The Harmful Psychological Effects of Incarceration
In 2015 the number of people incarcerated in Australian gaols reached a record high of 35,467. That is almost 200 prisoners per 100,000 adults. In NSW alone capacity is now at 112 per cent with 12,250 prisoners.
According to a report by the Productivity Commission, the cost to incarcerate each inmate averages $292 per day, almost double Australia’s average daily earnings of $160. We are spending $6.2 million dollars annually despite falling crime rates over the past 15 years.
Keeping that many people in jail is not only expensive; it is also psychologically damaging a large group of people in our community, in particular our most vulnerable including those who are marginalised, homeless, living in poverty and suffering from mental health and/or addiction issues. In response to our “tough on crime” conservative movement, critics argue our penal system no longer focuses on rehabilitation. Instead punishment is the primary response to crime.
Over the past 30 years gaols have become increasingly overcrowded due to this public demand for tougher polices. As a result, more people are going to jail, being refused bail, often having to stay in jail longer.
Overcrowded prisons are harder places to manage. Segregation has become the norm instead of an exception as correction workers try to handle a wide range of institutional problems.
As a result, the psychological harms inmates are subjected to in the course of incarceration have grown over the last several decades. This is particularly troubling when as Toby Hall of ABC News points out “almost half of Australia’s inmates already have a mental illness upon entering jail; one quarter have self-harmed; and one-third are in severe psychological distress.”
Hall continues, cramming vulnerable and unwell people together in a confined space only serves to exacerbate prisoner’s psychological distress. Combine that with the exploitative nature of our prison culture and more and more inmates are suffering from new or worsening anxiety and depression among other psychological problems as a result.
However, at the same time Hall points out government resources are increasingly becoming scarce and “mental health services for inmates – including treatment and withdrawal programs for drug and alcohol addicts – are massively overstretched.” Because of this inmates tend to become more aggressive, which leads to conflicts among inmates, as well as between prisoners and staff. It also serves to lead to a significant increase in self-harm and suicide rates among inmates.
These conditions not only impact those incarcerated. They also have a “dehumanizing” effect on correctional staff as they fight to keep up. This type of environment is counterproductive to effective corrections.
Long waiting lists for most health needs, including mental illness also does not help.
Why should we care about the mental health of prisoners?
The treatment of prisoners is not just a public policy issue; it is also a human rights issue. According to Australia Human Rights Commission, regardless of the offences committed, all prisoners are citizens and as such still have “the right to be treated with humanity, dignity and respect while in detention.” This includes being safe from harm, having their basic needs met, and being provided with opportunities for rehabilitation.
Ben Pynt from the human rights advocacy organisation Humanitarian Research Partners quoted in the Guardian reports “the long-term effects of solitary confinement were similar to torture: post-traumatic stress disorder, heightened anxiety and heightened sensitivity to stimuli or to people.” These are psychological issues impacting a large group of people who for the majority will eventually be released back into society. Studies show that the mental health of prisoners commonly deteriorates in the year after their release.
Our homeless shelters across the country are full to capacity or worse with discharged prisoners due to what critics say is to Australia’s poorly planned “throughcare.”
Release from prison is a critical time. Most ex-offenders do not have health care, as well as little to no employment prospects upon release. When you compound that with poor mental health and an untreated addiction, reoffending is no surprise. Almost two in five people who are released from prison return within two years.
Unfortunately many feel the fate of our prisoners is not a worthy cause. Popular ideas of prisoners living in the lap of luxury in ‘motel conditions’ at the expense of public coffers furthers this lack of interest by the general public and government in prisoners’ rights.
Toby Hall writes, “withholding resources on prisoner health is a false economy: the longer illnesses and disease go unmet, the greater the ultimate costs of treatment. And once out of jail, if we let ex-offenders slip back into addiction and deteriorating mental illness, we all pay the price.”