Day after day, year after year, imagine having no space to call your own, no choice over who to be with, what to eat, or where to go. There is threat and suspicion everywhere. Love or even a gentle human touch can be difficult to find. You are separated from family and friends.
If they are to cope, than prisoners confined to this kind of environment have no option but to change and adapt. This is especially true for those facing long-term sentences. Few people are completely unchanged or unscathed by the prison experience.
It used to be believed that our personalities remain largely fixed in adulthood. But despite relative stability our habits of thought, behavior and emotion do change in significant and consequential ways, especially in response to the different roles that we adopt as we go through life. It is almost inevitable then that time spent as a prisoner, in a highly structured yet socially threatening environment, is bound to lead to significant personality changes.
Key features of the prison environment that are likely to lead to personality change include the chronic loss of free choice, lack of privacy, daily stigma, frequent fear, need to wear a constant mask of invulnerability and emotional flatness (to avoid exploitation by others), and the requirement, day-after-day, to follow externally imposed stringent rules and routines.
The empirical consensus on the most negative effects of incarceration is that most people who have done time in the best-run prisons return to the freeworld with little or no permanent, clinically-diagnosable psychological disorders as a result. Prisons do not, in general, make people “crazy.”
However I was skeptical about whether the pains of imprisonment generally translate into psychological harm concede that, for at least some people, prison can produce negative, long-lasting change. And most people agree that the more extreme, harsh, dangerous, or otherwise psychologically-taxing the nature of the confinement, the greater the number of people who will suffer and the deeper the damage that they will incur.
These chronic features of the environment might change prisoners’ personalities in terms of the “Big Five” model of personality that dominates most modern research on the general, non-prison population (based around the key traits like extraversion and conscientiousness).
Nonetheless, prisoners adapt to their environment, which they call “prisonization”. This contributes towards a kind of “post-incarceration syndrome” when they are released.
Former prisoners had developed “institutionalized personality traits”, including distrusting others, difficulty engaging in relationships and/or hampered decision-making.
I remember one prisoner telling me when she was release she said: “I do still kind of act like I’m still in prison, and I mean, you are not a light switch or a water faucet. You can’t just turn something off. When you’ve done something for a certain amount of time, it becomes a part of you.” Which is totally true.
The personality change that most dominated their accounts was an inability to trust others, a kind of perpetual paranoia. “You cannot trust anybody in the joint,” said another inmate. “I do have an issue with trust, I just do not trust anybody.” she said. “And neither do I,” I told her.
The prisoners described the process an “emotional numbing”. “It does harden you. It does make you a bit more distant,” one said, explaining how people in jail deliberately conceal and suppress their emotions. “It is who you become, and if you are hardened in the beginning then you become even harder, you become even colder, you become more detached.” Another prisoner stated: “I kind of don’t have feelings for people any more.”
In terms of the “Big Five” personality traits, one could characterize this as a form of extreme low neuroticism (or high emotional stability or flatness), combined with low extraversion and low agreeability. In other words, not an ideal personality shift for the return to the outside world.
As the long-term prisoner becomes adapted, in the true sense of the term, to the imperatives of a sustained period of confinement, he or she becomes more emotionally detached, more self-isolating, more socially withdrawn, and perhaps less well suited to life after release.
The environment in a prison is very strict with respect to both regulations and norms, and private space is limited. Such an environment places demands on inmates to acquire order to avoid both formal punishment and negative acts from co-inmates.
In other words, it can help to be conscientious to stay out of trouble.
(Pictured below: Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, W. Virginia. First pic, a peek inside Martha Stewart’s cell. Second pic, #PrisonLife #CellLife)