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  • Azure Onyewu

Prisoner Dehumanization and Lack of Rehabilitation

Updated: May 24, 2021

Many prisoners in the United States encounter an inability to cope with the troubles of the outside world after they have served their time in prison. Additionally, many prisoners suffer from significant physical and emotional trauma before their time in jail, but while serving their time, they often do not resolve these issues and their mental health problems intensify.

The American incarceration system dehumanizes prisoners throughout their sentence and after their release, failing to adequately prepare prisoners to re-enter society. Inadequate rehabilitation programs or opportunities for prisoners during their sentence fail to prepare them for the outside world and fail to help them deal with previous trauma when on their own, often leading to recidivism.

Because of the few efforts at prisoner rehabilitation within prisons, when released, former prisoners either fall back into a life of crime or encounter an inability to live as a productive member in society. During former President Donald Trump’s meeting regarding prison reform in 2018, he acknowledged the inadequacy of the rehabilitation programs in place and stressed the need for improvement: “We’ll be discussing a number of opportunities to improve our prison system […] to help former prisoners reenter society as productive citizens. Very important.”

Trump also recognized the increasing recidivism of prisoners, most likely an effect of the poor options for behavioral improvement for inmates and stated, “Two- thirds of the 650,000 people released from prison each year are arrested again within three years.” His recognition for the urgent need for prison reform highlights the atrocity of many rehabilitation programs in prisons around the country. Jeff Smith, a former prisoner, commented on his personal experience of the lack of rehabilitation opportunities when he said, “They seemed to take a perverse pleasure in not rehabilitating you. That’s on top of a total lack of vocational training or an opportunity to develop skills that will help you succeed.”

Some Americans argue that numerous rehabilitation programs do exist and have received attention from the government. For example, in 2008, former President George Bush passed the Second Chance Act to reduce recidivism, and millions of dollars in annual funding went to prisoner reentry services and programs. Rehabilitation programs such as Boaz and Ruth in Richmond, Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, Pioneer Human Services in Washington, and many others have proven successful in job training, providing housing, or mental health counseling for former prisoners.

Nonetheless, these programs often receive little to no funding; Tina Rosenberg wrote, “these [rehabilitation] programs are always broke (at Boaz and Ruth, the staff works part of the time for free).” Many of the successful rehabilitation programs rely on the kindness and volunteer work of others which does not guarantee the programs’ survival and explains the scarcity of effective programs. The government establishes most of these programs as a way of showing concern for prisoners’ transition into society, but little evidence has proved that the rehabilitation programs in place have reduced recidivism, explaining the increasing number of incarcerations.

Even though a few rehabilitation programs and efforts already exist in prisons, these programs receive little attention, and comprehensive, reliable data are not available on the nature and quality of programs offered, and the overall effectiveness of various approaches. One important component of the rehabilitation of prisoners and preparation to re-enter society is adequate education, but ironically, ineffective education currently exists in many American prisons. Improved and more accessible education for prisoners who spend months to years of their life in jail would equip them with job skills and help them when navigating life outside of prison.

In his book The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, Jeremy Travis mentions how the prison system’s focus centers around severe punishment rather than efforts to improve the prisoner’s behavior or prepare them for life outside of prison: “Public and professional discourses moved from a focus on rehabilitation as the predominant purpose of punishment to just deserts, or retribution, as the primary goal.”

The incarceration system’s focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation explains the insufficiency of the rehabilitation programs in place and why they have few successful outcomes. Jeff Smith explains his own experience receiving education while he was in prison: “The whole year I was in prison they offered one GED course. […] If you look at nations that have far lower recidivism rates, you’ll see they do actual vocational training in prison.” In the book Education Through Her Eyes: Value, Belief and Experience in Women’s Jail-Based Education, a group of female inmates describe how getting a GED would help them get a better job and lead them to economic independence.

The low levels of schooling in prisons contribute to the difficulty prisoners have when finding jobs that provide enough financial support, and low-paying jobs automatically put the former prisoner at a socioeconomic disadvantage. However, if better schooling existed within prisons, the length of the prisoner’s sentence would have less of an effect on the prisoner’s life afterwards.

