Deinstitutionalization was designed to remove people with mental illness from asylums and return them back into the community. An unintended consequence was that a significant number of people with mental illness ended up in jail and prison. Today, there are more people with mental illness in prison than in mainstream society. The three biggest mental health facilities in the United States are jails and prisons (i.e., Cook County Jail, Miami-Dade Jail, Los Angeles County Jail). However, jails and prisons were not designed for this purpose, leading to poor outcomes such as inmate self-injurious behavior and suicide. This also impacts staff well-being and safety, which leads to burnout, high turnover, and decreased institutional camaraderie.
Violence is a learned behavior. When the public watch television and other media, they are often swayed by the imagery of violence in prison. This is because media is designed to entertain, not educate. Movies like Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, and The Green Mile reinforce the notion that inmates were either violent before and/or during incarceration. This media also presents staff as brutal, sadistic, and stupid (which is not true). In my research, I continue to be surprised by the substantial percentage of inmates who are non-violent. I recall asking one inmate what would happen if they were in a fight. The inmate responded, “I would lose”.
Note that not all prison systems are alike. For example, the data indicates that nearly 8 percent of the 173,000 inmates in federal prison were serving time for a violent offense in 2016, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). At the state level, 54.5 percent of the 1.3 million inmates in state facilities were serving time for a violent offense in 2015.
Inmates are an isolated, alienated, and disconnected social group. 33% of all prison inmates receive a visit of some kind each year. However, that means that 2/3, or 66%, of all prison inmates do not receive a visit from anyone each year.
Some never had social support and functional childhoods/family relationships to begin with; some have been rejected by family on the basis of their crime; some have families that live too far from the prison, or they lack transportation.
Prison staff are typically suspicious of visitation because contraband may be passed to inmates; however, there are very important outcomes that can be achieved by properly run prison visits. Not only do visits improve inmates’ mental health and well-being, but inmates who receive visits are more likely to display positive institutional behaviors, and visitation is linked to lower recidivism rates.
Some prisons are sensitive to family visits, and provide family rooms designed to maximize the visitation while minimizing any trauma for the family. Studies suggest that poorly organized prison visits can lead to visitors feeling humiliated and degraded as they are processed through the security protocols, and they “are treated like inmates”. While there is no single correct solution, it is crucial that policies reinforce best practices for visitation. This has also included the use of online technology because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I am often asked about conjugal visits in prison (another media myth).
The answer is that they are rare to non-existent in today’s prisons.
Research on public opinion indicates that people think of prison as a place that people “go to”. Due to a lack of experience, people tend to assume that convicted inmates just disappear somewhere and never return. The data tells a far different story: 95% of all people who go to prison will return to society at some point; the other 5% will die in prison (usually from natural causes rather than violence).
This suggests several things:
In a perfect world, inmates would receive the resources they need to be more successful upon release; however, this is not currently the case. Once labelled as an ex-inmate, it very difficult to find work, housing, and stable relationships. Reentry requires planning at the prison before the inmate is released, to link the individual to services and resources in the community. Much work is needed in this area, as current rates are rather depressing. For example, 90.1% of state prisoners aged 24 years and under will be rearrested within nine years from release, the highest category of any age group. Effective reentry strategies can break this cycle of incarceration, reduce the number of future victims of crime, and save taxpayer dollars.