The prison population in the United States has been increasing in the last few decades. In fact, the country is suggested to have the most people in its jails and prisons. The individuals are incarcerated for diverse reasons while their conditions of confinement also differ. While some are in for misdemeanor, there are others who are in for homicide and other serious felonies. The conditions of the prisoners for severe crimes are worse than those for minor crimes. Prisoners are subjected to different forms of punishment. Those who commit capital crime are usually sentenced to life in prison or given a death sentence. Solitary confinement is a common form of punishment for prisoners, especially those who are facing death sentences. One area of research that is mostly ignored is the effect of such punishment to individuals, probably because of their criminal nature. Therefore, it is important to investigate the psychological effects on prisoners in solitary confinement and death penalty in the United States criminal justice system.
- What are the psychological effects on prisoners in solitary confinement and death penalty in the United States criminal justice system?
- Does solitary confinement and death penalty in the United States criminal justice system have mental impact or not?
Prisons in the US
Prisons in the US experience unique sets of pressures and contingencies, which make it hard for prisoners to adjust and live through the challenges. It is necessary for the inmates to react and adapt through the experience. Changes have occurred within the criminal justice system with an impact on the incarcerations (Morris 4). As a result, the challenges experienced by different categories of the prisoners have intensified. The United States is supposedly a free world, but prisoners are a group of Americans that do not experience the freedom. One of the trends that affected the country is mass incarcerations that arose from war on drugs. The policy increased the number of inmates in the US jails and prisons (Mackenzie 29). The trends are inter-related and negative, affecting the health and well-being of the prisoners. The unprecedented increase in the incarceration rates has become detrimental to a considerable percentage of Americans. Overcrowding of the prison population affects the mental health of the prisoners.
Penologists have, for a decade and half, defined the prison system in the United States as being “in crisis.” Each level of the increase in the prison populations has been described as being “unprecedented.” The country imprisons more people than any other national internationally (George 28). The rise in the rate of incarceration increased in the 1990s. Indeed, the period gave rise to a new crop of mentally disturbed Americans because of the effect of incarceration. The global inequalities are evident when looking at the rates in the United States against other nations in the world. Other countries such as the Netherlands, Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom do not have such high rates as the United States. During the 1990s, the rate of incarceration in the United States remained consistently four to eight times higher compared to other countries (Morris 6). Overcrowding in the country’s prisons and jails has been detrimental to the mental health of the inmates. The reality is evident when looking at the state of mental health among the inmates leaving prison.
The fast expansion of the prison system and overcrowding continue to affect the living status of the inmates negatively. The conditions have jeopardized the safety of the prisoners and compromised the management of the prisons in the country (George 30). Prisoners have not been able to access effective programming as a result. California and Texas are the largest prison systems in the US. The two are typical examples of the dilapidated state of the jails and prisons in the country. The population of Californian prisons has increased eightfold in the last three decades. To enumerate, the population in the 1970s was roughly 20,000, and the current number is about 160,000 inmates. While the prison population has been growing, the same has not been happening in the prison programming. Poor services still characterize the prisons, with detrimental effect on the well-being of the prisoners. The situation is the same in Texas. The population of the prisons in the state has increased more than two times. In only five years, about 70,000 inmates were taken to the state’s prison (Morris 8). In this case, the trend shows the extent of the problem.
The law is expected to protect the rights of all Americans. Just because prisoners have broken the law and are incarcerated does not mean that they are lesser Americans. Substandard and unconstitutional conditions of the imprisonment status of the Americans have raised major questions in Texas, California, and other prison systems in the country (Reiter and Blair 177). The criminal justice system has failed to provide adequate resources to ensure the wellbeing of the inmates. The conditions affect the psychological health of the inmates and fail to provide them with adequate treatment. Overcrowding is one of the challenges that cause mental problems. There are other conditions within the prisons that cause suffering to inmates, including solitary confinement. Some inmates are facing extreme psychological effects of solitary confinement. Prisoners are suffering in prison without effective ways of helping them (Shalev 741). Evidently, prisoners are sent behind bars to be punished, and they are receiving the extreme extent of this correctional initiative. The form of punishment they receive is severe and devastating.
The rationale for prison has come into question because of the effect it has on the mental health and well-being of the prisoners. In the mid-1970s, America changed the societal view of imprisonment. Before then, prisons were viewed as institutions that would provide the rehabilitative chance for the inmates to re-enter the society as productive members (Reiter and Blair 178). The changes have made the society to the view the prisons as institutions to punish the wrongdoers by inflicting as much pain as possible. It was also viewed as a space for criminal offenders (“incapacitation”) to move away from the society. They were seen as undeserving individuals who were not part of society because of their deviance (Mackenzie 83). The once-avowed rehabilitative objective was abandoned, which definitely reduced the apparent need for effective programs. They were also increasingly denied mental and social services within the prison. Being a prisoner meant that the inmates were sent behind the bar to receive punishment and would be treated in the most punitive manner.