The incarceration system’s rehabilitation programs do not prepare prisoners to handle the social aspect of the outside world due to long periods spent either in solitary confinement or with little normal social interaction. Data from a survey of 122 former Massachusetts prisoners from the 2012 Boston Reentry Study provided information about the former prisoners’ experience with social interactions and anxiety one week after their release: “About 40% of the respondents reported some type of social anxiety in their first seven days […] Being jostled by strangers, likely on public transport, caused many respondents to avoid trains and buses for the first few months.”

Over one-third of the respondents in the poll conducted felt socially anxious enough to actively avoid social interaction, a major aspect of the real world. The long periods of confinement explain why many of the prisoners felt socially anxious or unfamiliar with the interactions in society. By allowing prisoners to live on their own while still poorly equipped to live independently, the incarceration system pushes them towards failure and recidivism.

Many prisoners lack simple skills such as punctuality and communication from spending extended time in prison. Prisons do not allow inmates to develop communication skills used in many job environments or prepare them for situations where these skills are essential, and based on Dr. Devah Pager’s 2003 study, when applying for a job, a criminal record made an employer almost half as likely to call someone back.

In an interview, former inmate Darris Young described the poor job opportunities he saw for many other former prisoners when he stated, “Formerly incarcerated individuals would return home and the only employment options were these low-paying and unstable jobs that provide no potential wage increase.” Prisoners encounter difficulties finding jobs, making money, and paying for a house or apartment because of their economic disadvantage once released. Improved education in prisons could solve the issue of poverty and homelessness after a prisoner’s sentence.

The American incarceration system ignores and worsens the mental health of its prisoners by allowing them to live in traumatic conditions that trigger mental illnesses, ultimately preventing many prisoners from having enough mental stability to properly function alone in society after their release. In a survey conducted in 2006 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over half of the inmates surveyed responded saying they had a type of mental health issue.

This 2006 Justice Department survey of 25,000 inmates also concluded that the number of inmates with mental health issues was 56 percent in state prisons, 45 percent in federal prisons, and 64 percent in jails. The high percentages confirm the prevalence of mental health disorders in U.S. prisons, both state and federal, and demonstrate the urgent need for proper mental health care. The increasing amount of mental illness in prisons also reflects the absence of services and aid for those who suffer with mental health issues and explains the inability prisoners have coping when integrated into society once released.

American prisons lack access to mental health services and specialists that would solve the issue of poor mental health in prisons. Data from reports conducted in 2000 in California, New York, and Oregon confirm improved mental health in forensic hospitals over untreated prisoners in jail. In this study, forensic psychiatrist Victoria Harris found that those who received help in forensic hospitals reoffended at significantly lower rates than untreated offenders with mental illnesses. Forensic hospitals focus on a more rehabilitative approach; they treat offenders as patients who can and do recover and who can return to society as people who can be expected to be law-abiding citizens.

As another potential solution to the deteriorating mental health of prisoners, in his article “Social-Cognitive Determinants of Help- seeking for Mental Health Problems among Prison Inmates” Philip Skogstad suggests “working on attitudinal barriers [and] strategies to ensure access to specialized forensic mental health in-reach services.” The input on the changes necessary to improve mental health in prisons provides examples of the mental health services current prisons lack. An inadequate amount of these services currently in place demonstrates the incarceration system’s neglect for prisoners and their vital needs.

In an evaluation of prisoners conducted using variables from the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) to conclude the amount of emotional distress inmates encounter and whether they have inclinations to seek help, the results showed high amounts of emotional distress and that a majority of the participants wanted help for suicidal and other personal issues. Trauma and torture that occur in prisons could significantly affect these levels of emotional distress.

M. Grayson L. Taylor commented on the causes of prisoners’ mental health deterioration in his scholarly journal article “Prison Psychosis” when he wrote, “Psychological torture solidifies prison psychosis and creates a breed of permanently damaged prisoners who […] become immune to pain and punishment […] [which] takes away from the prisoner’s human attributes.” The system’s indifference affects the mental health of its prisoners. The deterioration of mental health leads to prisoners’ emotional numbness, highlighting the dehumanizing factor that takes place as a result of the incarceration system’s inadequacy in finding solutions to mental illnesses.

