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Prisoners: Corrected or Broken by the U.S. Prison System?

October 16, 2012

According to the sociological theory of mental health, environment is the most important factor in determining the mental health of an individual. The importance of environment in mental health is tied up with the idea that “everyone has a breaking point.” For example, it does not matter if soldiers are pre-screened for possible mental illnesses. The best indicator of soldiers’ eventual mental health is how long they have been exposed to the traumatic environment of warfare. Does the same hold true for prisoners as well? Does the duration of time spent in the constantly distressing prison system accurately predict the mental health of an individual? Is it only a matter of time before virtually all prisoners reach their “breaking point” and can be labeled as mentally ill?

While there are a number of individuals who enter the prison system with a diagnosed mental illness, I would like to briefly focus on those who do not. Imagine someone like you or I who for some reason is sentenced to time in prison. Stop for a second and think about your present life. Think about your occupation or education. Think about your family and friends. Think about your home and other cherished possessions. Do you have any pets? Do you have any children? Do you have a spouse? Now imagine all of those things instantly erased from your life. You have no job or place to go to school. Your house is gone. Your cell-phone is gone. You never get to see your children again and your loved ones leave you. You are utterly alone in the world with barely enough freedom to breathe.

Imagine defecating in a toilet that is inches away from where you rest your head at night. Imagine being confined to a 8 foot-by-8 foot box and wondering what is going on in the outside world. Have your parents died yet? Has your loved-one left you for someone else? None of that matters though because there is nothing you can do. You are trapped with bars, barbwire and guns all around. How long would it take for you to reach your “breaking point?” Depression and anxiety (classified as mental illnesses) must be nearly inevitable. Is it only a matter of time before the voices and hallucinations set in as well?

I recently came across a couple news articles examining the use of solitary confinement in our U.S. prisons. Put aside the idea of being in the general prison population system, which would include the luxurious things listed above. Now you have to spend 23 hours of your day in an elevator-sized cell, cut-off from nearly all human contact. While some prisoners find themselves in the “box” or “hole” for serious offenses (stabbing, attempting to escape), others are locked away for protecting themselves in a fight or violating minor legalistic rules. Regardless of the offense, this extreme isolation is supposedly intended to correct the individual. Indeed, prisons are constantly referred to as “correctional facilities” and “rehabilitation institutions.” I cannot think of much that is rehabilitating in a prison. On the contrary, they are hotbeds for the development of mental illnesses. If correction and rehabilitation is the main purpose of our prisons, then somewhere we have gone terribly wrong.

Yet, the purpose of this blog post is not to attack the U.S. prison system or defend its inhabitants. Its purpose is to point out the inconsistencies of the system and hopefully generate a deeper examination into the mental health of these human beings who are locked away. Are the methods and processes of our U.S. prison system “correcting” and “rehabilitating” inmates, or are they only fostering more problems, especially those of mental health?

I encourage you to read the news articles below. I do not need to regurgitate paragraphs of the information. I do not need to quote the endless statements of psychiatrists who all assert how bad isolation is for a human being. I do not need to record the statistics of suicide or other terrible plagues that come upon these people. Nor do I need to refer to the statements of the prisoners themselves who all describe how bad their conditions are… how they begin to hear voices echo in their mind as they desperately try to fall asleep. You and I are both human beings. You and I both have feelings. You and I both know that we have breaking points and that all it takes for us to break is the right environment. Luckily for us, we do not have to be broken by the U.S. prison system.

Brandon Weist

Sources:

Goode, Erica. 2012. “Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity.” The New York Times, March 10. Retrieved October 12, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/us/rethinking-solitary-confinement.html).

Secret, Mosi. 2012. “Prisoners’ Letters Offer a Window Into Lives Spent Alone in Tiny Cells.” The New York Times, October 1. Retrieved October 12, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/02/nyregion/prisoner-letters-offer-glimpses-of-life-in-solitary-confinement.html).

“The Harm of Solitary Confinement in Prisons.” 2012. The Washington Post, July 1. Retrieved October 12, 2012   (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-harm-of-solitary-confinement-in-prisons/2012/07/01/gJQAiNqgGW_story.html).

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2012 5:34 pm

    To rehabilitate a person I believe that they would need to have support of others to become and continue life as a better person. To have a higher set of morals and have personal goals. These positively effect a persons psyche and how they view themselves, which in turn would effect their behavior.

    The prison system is currently not enforcing this in inmates. The culture in a prison or “correctional facility” is far from a positive place where change is rewarded, rather it is a place where prisoners are made to feel (from their surrounding to the treatment by guards) that they are less than what they should be. It is more than understandable that whatever mental health you came in with would be seriously tested. Your “limits” as Brandon refers to them will be pushed and depression as well as anxiety are common in much less stressful and feared situations than that of a prison. I can only imagine the tole it would take on myself.

    A main problem prisoners are facing is care. To have strong mental health it is shown that knowing you are cared for, and that your being is important to others supports a better mental state. To facilitate rehabilitation, prisoners should be given an environment in which they are treated as more than a number, as more than a felon, as more than what their sentence says they are. By treating them like they deserve a punishment where is the lesson? Or correction? If treated this way it is only common sense that they would begin to act in a manner that supports their punishable past behavior.

    -Sacha Ledor

  2. October 22, 2012 6:11 pm

    Quite possibly the best student blog post I’ve read since I started asking students to keep a class blog. Well-written with nice connections to thoughts from class as well as to your own outside readings. And thought-provoking, too. Well done, Brandon! Prof Replogle

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