Rehabilitation was abandoned, a state that led to an erosion of any protective norms within the system. The situation led to a high level of cruelty towards prisoners. The officers within the prisons no longer cared about addressing disturbances in prisons (Cloud et al. 18). Different prisoner groups started conflicting and ameliorative methods related to disciplinary infractions. They were not concerned about dealing with the root cause of the problems or design procedures to de-escalate it. More prisoners were coming into the system, leading to a shortage of staff and resources (Mackenzie 132). The prison officials embraced more punitive approaches to corrections as long as it lessened their work. Extremes types of prison discipline became common, among the most evident one being “supermax” confinement or punitive isolation. The strategies had a destructive impact on the inmates, repressing conflicts instead of resolving them. The result was increased tension and greater danger and fear among the prisoners. The prisons since then became a worse environment for the prisoners, and it is until now.
The prison system started to emphasize on punitive elements of criminal justice. The outcome was stigmatization of incarceration that led to additional verbatim and psychological isolation. The prisoners were highly isolated from the community, which affected visitations to prisoners, which was already rare (Haney 86). The connections between prisoners and their families were affected in the process. It would become difficult for the prisoners to reintegrate back into the society after leaving the humiliating prison environment. There was also an increase in the length of stay in prison even for minor crimes. The prisoners went through major psychological strains, which completely changed the prisoners. Any person who entered the system never remained the same (Newbold 35). Over the years, more people Americans have been subjected to the pains of imprisonment. They are held in conditions that threaten their psychological well-being because of distress as well as possible long-term dysfunction. Even if they get a chance to re-enter the society, they no longer have the perspective that they ought to have after rehabilitation.
Psychological Effect of Incarceration
Worth noting is that adaptation to incarceration is always a challenge. The process leads to thinking habits and actions which can be dysfunctional. The effects of imprisonment vary from one person to another and depend on the nature of imprisonment (Cloud et al. 18). The individuals who are imprisoned are disabled or psychologically harmed because of the damaging conditions. The process of imprisonment is painful, and those who enter the system develop negative ways of adapting to live through the horrors. Prisoners suffer pain, deprivation, and enormously uncharacteristic norms and patterns (Haney 86). The problem is that the affected persons are never diagnosed or treated for psychological disorders. The effects are too much that the individuals can never become productive again. The harsh and unsafe conditions are psychologically-taxing, especially because of the character of confinement (Gordon 495). Gordon Sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists have studied the effects, from the perspective of the conditions in which the prisoners remain. The effects can be studied from the perspective of solitary confinement and death penalty.
Solitary confinement occurs when prisoners are locked up in small cell units for hours per day. They are closed up with little or no human contact. They are constrained from visitation, which include no physical contact with those who visit them. The units are used for death row inmates and other prisoners as a way of punishing them for going against prison rules. It is estimated that there could be as many as 80,000 prisoners in the country who are in the isolated units (Johnson 85). The majority of the inmates are those on death row. Their experience in prison is harsh, placing them at a risk of suffering irreversible mental effects because of the isolation. Psychologists confirm that the effects can be experienced in as few as 15 days (Reiter and Blair 177). The problem is that some are held for a longer time, for years or even decades. The damage is extensive and can be long term.
The United States does not have clear statistics, indicating the number of inmates who are held in solitary isolation. The data is not regularly provided from the various prisons and jails in the country. However, it is evident that there are thousands of prisoners in the country who are held in solitary confinement. A study carried out in 2011 indicated that between 20,000 and 25,000 inmates in the US are placed in isolation. California alone has approximately 4,500 inmates in solitary confinement, and that there are as many as 80,000 prisoners held in solitary across the United States — more than any other democratic nation (Johnson 85). In fact, the statistics above reveal the nature of the problem.
Solitary confinement does not have a universal definition and differs from one place to another. The United Nations defines it as a system where prisoners are placed in isolation from others. In the solitary confinement, only the guards are allowed to have contact with the prisoners. The isolation of the inmates takes place for at least 22 hours every day (Newbold 73). Some remain in confinement for the entire 24 hours. They remain in the enclosed space with very limited light for all those hours. In some jurisdictions, the prisoners are allowed out of their cells for one or two hours every day. However, they are denied meaningful contact with the other prisoners (Meltsner 5). The prison officials intentionally deprive them of any stimulus. The prisoners rarely choose stimuli and the inter-social contact. Their environment is characterized by monotonous and inconsiderate actions. While freedom is denied to them by imprisonment, it becomes worse when they are placed in solitary confinement.
