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The Mental Health of an Inmate and How to Deal With It?

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Did quarantine feel like a prison? Well, let’s debunk the myth. Quarantine or lockdown is nowhere near what an inmate goes through in prison. Inmates suffer a lot of mental traumas in prison, such as prison riots, being cut off from the world, and sharing space with inmates facing several degrees of convictions. All of this has a strong effect on the physical and mental health of the convicts. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the USA has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. Approximately 2 million people are incarcerated in US prisons. Many of them enter the prison system with pre-existing mental health issues, and others start showing symptoms after spending some time in prison.

Prison life can take a serious toll on an inmate’s psychological well-being. The pre-existing conditions worsen, and new conditions develop. Depressive disorder, PTSD, anxiety disorder, etc., are the most common ones. Many mentally-ill inmates are eventually released back into the world without any treatment, sometimes even without a diagnosis. Studies also show the rampant use of drugs and substance abuse among incarcerated individuals also accentuates the illness.

More often, the symptoms of mental illness are considered a normal reaction to an institutional setting. Early signs often go unnoticed, and inmates suffer in silence. Some of the most common psychological issues faced by inmates are:

    • Their personal identity gets stripped. Prison cell is a small, cramped, concrete cell with little room. Similarly, they also have restricted control over access to good food and company. Prison life restricts inmates from fully depicting their personality and behaviour. 
    • Staying away from loved ones. Staying from family is tormenting for prisoners. According to research, families visiting imprisoned persons experience improvements in their mental health.
    • Prison environment. Prison’s monotonous environment can become dull for inmates. The lack of stimulation affects the brain adversely.
    • Regular exposure to violence. Prison fights, intimidation by other inmates, etc., are regular incidents that enhance the paranoia and fear in prisoners’ minds.
    • Solitary life. Prison life is a synonym for loneliness and the feeling of separation, which is very common in inmates.
    • Lack of love and intimacy. When people are locked behind bars away from society, the lack of romance, intimacy and affection affects the inmates’ emotional well-being. Few prisoners are lucky to get connected to the outer world through prison dating sites. There are people who love to interact with inmates and help them mentally and emotionally to be in a good condition. 

New thinking pattern

Many psychologists focus on keeping people suffering from mental health issues out of prison. Robert Morgan, PhD, a psychology professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, is putting a brand-new prison-based program to the test by teaching offenders how to stay away from actions that could result in recidivism.

The approach of Dr. Morgan deviates from the conventional wisdom that focuses on improving mental health care for inmates. The new approach can lessen the likelihood of criminal behavior patterns and help inmates with mental illness learn useful life skills. The new pattern can help them their anti-social thought patterns and develop healthy connections with other people. Other experts also point in a similar direction.

In prison, the daily routine of inmates is called a “program.” It is considered the backbone and is essential to a productive prison time because it keeps inmates engaged and focused. The majority of prisoners follow their plan diligently.

Things to do to stay mentally and physically healthy while in prison

  • Learn a new skill. Teaching prisoners new skills keeps them engaged and prepares them to learn the importance of earning an honest living once they leave prison. Useful vocational training can help them improve their self-esteem, confidence and decision-making capacity.
  • Develop reading habit. Most prisons have a library. Books help beyond cultivating reading habits. It can reduce boredom, engage detainees in positive social integration, and reduce the chances of being a repeat offender. Moreover, reading helps you develop your vocabulary, keep your mind fresh, and extend your imagination.
  • Write journal. Interactive journaling has a wider impact than considered earlier. Many inmates end up in prison because they never really thought about their actions until it was very late. Journaling helps them in self-reflection and become a better person. Writing about their feelings and thoughts also gives them an outlet to vent their suppressed emotions. 
  • Exercise daily. Regular exercises and physical activities can help inmates improve their health and fitness levels. It also helps release happy hormones such as dopamine that reduce depression and improve mental health. Regular exercises also help in combating anxiety and loneliness
  • Connect with higher power. Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder are just a few of the physical and mental illnesses that meditation has been proved to be effective against. Something about being in captivity makes you realize how small the human species is and that there must be more to existence. Additionally, it is the key to developing empathy and the ability to see beyond oneself, two qualities that are sorely lacking in our contemporary society. Prison runs spiritual programs have also shown a positive impact.
  • Enrol for prison jobs. In prison, inmates can enroll in several legal and not-so-legal jobs. They can be a tattoo artist, a laundry guy, a chef, a carpenter, a librarian and join many other jobs. These side hustles help you earn and productively engage your mind. Moreover, it prepares you for post-prison employment that reduces your future anxieties.
  • Engage in hobby. Jail yard offers a lot of hobbies to pursue, including drawing, exercise, chess, reading, handball, and card games, which are played around the clock. Though inmates are unfortunately forced to pass the time, it becomes a gateway to escape their current circumstances and benefits mental health. Hobbies allow prisoners to positively and constructively use time by engaging in cultural, spiritual, recreational, sporting, and educational pursuits.
  • Share stories. It’s virtually a rite of passage to tell stories in prison. Inmates assemble in the yard and share their most spectacular street adventures. Our culture is based on storytelling as a species, making it a valuable talent for inmates to develop. Sharing stories with one another is a wonderful way to amuse, educate, and get to know one another. 
  • Learn new language. Inmates come from all backgrounds, ethnicities and races. All speak different languages, allowing prisoners to pick up on different dialects and languages. If inmates want to enhance their memory, decision-making skills, and general cognitive wellness, they must learn a new language.
  • Find love online. Not all prisons allow direct access to the internet. However, prisoners can use snail mail to these websites. The operators scan them or type them online. Ex-inmates or anyone interested in dating prisoners can go to these sites and begin a pen-pal or romantic relationship with inmates. According to Businessweek, inmates have limited access to pen pal websites in prisons in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and Pennsylvania. But Florida has a complete ban on its usage.


There is no argument that prison life is much harder than staying home-quarantined during a pandemic. Just being in prison affects the mental well-being of the person. Experts suggest various methods can be incorporated into prison routine, which can positively impact physical and mental health.

Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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