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“It can make you crazy”: The mental health consequences of incarceration

By Elaine Leeder

Working with prisoners for the last 15 years, I have seen sane men become mentally unstable as a result of incarceration. Being in impact of long-term prison life. One begins to take on the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of an institutionalized person, even if they are dysfunctional. Because a prisoner has to abandon all sense of privacy and liberty, there is a stigmatization that happens when one is incarcerated. Life is always stressful, unpleasant, and difficult, with restrictions and dehumanization a constant.

Every moment of the day is controlled by external forces—rules and regulations that may not make sense but are just the way it is inside. People learn to live by such rules, may rebel against them internally but learn to shut up and deal with it all. As a result, prisoners may become hypervigilant, distrustful, and suspicious, or may be socially isolated and withdrawn. By being inconspicuous and unobtrusive, they hope to stay off the radar, trying to live quiet lives.

Sometimes prisoners develop post-traumatic stress reactions because of the violence around them. Often, they were abused as children, and have been victims of poverty or maltreatment; thus, being a prisoner re-victimizes them. Of course, there is no treatment for such conditions while incarcerated, and the prisoners are left to deal with their pain in quiet desperation. If and when a prisoner is paroled (and 95 percent of all inmates eventually leave prison), the consequences are vast. There is little in the way of transition programming, and the individual must make his way into the world with no real preparation for it.

I once had an ex-prisoner tell me what it was like when he came out. He went into a bathroom and could not figure out how the new toilets flushed or how the water faucets turned on now. He walked out of the bathroom crying because he felt so inept and incompetent. How much we on the outside take for granted! So much more needs to be done to help prisoners both inside and out deal with the long-term effects of incarceration.
Elaine Leeder is the Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University, and has recently published her latest book, My Life with Lifers: Lessons for a Teacher, Humanity Has No Bars. She has worked for over 15 years at Elmira Correctional Facility in New York and San Quentin State Prison in California. Follow her on twitter @ElaineLeeder or on Facebook at, and be sure to see her latest blog or purchase her book on

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