Because of the overcrowding issue and the growing prison population over the past two decades, prisoners who need help for mental disorders cannot access treatment facilities due to the limited space and resources which cannot support the large number of prisoners. Because the prison system encourages overcrowding of prisons for monetary benefits, it ignores the effects the overcrowding has on the resources available for prisoners with severe mental illnesses.

In the BJS 2004 Survey on Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, over half of inmates in California prisons claimed to have a diagnosed mental health issue and of this group of inmates, only half claimed to have received treatment for their mental health problem. These California prisons represent the results of most prisons across the United States where authorities continue to ignore prisoner mental disorders, and they show that mental health care may not be reaching all those in need.

Anthony Gay, a former prisoner put in solitary confinement, explains how the incarceration system worsened his mental health and failed to provide the proper treatment to help him recover and improve his behavior. Gay describes his poor treatment in an interview saying, “Whatever treatment they did give me was never sufficient.”

Even when authorities in the prison recognized his deteriorating mental health, they ignored the signs and even punished Gay for his self-harm: “I would be punished for cutting on myself and given an unappetizing diet that looked like feces and tast[ed] like dog food to punish me for cutting on myself.” Anthony Gay’s experience with how the prison system handled his mental illness provides a glimpse into the ways that the incarceration system in the United States treats mental illnesses among prisoners in general.

Many United States prisons often fail to meet, or barely meet, acceptable standards for health care outlined and established by the World Health Organization in 1990. This lack of attention given towards mental health explains why mental illness rates in American prisons continue to increase. Because many prisoners receive inadequate treatment for previous mental illnesses and because prison conditions worsen mental health issues, former prisoners frequently find themselves in need of care even after released.

According to the National Institute of Health, over 350,000 offenders with mental illnesses return to society without any treatment for their illness. This leads to difficulties in coping and recidivism among ex-offenders who find themselves on the same negative paths with worsening mental health issues.

After many prisoners serve their time in prison, they often do not have the same opportunities as other citizens because the incarceration system takes away their rights and treats prisoners as inferior due to their criminal record, leaving them unable to live a fulfilled life. Having a criminal record in the United States automatically puts a person at a disadvantage in comparison to the rest of society.

In an interview with NPR News, Shaka Senghor described his personal experience of finding employment while dealing with society’s resistance to allowing Senghor to redeem himself: “I struggled to find employment. […] When people attempt to hire you, there is prejudice that comes with your past that you can’t seem to escape.” Despite Senghor’s qualification or behavioral improvement since his crime, others continued to view him as nothing more than his previous actions, a struggle that interfered with his life after his sentence for numerous years.

Senghor additionally expressed his belief that those released from prison have every right to have the same liberties as any other citizen and to “work, live freely, [and] get an apartment or a house like any other person in society,” a feeling with which many other former prisoners resonate.

A person’s criminal history should not prohibit them from participating in ordinary aspects of life, such as finding work or buying a house, if they have already served their punishment through their sentence. Damaging the rest of the former prisoner’s life metaphorically extends their sentence, making it permanent, and makes them less of a human being than any other citizen.

Many former prisoners, especially those with felony charges, lose voting rights even after serving their sentence. As of 2014, around 5.85 million Americans, or about one in forty adults, have temporarily or permanently lost their voting rights due to their felony conviction. A majority of states in the United States take away the voting rights of convicted felons in some manner.

For example, forty-eight states and Washington D.C. forbid incarcerated felons from voting while in prison. The restrictions on the right to vote prevent many convicted felons from fully becoming a regular citizen in society and put them at a permanent disadvantage since they will never have all the same democratic rights as others.

Even though states have their own processes of restoring voting rights to ex-offenders, the difficult and tedious process often prevents many ex-offenders from taking advantage of these opportunities. Daudi Justin wrote about his personal experience of how his criminal record affected his life after prison in a newspaper article from The Morningside Review.

Justin mentioned how his prohibition from serving in a jury made him feel less than a true citizen and less than a person: “I will continue to be banned from jury duty, permanently relegated to second-class citizenship.” Banning convicted felons from serving in a jury after they have served their time makes them inferior to any other person because of their past.

