1. Update
  2. Criminal Justice

We Need to Talk About Mental Health in Prisons

By Joe D'Antonio, May 20, 2020


Incarcerated people have the same needs and fears as the un-incarcerated. But incarceration institutions, by their very nature, deny the humanity of the people they house. This continual denial of humanity leads to psychological scarring that lasts long after a person is released.

Silhouette of man in window.

Donald Tong / Pexels

These scars are usually left most deeply on those convicted of violent offenses, due to the length of their sentences. And all too often, those convicted of violent offenses are cut out of criminal justice reforms that would improve conditions and benefit mental health. We must extend criminal justice reform to all incarcerated people regardless of their conviction. When people are subjected to long sentences in harsh conditions it leaves mental scars that can last a lifetime. These scars can make life in society a daily struggle for formerly incarcerated people.

The Problem

The constant danger within prisons and jails forces incarcerated people to adopt a series of psychologically damaging coping skills. Because of this, incarcerated people often develop what’s called a “prison mask.” This mask requires people to emotionally distance themselves from others. They suppress emotions, and in extreme cases, completely withdraw from authentic social interaction.

The psychological scars of incarceration spread from the incarcerated person to their family and friends.

For people who must wear this prison mask for years on end, relating with others can become incredibly difficult. This can lead to what psychologists refer to as “existential death.” In this state, people completely retreat within themselves in order to cope with persistent trauma. The longer a person is incarcerated, the more likely they are to adopt these negative coping skills. These negative coping skills can make finding a job difficult and can also lead to strained relationships. The psychological scars of incarceration spread from the incarcerated person to their family and friends.

The Solutions

We can limit the psychological scars of incarceration by ending solitary confinement. The United Nations Committee on Torture has ruled that solitary confinement is a form of torture due to lasting psychological impacts. Those without pre-existing mental illnesses often develop depression, anxiety, and even psychosis due to solitary confinement.

And for those who do have pre-existing mental health conditions, solitary confinement is even more damaging. The combination of isolation and lack of access to treatment can cause serious mental health breakdowns, which frequently manifest as behavioral outbursts, self-mutilation, and suicide.

The combination of isolation and lack of access to treatment can cause serious mental health breakdowns.

The mental effects of solitary confinement continue even after people are released. Incarcerated people who experience solitary confinement are 78 percent more likely to commit suicide in their first year of release than those who did not.

Limiting the length of sentences is another way to limit the psychological impacts of incarceration. Psychological scars of incarceration go deeper the longer a person is incarcerated, making those convicted of violent offenses particularly susceptible. Reform efforts must work to shorten all sentences and improve conditions within incarceration institutions. These reforms must include those convicted of violent offenses or thousands of people will continue to suffer.

We need change on a national scale to improve mental health among the incarcerated population. We urge Congress to support bills like the Solitary Confinement Reform Act (S. 719), which would limit the use of solitary confinement and train correctional officers on the mental health effects of solitary confinement.

Criminal Justice 

Injustice & Inequity in the Justice System

We all lose when we lock people away. Incarceration denies the opportunities for rehabilitation and healing that are necessary for a person to fulfill his or her potential. This is a loss not only to the individual and his or her family but to society as a whole.

Joe D'Antonio

  • Program Assistant, Criminal Justice and Election Integrity

Joe D’Antonio is the Program Assistant for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. His primary responsibilities include lobbying members of Congress, writing policy updates, and conducting legislative research.