Prisoners facing confinement are held in isolation in dark and windowless rooms, as part of punishment (Gordon 495). In most cases, the punishment mode is not because of the original crime that brought them to prison. However, it is because of the negative behavior of prisoners while in prison. Some prisoners believe that after they are put behind bars, there is nothing worse that can happen to them until they are placed in the solitary confinement units. For example, some of the prisoners in the units are placed there because they are members or associates of gangs that are common in correctional facilities. They are removed from others to protect the prisoners and prison wardens. Other prisoners who are placed in solitary confinement are violent and unmanageable (Cloud et al. 19). The prisoners are put away for years or even decades to lessen the work of managing these people and to protect the prison population. However, the effectiveness of solitary confinement has been questioned, some interested parties arguing that it is not only ineffective; it is also a violation of their human rights because it is a form of torture.
Characteristics of Solitary Confinement. The nature of the solitary confinement practice in prisons is important to comprehend in order to understand the negative effects. Prisoners in solitary confinement are completely isolated from the prison population and the outside world. They are not allowed to meet or speak to fellow prisoners (Shalev 741). The isolation units are usually enclosed without any space to look through and see what is happening outside the cell. They are not only separated from the other prison population, but also from the outside world. Solitary confinement is considered the worst form of punishment (King 139). The inmates are not allowed the privileges of phone calls and some are not allowed to have physical contact during visits. Therefore, they stay for long years in loneliness without seeing or having contact with the members of their families. Some of these prisoners are married with children. Staying for years without considerable contact with the members of their families is torture.
The size of the cells makes it depressing. It is typically 6′ x 10′ and lacks a proper light inlet. Any contact with the prisoner is done through a metal mesh, in hand- and leg-cuffs, or behind glass partitions. When the prisoners are allowed to get out of the cell, they are cuffed both the hands and legs (Guenther 73). The practice is called “special housing” or “administrative segregation,” and involves keeping the prisoners in the bathroom-sized cells. They do not get any natural light; the cells are lit using a fluorescent light, which is never switched off. They do not have any form of mental stimulation, apart from a few books for some (Haney 87). The solitary implications can be understood by listening to the testimonies of those who have experienced it. The prison heads do not care about the social and emotional wellbeing of the confined prisoners (Compa 293). It is a form of punishment that is characterized by inhumane treatment.
The length of stay in the solitary confinement differs from one region to another. Research also indicates that the length differs with the nature of the prison. In low and medium security jails, prisoners are placed in isolation for just a few days. However, for those in maximum security prisons, they are placed in confinement for years. In the United States, they are placed in the units for an average of five years. There are thousands of inmates who have remained in the state for decades (King 140). Super Maximum Security Prisons, or “Supermax Prisons,” are common in the United States, and the conditions in them are even worse. The prisons hold the individuals who have committed serious crimes such as first-degree homicide. For the inmates in these conditions, solitary confinement is a norm (Meltsner 5). A majority of the prisoners in these prisons remain in solitary confinement for years or decades. Although the individuals are criminals who deserve punishment for their crimes, the conditions are dehumanizing.
Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement. In order to understand the negative effects of solitary confinement, it is critical to investigate the effects of isolation on the mind of an individual. People are social beings and cannot remain in isolation without suffering considerable effects (Shalev 741). They should benefit from being with others, without which their mind decays. The mind lacks anything to do and becomes a fertile ground for negativity. Loss of control that results from isolation causes anxiety, anger, and hopelessness. Experts have revealed that the condition affects the inmates, destroying them as human beings (Kaba 445). The inmates held in solitary confinement resent the system and society for not protecting them. They also become paranoid and psychosis. It is common for inmates to try to commit suicide because of losing control over their lives. For example, in California it is estimated that prisoners are 33 times at greater risk of committing suicide compared to the general population. Some go through with the act if they have the means; others have attempted, but remain unsuccessful because they cannot get the means to do it.
Research conducted in solitary confinement in different correction facilities show the negative effect of this form of punishment. Pelican Bay State Prison is the toughest correction facility in California. It is a typical example of a facility in the united states that inflict psychological damage on its inmates. The psychological effect of isolation has been carried out in this institution (Kaba 445). Super-maximum-security prisons hold some of the mentally damaged individuals because of the use of the unusual punishment. Some prisoners stay for years in isolation, explaining the extent of damage on their mental health and wellbeing (Shalev 741). Studies carried out in the lab, even for a short period of time show the negative mental health outcomes. If the damage can occur in such a short time, it is worse when the isolation is for a prolonged period.
