Donders Wonders Blog

The concern about a (un)healthy mind in prison

This post is also available in Dutch.

Prisoners should reflect on their past mistakes and learn how to become better citizens. But this may be difficult if prisoners end up developing mental problems while imprisoned.


 Image courtesy of Pxhere (CC0 1.0).

Bad guys to jail. That’s how it works.

The punishment of temporarily locking up someone who breaks the law is utilized by every country in the world. By doing so, you expect the offenders to reflect on their mistakes and become better prepared to fit into society. Of course, this is a very rosy picture of reality.

Do prisons work that well?

Studies about imprisonment show that there are many flaws in this system. Prisons are expensive to maintain and should only be worth the expense if, in the end, they benefit society. This is why a European initiative, The Prison Project, was started some years ago here in the Netherlands, and they have some interesting observations to make!

In total, researchers from the Prison Project interviewed more than 1,900 prisoners, starting right after their arrest and continuing while they were trying to restart their lives. This research shows that prisoners with sentences of 6 months or longer have a hard time getting back into society. The longer they stay in prison, the more difficult it becomes to integrate back into society. This could be one of the reasons why many long-term prisoners end up breaking the law again. Which then results in another sentence to jail… It appears hard to break this loop. The Prison Project suggests that the key may rely in prisoners’ state of mind.

Feelings and mental health in prison

If the law is fair to you, you tend to be more respectful of it. That’s what the Prison Project shows when it comes to prisoners. If people felt they were treated well in prison, they were less likely to go against the rules again. In addition, prisoners’ mental health was deeply affected: cases of depression and anxiety among prisoners are 3 to 5 times higher than normal within their first 3 weeks in jail. Although some show signs of recovery after 3 months, the environment inside the prison does not seem to contribute much to this recovery.

In the end, these mental health problems can be a big obstacle to integration into society, while it would be beneficial to society if ex-prisoners can succeed and contribute instead of going back to crime. It reminds me of someone I once met when I was visiting Peckham, in London. During a very interesting chat, he told me that he once went to jail. It was a turning point for him; he realized he could do much better. He decided to join an organization that works on giving a future to those who also committed big mistakes in the past. He found the inspiration to pursue his passion for music and show it to the online world. He had the opportunity to find his way and make something out of his second chance, an opportunity everyone should get.

By João Guimarães, edited by Annelies

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