The Psychological Effects of Being in Prison


Prisonization refers to the process inmates experience as they adjust to the lack of privacy, loss of freedom and rigid structure in prison. Many prison inmates report a variety of psychological changes as a result of the stress associated with incarceration. The effects of prison can create long-lasting psychological changes that cause difficulties for some inmates even after they have been released.

Anxiety & Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Many prisoners witness violence and brutality and others become victimized. Fears about safety issues combined with constant loud noises can create much anxiety for prisoners. Fear of victimization causes many prisoners to become hypervigilant. Difficult sleeping conditions can compound feelings of anxiety. Confinement can lead to feelings of panic and claustrophobia. For prisoners with a history of childhood trauma, incarceration can cause re-traumatization. Other inmates develop post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the stressful conditions.


  • Loss of autonomy about almost all aspects of daily activity can decrease feelings of self-worth. Prison inmates lack choices about meals, free time or who will be their cellmate. As prisoners experience barriers to contact with friends and family, many completely withdraw socially due to frustrations. Inmates also experience decreased feelings of personal value as they no longer engage in meaningful daily activities. Lack of purpose, combined with lack of leisure time activities and the absence of positive social interactions, causes feelings of depression and despair for many prisoners.

Untreated Substance Abuse

  • According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 85 percent of the U.S. prison population has a history of substance abuse problems. They also report that only 11 percent of inmates receive any treatment while they are in prison. Inmates with substance abuse histories often continue their use of substances while incarcerated as drugs continue to be readily available in most prisons. Inmates who do not receive treatment remain at a high risk of repeating criminal offenses after release.

Blunted Emotional Expression

  • The culture of prisons discourages inmates from showing many emotions. Expressions of sadness can be viewed as a weakness and vulnerability. Toughness, anger and hostility tend to be considered an asset. Many inmates join gangs to avoid being exploited. Other inmates engage in violent crime to gain acceptance. This process becomes a survival skill for many inmates but it prevents them from being able to experience and express true emotions.


  • Photo Credit Darrin Klimek/Digital Vision/Getty Images
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