Some prisoners enter the system with underlying psychological problems. Some commit crime because of the mental and behavioral challenges. Imprisonment is expected to rehabilitate the inmates as they pay their debts to society. However, recent research has indicated that the system is more damaging than helping (Jeffreys 35). After years of solitary confinement, some are completely psychologically injured. Previous investigations have indicated the negative effects of isolation. Human beings and social beings thrive in relationships. As a result, denying them this opportunity causes emotional and psychological issues (Koenig 221). The lack of human contact has a profound impact on the health and well-being of the prisoners.
Research has focused on the perceptions of the prisoners in solitary confinement. While they understand that in prison they lack freedom, they also agree that their situation is worse when they are placed in solitary confinement. A prisoner in a hermetic environment for years indicated that solitary confinement unit of a prison is like “a weapons lab or a place for human experiments” (Jeffreys 94). Prisoners have acknowledged their struggle to remain sane in the isolated environment. They aspire to see the outside world, even for a short moment.
Prisoners adopt some coping mechanisms, some of which can cause more damage to their mental wellbeing. Isolation can cause prisoners to shut their emotions and become more withdrawn. They do this as a response to their reality. They have a problem responding to human conversations and company (Guenther 163). Even when they have a chance to get out and interact with other prisoners, they do not know how to relate. Some feel disoriented because of the lack of contact with the social world, to the point that they start questioning their existence. The challenge is that in the solitary confinement units they do not have any person to talk to and hence they have no one to share with their frustrations. They bottle up feelings that can manifest in mental health problems (Shalev 84). The inmates remain sad and stressed during the time they are in the confinement units. The challenge is that even if they ever come out, the effect is too much that it cannot be reversed.
In the United States, a majority of death row inmates are placed in isolation. They are locked in solitary confinement units for 22 to 24 hours every day. The practice continues even at a time when capital punishment is a controversial topic in the country. In the last decade, six states in the country have repealed their death penalty laws (Shalev 84). More than half of the states no longer use the death penalty as a mode of punishment. The death penalty is countered because it is regarded as unusual and cruel punishment. It also violates the human rights of the prisoners. There are efforts to bar the punishment nationwide, but there are some states that continue to use it as a punishment for capital punishment (Leigey 83). There are still states that have many prisoners on death row who are held up in isolation for years or decades. They are subjected to harsh treatment because of the nature of the crime they were sentenced for. They have to live in prison facing the possibility of death. The harsh punishments they experience worsen the psychological effects.
Psychological effects of Death penalty. Many Americans believe that life is hard for death row inmates because of the long wait for the execution. However, research has shown that nothing is worse for them than the conditions of extreme isolation that they are exposed to. They are exposed to the extreme conditions that have an impact on their physical and mental health and wellbeing. It should be hard enough that these individuals have to face the possibility of being executed. However, they are added another punishment of loneliness (Kaba 445). Research has indicated that the effect of isolation is similar to that of physical torture. There is no much different from prisoners who are abused in prison and those who are sent to solitary isolation. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment establishment that the practice is equal to “inhuman and degrading treatment” (Leigey 83). The reality is that the practice is degrading and cause mental torture with other serious ramifications.
The psychological effects of the death penalty are evident in inmates who have received a chance to re-enter the society. There have been inmates who have been wrongfully convicted but were exonerated by evidence emerging later (Saundra and Cook 28). They struggle to adjust to life after prison. The experience of these people outside prison shows that they suffer a great deal while imprisoned. Things can be bad for those convicted for murder, and even worse for those who are wrongfully convicted. They undergo stress trying to come to terms with their new reality (Guenther 163). Life changes when a person who is innocent has to face punishment for things he or she knows nothing about.
The psychological effects of imprisonment are evident in the struggle to live a new life after prison. Prisoners in maximum security prisons are deprived or frustrated within the extreme. Interestingly, nothing much has changed over the years, regardless of the efforts by interested groups to put an end to the extreme punishments. “Pains of imprisonment” has a huge psychological cost, especially for death row prisoners (Compa 293). The term refers to prolonged adaptation to the deprivation and frustration evident in the correctional facilities. The effects are felt before leaving the prison and become worse if the person gets a chance to leave the facility. There are major psychological changes and adaptations that cause more serious mental illnesses. Psychological disorders are manifested among those who have been in prison for a long time. It shows that the actions within the prison progressively alter the mental functioning of the inmates (Guenther 163). The longer the person takes, the worse the effects.