Some argue that felons should not serve on a jury due to their bias and input that may “destroy the impartiality of the court.” However, Justin provided a counterargument to felons serving in a jury when he wrote, “Every human is capable of bias. […] Those who have been convicted of a felony are no more likely to be biased than anyone who has been pulled over for a speeding ticket.” The argument that a felon’s bias interferes with the integrity of the court is an excuse for the neglect of democratic rights of previously convicted felons.

Thirty-one states in the United States permanently ban convicted felons from serving on a jury. These excluded felons comprise a significant percentage of the U.S. population, and banning them from serving on a jury fails to account for an accurate representation of American citizens and deprives the excluded group of the experience of participating in the democratic process. By detailing the impact these bans have on the criminal justice system and how many people the ban affects, Justin highlights the subordination of many American prisoners and places an emphasis on the need for change in the criminal justice system.

Not only does the government take away certain rights of former prisoners, but judges also express indifference when it comes to restoring constitutional rights to those still incarcerated. The hands-off doctrine, a policy from the 19th century to prevent prisoners from gaining rights, originally established the idea of further dehumanizing prisoners. The hands-off doctrine stated that “the care of inmates should be left to prison officials and that it is not the place of judges to intervene.

Because the decision regarding the care of inmates belonged to prison officials rather than judges, many prisoners never fully received their constitutional rights, an issue where the judges had the last say. Although the hands-off doctrine no longer exists, the same idea takes place in the form of another more recent document: the Prison Litigation Reform Act [PLRA].

Established in 1996, the PLRA states that “prospective relief in any civil action with respect to prison conditions shall extend no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right of a particular plaintiff.” The PLRA inhibits the enforcement of prisoners’ constitutional rights by limiting the federal courts’ involvement in prison reform issues introduced by prisoners to improve their conditions.

The federal courts solely doing the bare minimum necessary for prisoners and limiting their rights as much as legally possible explains the lack of personal growth and motivation among prisoners and provides another example of the system’s desire to silence the voice of inmates fighting for their rights.

Although the present-day incarceration system still contains many flaws, the government has made efforts at reform. Regarding the rehabilitation of prisoners, Trump issued the First Step Act in December of 2018 which shortens sentences for some inmates—partly through a change in the credit they are given for good behavior— and increases job training and other programs.

A step in the right direction, the First Step Act implemented a system designed to assess inmates' risk of recidivism and to identify their individual needs. Under the First Step Act, the federal Bureau of Prisoners (BOP) had already released 3,000 prisoners and shortened the sentences of 1,600 prisoners by July of 2019.

Shortening prisoner sentences promotes a smooth integration into society, allowing them to sooner take advantage of the opportunities that life outside of prison has to offer. The BOP also placed seventy-five prisoners in the Second Chance Confinement Program by July of 2019, which permitted prisoners with mental and other personal disorders to serve their sentence in their homes away from traumatizing prison conditions. 25 percent of these sentence reduction cases came from Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia, so although prisons have implemented the reforms, they have not necessarily spread to each U.S. state.

Despite the prevalence of mental illness in prisons today, many experts work to find solutions to the issue of mental illness in jails. In her article, Heather Stringer describes the Changing Lives and Changing Outcomes (CLCO) program put into place by Robert Morgan, PhD, a psychology professor at Texas Tech University, who developed this program to address antisocial thinking and behavior patterns among inmates who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses.

This program works to prepare prisoners with mental illnesses for the social skills required when they eventually finish their sentence, an important program that many American prisons need. Based on the results of a 2019 evaluation of participants in the Changing Lives and Changing Outcomes program, CLCO successfully lowered mental illness symptoms and criminal risks of the prisoners. Nonetheless, it is a relatively new program still under development, and much additional work examining the effectiveness of CLCO remains to be done.

The incarceration system continues to dehumanize prisoners during their sentence, fails to ensure success and stability for prisoners once released, and lacks effective resources, programs, and mental health professionals to support prisoners. Even so, because of the increased awareness of the issue over the prison system’s poor treatment of its inmates, more people continue to find solutions and persuade authorities to make impactful and long-lasting changes in the entire system.

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