county 0 % of activities complete isolation dorms nf cells and on GSU for 6 years I feel u homie

  • Convict

    March 10th, 2017 at 5:29 AM

    It turns people violent or those violent even more so. When you have to fight to keep your position
    on the pecking order daily, is that healthy rehabilitation ? And how exactly are we to automatically
    turn off years of instilled behavior once released ? Prison does make people worse.

  • Jenn

    May 7th, 2016 at 6:04 AM

    My husband has spent 17 yrs total in prison. He is truly trying to turn his life around. I have known him since we were 18 & 20 yrs old, now 43&46. He is the Best Man I have ever had in my life but the results of prison life have left him scarred. In search right now for some good psych help in Syracuse are or our marriage will not make it. Very sadly the PIC Syndrome is real in our home. He has relapsed back to drugs and raging for the last 4 months. So afraid something is going to happen that can’t be undone. He truly deserves a good life. Lord please help us! Thank you for your site, as I will use your therapist search today. We have no time to waste.

  • Clara

    June 1st, 2016 at 7:53 AM

    Hi Jenn,
    I interned at a high risk all male prison as a counselor. I know what prisons can do. You can try to Google free or low income therapists in your area if finances are a worry, Also Universities and Colleges that over Psych classes will often have psych help available to the public for free or a reduced rate or sliding scale fee so they can gain experience for their student (future psychiatrists and therapists). I will pray for you cause no doubt you have a wonderful man and marriage and prison messed things up a little. Stand by him at all costs. He needs you now more than ever.

  • Brian P.

    December 25th, 2016 at 11:16 PM

    None of u know what u are talking about it’s the justice system there is so much corruption it’s just job security for state and gov. Jobs. It’s ridiculous the amount of time they give the people that are non-violent it’s a waste of the taxpayers dollars forcing most of them to do drug and alcohol treatment and about 95% don’t want to be there so what’s the point it’s up to them when they want to change so stop wasting our tax dollars on people that don’t want help and I’m one of them and I’m doing just fine AA for everybody.

  • Carolyn m

    May 17th, 2016 at 10:26 PM

    I’m looking to learn what is best when a man is released from jail after 11yrs….do they how housing for them & make sure they stay good? How do we know they will do the next right thing….get the correct help & do the right stuff to be good people….I don’t understand how to request the best….from him….if I’ve don’t know what the best even is for him???

  • Jayde S

    June 20th, 2016 at 5:47 PM

    Being a primary school student i struggle to read some of this information. Could i have a little admin help, we are doing persuasive texts on jails and law & court kind of stuff! feel free to leave a comment. Btw i don’t know why i am struggling because i am a top student in my class thx! -Jayde

  • Jayde S

    June 20th, 2016 at 5:48 PM

    Is this a free site..? plz answer

  • The Team

    June 21st, 2016 at 7:44 AM

    Hi Jayde,
    Thank you for your comment. It is free to contact a therapist through our site, and the information, articles, and subscription offers on our site are free. There is a membership fee for therapists, which you can read about here:

    Hope this helps! :)
    Kind regards,
    The Team

  • mk109

    October 21st, 2016 at 3:51 PM

    Well I was in for 100 day for a dwui, well thought i was strong but am out and its gets to me from time to time. I do think that it does alot you. even with the good support i have,

  • Jamie P

    January 12th, 2017 at 12:08 AM

    What I want to know is HOW are all these assaults happening in jails/prisons?? Not just America, Canada, too. It’s a real problem that our governments are simply ignoring! These people may have broken the law, apparently, but they are still people! We are supposed to be against torture in North America, yet we allow it in our jails.
    Why is security not watching cameras at all times?? Why do we not have proper staff to properly supervise and properly punish when abuse happens between inmates?? No sexual assaults should even be happening! That’s unacceptable! How does security get away with abusing inmates?? If a camera is turned off, it should be questioned! These guards need to be held accountable for their actions or lack there of!
    That is the problem. Lack of staff, and lack of accountability for the actions of guards and inmates.
    And that is a big reason why some of them keep going back to jail. Because they had no time to try to get better because all they did in jail was fight, be assaulted or try to stay alive because the prison wasn’t doing it’s job!
    Although, I’ve never fully understood how people are supposed to rehabilitate in prison when they’re locked in a cage the majority of the time. That right there, would be where a lot of the PTSD comes from, as well. Being locked in a cage for hours, months, years. It’s enough to make anyone nuts. And I’m surprised we still do it to anyone that hasn’t committed a dangerous federal crime.

  • patricia

    February 12th, 2017 at 4:28 PM

    the same people who make these laws should be punished beyond MEASURE in jail themselves because they are nothing but abusive unmerciful hypocrites doing WAY worse than the ones they put in jail. They themselves are the REAL criminals allowing the abuse of non violent criminals. THEY SHOULD ALL BE PUNISHED T6OGETHER FOR THE HURT AND DAMAGE THETY HAVE CAUISED TO NON VIOLENT CRIMINALS. They have no idea who they are abusing !! My seventeen year old son is in jail on drug charges he was not violent. my son grew up being abused physically, mentally, verbally, and emotionally by his father and having to watch me also be abused and ended up having bipolar depression and his life has been nothing but pain and torture since he was born He was even hit as a baby and these horrible people think they have the right to hurt and not protect and abuse these people who are only human and made mistakes ??!! I am so angry i am aBOUT TO BURST OUT OF MY OWN SKIN

  • Convict

    March 10th, 2017 at 5:31 AM

    True, but always remember, what separates us from those in power, is that they legislate their crimes
    and abuses into legality.

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