What Prison Does To Your Brain


“A door was accidentally ajar and I heard a child laugh, I hadn’t heard anything as beautiful in more than two decades, my mind was awhirl for weeks,” Ahmed Kathrada, who was jailed with Nelson Mandela for most of his 28 years, told me this after he was released (almost two years before Mandela).

He was luckier than Alfred Woodfox, incarcerated in solitary confinement for forty years in Louisiana’s notorious Angola (ironically also the name of a nation that abuts South Africa) prison. For four decades he was locked for 23 of 24 hours in a cell not much bigger than a cupboard. He never saw the moon or stars, not a flower nor a tree, he never felt the touch of a gentle hand, and yet his book, “Solitary,” shortlisted for a National Book Award, is a testament to the human spirit. It also gives a glimpse into how prisons can destroy individuals and their brains raising risks to society once those individuals are released. Keeping people inside longer, which the U.S. already does more than any other nation on earth, is not a good option: one in ten of those incarcerated is older than 55, posing high medical bill challenges for the taxpayer. The entire prison system is costing U.S. taxpayers $80 billion a year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yet a declining number of prison rehabilitation programs means individuals with a propensity for aggression are released onto the streets. A U.S. Sentencing Commission report on recidivism among federal prisoners showed that nearly 64% of prisoners convicted of violent offenses were arrested again within eight years of their release compared with about 40% of those incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

How can this be changed? A study released last year by Drs. Sjors Ligthart, Laura van Oploo, and Jesse Meijers called “Prison and the brain: Neuropsychological research in the light of the European Convention on Human Rights” discussed findings from a “Dutch remand prison showing that brain functions connected with self-regulation decline after just three months of imprisonment. The participants, tested a week after arrival, and retested after three months of imprisonment, performed worse on neuropsychological tasks measuring attention and impulse control. It is hypothesized that this decline in executive functions is due to the impoverished prison environment. Reduced self-regulation appears to be a risk factor for recidivism.”

Their research is echoed by The Society for Neuroscience which, in addressing incarceration noted that, “social isolation has been shown to heighten stress hormone responses and change structures within the brain. It may also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Social isolation and loneliness are associated with depression, hostility, heightened stress response, sleep fragmentation, and increased mortality.”

Ligthart and colleagues note that “most detainees will re-enter society, but … they face challenges such as finding housing, employment and not relapsing back into old habits such as drug use, theft, or aggression. [To] successfully reintegrate into society, the former detainee has to rely on neuropsychological functions such as impulse control and planning.”

Dr. Arielle Baskin-Sommers, a psychologist at Yale who works with prison populations told Brain World that “data shows that providing justice-involved individuals with opportunities to obtain educational and occupational skills benefits the individual and society.” She and her team found that six weeks of computerized cognitive training to aid inmates “with cognitive-affective dysfunctions — such as paying attention to different pieces of information in their environment or acting without overreacting to emotion — resulted in significant neural and behavioral changes. Strategies targeting empathy in offenders lead to lasting behavior change, even in recalcitrant populations.”

However, in the U.S., with the world’s highest prison population (despite crime decreasing over the last four decades) volunteer programs run by individuals and educational institutions are being decimated while incarceration costs soar. The Vera Institute of Justice showed that incarceration costs more than $31,000 per inmate, per year, nationwide. In some states, it’s as much as $60,000.

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