While all prisoners face challenges adapting to the life behind the bars, there are some groups that are more affected than others. Research shows that African Americans are unequally presented in the United States jails and prisons (Mackenzie 83). While they are not the majority population in the country, it is interesting to note that they are the most inmates in the correctional facilities in the country. They are the most likely to be arrested and sentenced for many crimes in the country (Compa 293). Therefore, they are the most innocent prisoners paying for crimes they did not commit. They are usually given the most serious punishments compared to other racial groups. The system has been sentencing some innocent Americans for prolonged terms in prison and others death penalties. The individuals most likely to face such penalties are the African Americans and other minority groups. They face discrimination at all stages of the criminal justice system. Besides facing discrimination in sentencing, they also experience worse treatment while in prison. The corrections facilities are also being led by some individuals who discriminate against them.
Prisons in solitary confinement and those on death row are at a very high risk of developing irreversible psychological effects. It is estimated that between 8 percent and 19 percent of prisoners in the United States will experience considerable functional or psychiatric disabilities. Research shows that another 15 percent to 20 percent will need specific psychiatric interventions while in prison. The effects are evident in all prisons across the world (Guenther 163). However, the situation in the United States is worse. According to the American Psychiatric Association, as many as 20 percent of the prisoners in the country are “seriously mentally ill,” while up to 5 percent are “actively psychotic at any given moment” (Guenther 167). There are inmates who have schizophrenia or suffer from other mental health disorder. Some prisoners (almost 19 percent) are depressed, and about 4 percent suffer from bipolar disorder. The statistics indicate the negative effect of solitary confinement and death penalty in the country.
Solitary confinement was meant to allow time for the inmates to reflect about their crimes. The system was perceived as giving them a chance to ruminate about their criminal actions. The prisoners would remain in isolation for hours every day. However, it has emerged that the system is more damaging than rehabilitative. Research indicates that isolating prisoners from the social influence is more harmful than helpful (Kaba 445). The country has developed a seed of inmates who are completely damaged. It is bad enough that some of the inmates are facing a death sentence. They have to live with the possibility of their execution. The nature of their punishment is more damaging to the prisoners (Guenther 163). They are forced to think about the negative reactions they have and become more damaged than helped to change. The factors are the reason for the high rate of psychological problems among prisoners in the United States.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The United States prison system is the most punitive in the world. It has the largest population compared to any other country. The population of the US prison has increased since the 1970s, and the trend has never changed. Overcrowding is a serious problem for the inmates because the changes have not reflected any change in programming and resourcing the system. However, this is not the only problem for prisoners in the country. Many of them, especially those in death and in for serious felonies, are placed in solitary confinement for as many as 22 or 23 hours every day (Shalev 132). They are left in the confinement cells without any social contact. Because of the social nature of human beings, solitary confinement has a lasting effect on the mental health and well-being of the inmates. Those on death row are affected by their reality of execution, and solitary confinement makes things worse for them. There are serious effects on the minds of the inmates as they try to come to terms with the isolation and loneliness. The effects are evident among those seeking care for mental health problems and those who find the chance to re-enter the society after incarceration.
There is a need for critical policy changes to improve the life, health, and welfare of inmates in the United States. The harsh treatment of the prisoners is unconstitutional and reflects negative aspects of a society that is founded on the principle of freedom and liberty (Kaba 446). America should be a model of liberty in the world. However, what is happening within the prison systems casts a negative light on the image of the country. Prisoners should pay for their crimes, but this should not happen in a dehumanizing manner. The prisoners are people with basic human rights that should be protected (Richmond 1). Nonetheless, the power dynamics within the criminal justice system have allowed the continued human rights abuse within the American prison system. Therefore, the prison system should be made safer for the prisoners as they get rehabilitated. Prison reforms are necessary in the United States.
Research should be carried out to inform new policies that will allow changes in this part of the criminal justice system. Since there are a high number of individuals in the prison, it is important to change the programs and increase the resources. In this case, human resources and other services should be augmented to cater for the demands of the high number of prisoners (Bennion 741). Changes should be made within the prisons to make the environment safer for the inmates. The use of solitary confinement and death sentence should be reviewed, and possibly changed. The constitutionality of the practices should also be considered when making the necessary changes (Richmond 1). Policy makers are tasked with the role of instituting services to take care of the needs of the prisoners who are already suffering from the psychological effects. The prison population is a considerable and important part of the society and should not be forgotten. They should be rehabilitated and not harshly punished.
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