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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 feelings.

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 today’s punitive penal system.

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 society’s interest in reducing the suffering and alienation inmates experience, and the scars--emotional and physical--they carry with them upon release.

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 into society.

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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