What Prison Does To Your Brain


A lack of attention to rehabilitation may correlate to corporate profits and political corruption with private prison contractors donating significant sums to political candidates. Some claim too, that programs are curtailed because of resentment from correctional officers (who are among the top hourly wage earners in the country at around $40 an hour).

The Sentencing Project reported that from 2000 to 2016 the number of people housed in private prisons increased five times faster than the total prison population. Those detained in private immigration facilities rose 442 percent or one in 12 prisoners, an increase of 47% since 2000.

Increasing educational, psychological, and volunteer programs could slash expenses with often highly-skilled volunteers and educational institutions prepared to render their services free — if correctional institutions are open to them, which DOJ figures show, increasingly few are. Ligthart and colleagues note that “Studies have shown that enriching an environment — with more physical, mental and social activities — positively influence self-regulation. In neuropsychology, the functions that are at the base of self-regulation are executive functions, such as working memory, sustained attention, impulse control, planning, and cognitive flexibility. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is crucial for self-regulation and executive functions … In a meta-analysis, a large number of brain imaging studies show that specific areas of the prefrontal cortex are less developed or less active in people displaying anti-social behavior compared to healthy controls.”

They report that “self-regulation and executive functions are crucial for a successful return to society. For example, ex-prisoners need to be able to make a plan to find a house and an income (attention, planning), adjust their plan when needed (cognitive flexibility, working memory), resist temptations and control their emotions (impulse control). An enriched environment may improve these functions.”

Reform requires more than kind volunteers. Dr. Cara M. Altimus noted in eNeuro that “Overcrowding contributes to deficits in the neural mechanisms needed for managing stress. Noise pollution increases stress hormones and cardiovascular risks. Ecological toxins, such as inadequate sewage and waste disposal, poor water quality, and the presence of asbestos and lead produce deficits and dysfunctions in brain and behavior. These factors negatively affect brain regions responsible for emotion, cognition, and behavioral control and worsen already problematic behavioral tendencies.”

The worst impacts are found in those sent to “the hole” — solitary confinement — the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that a fifth of federal and state prisoners experienced this. Criminal justice reformer and lawyer, Bryan Stevenson has pointed out that lengthy solitary confinement is often for minor offenses. The U.S. Department of Justice Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing noted that solitary confinement can lead to hallucinations, fantasies and paranoia; it can increase anxiety, depression, and apathy as well as difficulties in thinking, concentrating, remembering, paying attention, and controlling impulses [including] self-mutilation, chronic rage, and irritability.

The global consensus is that old styles of incarceration where harshness was prized does not work, it makes violent individuals worse. The United Nations has promulgated the “Mandela Rules” for the humane treatment of prisoners. The rules are prefaced by a quote from Mandela: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

The U.N. declared that solitary confinement for longer than 15 days is cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment, or torture. Not every country and not every state in the U.S. has endorsed the Mandela Rules.

Woodfox writes in “Solitary”: “Trapped on a tier with 14 other personalities I couldn’t get away from — the one who is constantly complaining; the one who smells bad. Even with the constant noise and when the pain of not being able to leave my cell was too much to bear … Even with the fear that one day I would go insane like so many others I’d witnessed … I allowed myself to change.

“I transformed my cell, which was supposed to be a confined space of destruction and punishment, into something positive. I used that space to educate myself … to develop principles and a code of conduct.

“My life was the result of a conscious choice I made every minute of the day. … I was dedicated to building things, not tearing them down …

“I wondered if in society, we could build a world in which we do not fear one another.”

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