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More than two million people are incarcerated in the United States—a 500 percent increase from just 40 years ago. As prisons across the country become overcrowded and inmates suffer from mental illness, understanding the impact of the prison environment becomes increasingly important. Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology Timothy Edgemon’s latest work, Prisoner Mental Health and the Pains of Incarceration, explores the individual effects of prison conditions and suggests ways to improve mental health outcomes.
What do we know about the relationship between prison and mental health?
Previous research has looked at how prison itself can cause mental health problems, but I have tried to distinguish between different aspects of prison. I looked at how different conditions of imprisonment have different effects on mental health and they have different effects on different aspects of mental health.
As prisons become increasingly overcrowded, this leads to higher average rates of depression and hostility for those incarcerated in these prisons. People who are in less overcrowded prisons have less depression and less hostility, so as overcrowding increases, so do the mental health effects.
A higher proportion of work assignments in prison is associated with a reduction in negative mental health. Because people in prison have the ability or opportunity to engage in work, this appears to improve their mental health on average.
Higher security prisons are associated with increased depression. Another interesting finding in this study is that lack of access to television increases hostility.
Why should prison conditions be examined from a sociological perspective?
People go to prison for punishment, no for punishment. No one wants to be incarcerated. This is the punishment.
When we talk about prison conditions and conditions of imprisonment, these are things like overcrowding, exposure to violence or victimization while in prison. This is all in addition to the punishment you received. That’s just not the original purpose of prison.
The second reason I think we should be concerned about this is that to the extent that these conditions of incarceration affect people and affect their mental health and cause negative effects on people, most people who serve prison terms , will be released back into society.
Previous research has shown us that people who go to prison and develop mental health problems because of or related to prison have worse outcomes when they are released. They can’t find housing, they can’t get a job, and they’re more likely to end up back in prison. We should be concerned about this from an individual humanitarian point of view, but we should also be concerned about it from a societal point of view. How does this negatively affect our society and our communities?
What would you suggest prisons do to improve the mental health of inmates?
What this research suggests, and what past research has shown, is that we need to think very seriously about how conditions of detention affect people. I think that tends to get lost, so we need to really consider how the environmental conditions in the prison translate into real impacts on the individuals incarcerated there.
Specifically, how can we improve these environmental conditions? There are many ways. The more expensive ways are obviously to add more prison beds to reduce overcrowding, you can add more wings to a prison or build new prisons to reduce overcrowding. I don’t necessarily think that’s the best way to do it. You could build more prisons or add more beds, but you could also free up the prison so you divert more people from prisons. Rethinking other ways to punish is important to reduce overcrowding and ultimately reduce concerns about the prison environment, but this is a big-picture readjustment.
One thing I note in the study is that simply adding more recreational opportunities to the prison and not using them as a method of control would be beneficial. And even things like adjusting work priorities, offering more work assignments, or increasing the number of programs people have access to would help. But again, it goes back to the question of funding and the question of overcrowding. Because if your prison is very overcrowded, you are limited in how much you can offer these programs.
Hear the full conversation with Edgemon on the Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know podcast.
About Timothy Edgemon:
Timothy Edgemon is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work in the College of Liberal Arts. His research examines the links between criminal justice and health outcomes at the individual and societal levels. His current research focuses on the relationship between prison conditions, post-release mental health outcomes, and recidivism rates.