The Effect of Incarceration and Prison Inequalities on Mental Health

Criminals, offenders, psychopaths, horrible people capable of unimaginable things – is the image most of us have of imprisoned people. This image of them justifies the conditions they live under in prison – because society says they deserve it. However, don’t we want them to ultimately learn from their mistakes and be rehabilitated into society? Well, the conditions in a prison cell might make this impossible and affect the brain and mental health of the incarcerated individuals even more than we thought. It can take a serious toll on one’s psychological well-being as previous conditions may worsen and new conditions may develop. Unfortunately, many of the convicted individuals are released back into the community with more damaged mental health and without ever receiving any type of treatment. Within incarcerated people, there are some that are more vulnerable and face more challenges during their time in prison. For instance, women, POCs and LGBTQ+ people. 

Obviously, being locked into a cell isn’t a nice environment and condition to live in. However, it is way more damaging to one’s brain and mental health than most of us would probably expect. “The prison environment is almost diabolically conceived to force the offender to experience the pangs of what many psychiatrists would describe as mental illness.”  is a quote by Dr. Seymour L. Halleck, which describes the situation pretty well. Unfortunately, there are a dozen aspects in prisons that affect mental health and wellbeing negatively such as overcrowding, multiple forms of violence, forced solitude, a lack of privacy, a lack of meaningful activity, isolation from social networks, uncertainty about future prospects such as work, and insufficient health care, particularly mental health care. 

A prison cell does not offer any neurological stimulation which can be extremely damaging to one’s mental health and brain. Instead of getting better and working towards rehabilitation, this has the opposite outcome. A multitude of studies have proven that the impoverished environment has a long term negative effect on a human brain and its functioning. According to a new study conducted in a Dutch prison, brain processes related to self-regulation deteriorate after three months of imprisonment. Recidivism appears to be linked to a lack of self-control. Thus, this is not only a problem for the incarcerated individuals, but poses a risk for society itself. Particularly, in juvenile prisons, this is a big problem as the normal development of the youngsters is being disrupted through the lack of simulation and in most cases, this leads to a vicious cycle of worsening criminal behavior. The damage done in these years can be irreversible and a lifelong problem for the affected individuals.

There are some other factors of distress that specifically affect individuals in women’s prisons. A big problem for individuals who menstruate is the lack or limitation of period products. Not only is this issue of accessibility affecting their mental health but also their physical health as menstrual hygiene is a serious health concern. “Access to tampons and pads for incarcerated people is a right, not a privilege. No one should have to beg for what they need to manage their period” is a quote by Kimberly Haven, who herself was incarcerated while getting her period regularly. During this time, she came up with her own ways to replace the period product she wasn’t receiving. However, after getting out of prison she had to get a hysterectomy, which really shows the importance and effect of menstrual hygiene on health. There are many steps that need to be taken to reach menstrual equity in prisons and fulfill these individuals basic rights. 

Violence is a serious concern with a deeply negative impact on the mental health of all prisoners. Violence also includes sexual abuse, rape, and sexual violence. This is an aspect of concern for all prisons and people from all genders however, in most countries, women are impacted more severely especially in mixed facilities, and facilities with a lot of male staff being employed have higher numbers of violence towards women.

When it comes to the reasons for conviction there is a lot more injustice found in cases involving women. Abortion, Rape and escaping from abusive relationships are reasons for conviction in some countries. Others may be found guilty of crimes committed, because of pressure from men in their environment . At least 40% of women convicted of drug-related crimes in Mexico, such as transporting drugs between cities or smuggling drugs into jails, were pressured into doing so by their boyfriends or husbands, according to estimates.

Not surprisingly, prison is an outdated system that has to be improved and worked on in a lot of countries. However, another point of concern is the treatment and placement of non-gender conforming and trans individuals in prisons. As prison is mostly a noninclusive binary facilitation it can be even more challenging for people who do not fit in the outdated view of a binary gender. In many countries such as the United States, there are simply no facilities that match the identification of these individuals and the shortcoming of prison institutions to accommodate these individuals has avoidable consequences for them and their mental health. 

There are a lot of other angles to this topic to talk about and discuss, that are important to keep in mind. For instance, are prisons and human rights in accordance? How could the prison system be reformed? How and why are there differences in mental disorder prevalence in different prisons and countries? Do prisons make criminality a bigger problem? Take a moment to think about this topic and feel free to share your views with us via our email inbox or our social media accounts! 


Here is a guide you can check out to see how certain factors regarding women’s mental health can be handled and the care could be improved:

Here are some potential solutions/suggestions to mental health care in prisons by the WHO however this does not acknowledge the intersectionality and root of this problem :