Research shows majority of those incarcerated suffer from poor mental health

Jun 29, 2019

There are over 2 million people in the United States currently incarcerated, and a large majority of those people suffer from poor mental health, according to research from the American Sociological Association. Causes of poor mental health in prison range from being far from home, to violent episodes, to lack of amenities such as television.

Tim Edgemon, a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Georgia, joined us on "Take Care" to discuss the impact the criminal justice system has on inmates. Edgemon co-authored a journal article called "Inmate Mental Health and the Pains of Imprisonment."

What factors cause mental health in prison?

Prison isn't supposed to be a fun place. It's meant to be depriving. It's part of the punishment angle of prison, Edgemon says. But there are different ways prisons can impact mental health, and Edgemon said each prison may be different. Prison overcrowding, activities offered, such as recreation and even television time can all effect an inmate's mental health.

Length of time in prison, age and race negatively affects mental health

Edgemon's research found a correlation between the length of time someone spends incarcerated and the impact on their mental health. He noted while it wasn't a big enough affect to include in his article, mainly due to data limitation, but other scholars have found a bigger correlation.

Timothy Edgemon is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Georgia. He co-authored a paper called "Inmate Mental Health and the Pains of Imprisonment."
Credit University of Georgia

"The longer someone spends in prison, and the longer someone spends in a particularly deprived environment. So if a person spends a lot of time in an overcrowded facility or particularly if the person spends a lot of time in solitary confinement, that does have a negative impact on mental health," he said.

Edgemon also found along demographic lines, his research tended to mirror that of the general population.

"For example, as someone ages, their depression decreases. And that's also true for the general population. As people get older, they tend to have less depression, and we found that same trend in prison," he said.

White prisoners also tend to have worse mental health that prisoners of color. Other scholars have noted that may be because "mass incarcerations of communities of color has normalized the prison experience for black men, resulting in stronger social networks in prisons and the development of better coping strategies."

What happens when they get out?

Prison is meant to be a form of rehabilitation. If someone commits a crime, they serve their time, and unless it's a serious offense, they have the chance to get out of prison and resume their life. But that can be difficult for someone who spent a long time in prison and is released with mental health issues. Edgemon said most research suggests that people who have poor mental health on release are more likely to go back to prison than people who don't have poor mental health.

"This particular population is more at risk of recidivating, or going back to prison than someone without mental health problems," he said.

What is being done to help inmates suffering from poor mental health?

Prison funding is mostly up to the states, and each state is different, Edgemon said. Some states, mainly in the south, spend the least on mental health services in prisons. There is often a conflict between punishing an inmate and helping them.

"Prisons exist for punishment, that's sort of the ethos. We want to punish people, as a prison," he said. "But we also want to care for them and rehabilitate them. And the ways you do that can often conflict. How much treatment do you provide for someone, and how do you still endure they are still being punished?"

Aside from mental health services, is there something more than can be done to help inmates suffering from poor mental health? Could it be as simple as giving them more television time?

Edgemon said if you're looking to solve the problems caused by prisons themselves, then increasing activities offered or work assignments given, or reducing overcrowding can have an effect.

But for people who have mental health issues before they go into prison, then prisons would need to provide other things, like more therapy or medication.

"All of those are viable options," Edgemon said. "But the real problem here is that you can try to solve the mental health of inmates through things like therapy or increased medication. But you also need to think about the long term."

Edgemon said states need to think about what happens after inmates are released. If they had therapy or medication in prison, and then are released into the same environment where they cam from, chances are they can't afford therapy or medication once they're released.

"Not only do we need to work on offering more mental health services in prison, but we also need to consider doing other things, like combatting homelessness or unemployment, or all of these factors that we know also are influencing the mental health of the people in prison," he said.