The Psychological Impact of Incarceration
“Inmates lose much more than their freedom upon going to prison,” reports Diane Schetky, a forensic psychiatrist. “They also lose their autonomy, self esteem, identity, friends, choices, recreational outlets, and privacy. Prison security trumps many activities of daily life that we take for granted and may leave inmates feeling that it overshadows their personhood.”
There are unwritten rules in prison culture such as: “Guys don’t get sad, they get mad.” The showing of feelings may be viewed as a sign of weakness which other inmates may exploit to their advantage. This and difficulty trusting other inmates leads them to hide or numb their feelings. As one inmate noted, “It is like going around wearing a suit of armor all the time.” Acts of kindness may arouse suspicion, and hypervigilence is common because of the need to watch one’s back.
Inmates adapt by relinquishing their autonomy and conforming to the highly structured and often impersonal environment of prison and the indignities that go along with it. Inmates may try to act bad as a means of getting respect, but those who do not adhere to the rules end up accruing more charges and more time. Some of those serving long sentences may become so institutionalized and dependent that they have a hard time functioning on their own once released and they are at high risk for recidivism. Inmates who spend long periods of time in solitary confinement may regress and exhibit poor social skills.
On the other hand, prison provides opportunities for those willing to take advantage of them, such as educational, rehabilitative and faith-based programs. There is a well known saying in prison: “Use your time well or it will use you.”
Returning to the community after years in prison poses many challenges. The stigma of being a felon stays with former prisoners and may interfere with social relationships and finding a job, especially in today’s economy. They may have unrealistic expectations about their role in the family and some may face rejection by family members or have no family awaiting them. They are not used to dealing with intimate relationships and showing deep feelings.
These challenges may result in difficulty dealing with their emotions such as being overly controlled or explosive. Substance abusing friends or family members may tempt them to start using again despite restrictions on their terms of probation forbidding this. Not having had to take responsibilities for others or tend to bills for years, they may feel overwhelmed by choices, decisions and the lack of structure in their lives. Added to this, many former prisoners must deal with mental health issues, as well.
All of this makes a successful re-entry very difficult, and if these issues are left unaddressed, the likelihood of recidivism increases. “Of course this is a very, very difficult situation for everyone involved,” says Dr. Schetky. “But, the Restorative Justice Project (RJP) can help immensely. RJP trained volunteers can prepare inmates for their release by helping them set realistic expectations, anticipate what to expect from their families and work on their social and problem solving skills. In addition, volunteers may help inmates appreciate the impact of crime on their family and community, and help with resumes and job interview preparation. RJP provides a mentor who sticks by the newly released inmate’s side and provides a relationship that is supportive and non- judgmental while offering objective help with decision-making and ongoing emotional support.”
Dr. Schetky has a rich and unique background, having served for a year and a half as a part-time psychiatrist at Maine State Prison, then as a contracted examiner for the Maine State Forensic Service, in addition to maintaining her private practice of psychiatry in Rockport until her retirement in 2007. For the past ten years, she has been a Hospice volunteer at Maine State Prison, where she facilitated a bereavement group and, most recently, helped develop an inmate Hospice volunteer training program. Dr. Schetky is a Restorative Justice Project Facilitator and serves on the RJP Training Advisory Committee.
When we finished the interview for the above story, Dr Schetky summarized her views by saying, “Restorative Justice is very effective in two distinct situations: easing the transition of newly released prisoners into the community, and as an effective alternative to the traditional justice system. When a case is turned over to the Restorative Justice Project, it is a win-win situation for the individual and the community.”
For more information on work related to prisoner re-entry, see the article on the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center and the article entitled 'I’ve Paid My Debt’, but I’m Still Not Welcome'.
For an example of a situation where Restorative Practices were a successful alternative to the juvenile justice system, see "Vandalism of Cemetery Ends Up With Community Harmony".