April 12, 2004
Scars of incarceration linger long after prisoners
are released, author writes
By Jennifer McNulty
As a specialist on the psychological impacts of imprisonment, psychology
professor Craig Haney knows the gritty truth about the adjustments inmates
must make to survive incarceration.
Psychology professor Craig Haney is a contributor to the new
book, Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and
Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities
Formal prison rules and unwritten codes of conduct require prisoners
to relinquish autonomy, become hypervigilant about their personal safety,
and develop an impenetrable prison mask that hides their
For some, incarceration can be so psychologically painful that it produces
post-traumatic stress reactions after they are released. For many, psychological
distress and long-term dysfunction hamper their reintegration into society.
As a contributor to the new book, Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact
of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities
(Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute Press, 2004), Haney writes about
some of the little-discussed consequences of todays punitive penal
The incarceration of huge numbers of drug offenders at a time when
the rationale for imprisonment has shifted from rehabilitation to an
openly punitive approach is a combustible combination, writes
Haney. Of the 1.4 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons
nationwide, 600,000 will be released this year, he said, driving home
societys interest in reducing the suffering and alienation inmates
experience, and the scars--emotional and physical--they carry with them
Writing that prisons have become in some ways much more difficult
places in which to adjust and survive over the past several decades,
Haney says many inmates incur severe psychological costs
as they adapt to modern prison life. Although the psychological consequences
of institutionalization impede postprison adjustment, Haney outlines
ways to minimize these impediments.
No progress can be made until penal policies are changed to emphasize
prisoner-oriented rehabilitative services, according to Haney. Prison
life must be restructured to replicate life in the world outside prison,
as much as possible. Services must address the needs of addicted, mentally
ill, and developmentally disabled inmates, and the use of punitive isolation
must be minimized.
In addition, prisoners must be prepared to reenter the free world.
Haney urges prisons to offer decompression programs to all inmates to
help them understand the ways in which incarceration may have changed
them, and to provide vocational, occupational, and job-search training,
as well. No prisoner should be released directly out of supermax or
solitary confinement, and those with symptoms of mental illness will
need specialized transitional services to facilitate their reintegration
As a community, the nation must recognize the challenges facing prisoners
upon release and provide job opportunities, counseling that focuses
on the consequences of adapting to prison life, and parole and probation
services that help individuals with the transition to life outside prison.
Haney concludes his chapter by conceding the enormity of the challenge
ahead, but he blames the fact that the United States has come to drastically
overuse incarceration as a strategy of crime control for the scope
of the problem.
Although certainly not everyone who goes to prison is damaged
by the experience, we know that prison can hurt people in significant
ways and that some people are hurt more than others, he writes.
Very few prison programs even acknowledge the psychological risks
of incarceration, and fewer still are designed to address or ameliorate
the negative effects of imprisonment and the long-term problems these
effects may produce.
Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry
on Children, Families, and Communities was edited by Jeremy Travis,
senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, and Michelle
Waul, director of special projects at the National Center for Victims
of Crime. It documents the consequences of imprisonment for individual
prisoners, their families, and the communities to which these prisoners
return and asks whether the corrections and health and human services
systems can better serve this growing population.
The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and
educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance
challenges facing the nation.
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