The Psychological Effects Of Incarceration: What Happens In The Minds Of Prisoners?

The life of the prisoner is marked by the desire for freedom, by frustrations and defenselessness.

The fact of being incarcerated and deprived of liberty has important psychological consequences. They can develop a chain of affective, cognitive, emotional and perceptual reactions and distortions, all caused by emotional tension within the prison environment. In addition, a capacity for adaptation and  resilience is required to withstand the dispossession of familiar and personal external symbols.

In this article we will see what the psychological effects of incarceration are, and how this situation affects the minds of inmates.


There is a variable called imprisonment  that intervenes in the inmates’ behavior. It is the process by which a person unconsciously assumes the code of conduct and values ​​of the prison subculture as a result of being in direct contact with it. 

A differentiation can be made between a superficial imprisonment, which is the minimum necessary for a person to adapt to the prison environment, and a deep one, which would already be institutionalization. This occurs when the behaviors and ideas acquired exceed the individuality of the inmate.

On the other hand, there are factors that determine the degree of imprisonment in individuals:

  • Personality : speaking of maturity, emotional intelligence, intellectual capacity, stability, etc.
  • Set of external circumstances around the person: frequency of re-entry, length of stay, type of crimes, and family and personal expectations.
  • Age and cultural level : understood as personal experiences and knowledge and abilities, respectively. The more experiences, knowledge and skills you have, the easier it is to adapt.

The types of criminals

Another classification about the degree to which imprisonment affects has to do with the type of offender to which it belongs:

1. Primary offender

It is his first time in prison, he maintains prosocial behaviors for which he refuses to adhere to the prison code. Incarceration is a huge shock.

2. Occasional offender

He is an individual who has no problems living under the norms of society, but the moment he gives himself the opportunity, he commits a crime. He usually tries to minimize the act and justify it.

3. Habitual offender

Crime is like your lifestyle ; consider that illegal activities give them greater satisfaction than legal ones. They are completely familiar with the prison rules by now.

It could be said that the longer they are in prison, the greater the degree of imprisonment. While this may be true, it also influences the fact that the inmate knows that he will soon be released from prison and will return to society. So you can begin to recover forgotten or not applied values ​​and attitudes within the prison, to prepare for a reintegration and recover your life.

The psychological effects of prison time

Now, moving on to the psychological effects of the inmates, these are the following:

1. Anxiety

The level at which it appears depends on the circumstances in which the incarceration occurs and on the personality of the subject itself. They face the unknown.

2. Depersonalization

Loss of your individuality. The fact that when entering prison, she is assigned a number, that is her person. It also becomes part of a group rejected by society.

3. Loss of privacy

It arises from forced coexistence with other inmates. They have little or no time to focus on themselves. This is compounded when the environment is violent and your safety is at stake.

4. Low self-esteem

It is given by not meeting one’s expectations or defrauding one’s image of oneself, and by the fact of being incarcerated. However, there are many others whose self-esteem is not negatively affected, since they feel satisfied leading a criminal life.

5. Lack of control over your own life

It occurs because of a certain inability to make personal, family or social decisions; Yes, there may be a margin of decision, but the range of options is not great. What is most limited is the internal control over the evolution of external events. This situation causes frustration.

6. Lack of expectations

There are few expectations in the life of the inmate beyond his desire for freedom. People are conditioned by a recurring idea: all the time that was lost and the fastest way to get it back.

7. Changes in sexuality

There can be frustrations from not having the usual sexual routines, dysfunctions can appear  and the normal development of an adequate practice can be blocked.

The need to understand the prisoner

An analysis of personal antecedents and vital circumstances that have led the person to commit a crime is required in order to provide an optimal therapeutic approach that takes into account all aspects of their personality. Thus, the objective of the prison can be directly fulfilled: a reeducation of the deficiencies or lost values and a subsequent positive reintegration into society. 

It is essential that there be quality intervention by professionals, specifically psychologists, to promote their social reintegration. The prison environment can affect inmates in a great way and it is important that, before they are released, they regain their positive essence, rebuild values ​​and reconnect with themselves. 

It is not enough to make general proposals to address the issue, you have to have an individualized plan with each one since they have different personalities and needs. Although they are criminals, they are still human beings. 

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