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Prisoners are the people held in prison because they have been found guilty of crimes and breaches of the laws of their governments. They are watched over by prison personnel and usually subject to various degrees of restriction on their freedom.

Psychological effects

In solitary confinement

Among the most extreme adverse effects suffered by prisoners, appear to be caused by solitary confinement for long durations. When held in "Special Housing Units" (SHU), prisoners are subject to sensory deprivation and lack of social contact that can have a severe negative impact their mental health.

Long durations may lead to depression and changes to brain physiology. In the absence of a social context that is needed to validate perceptions of their environment, prisoners become highly malleable, abnormally sensitive, and exhibit increased vulnerability to the influence of the those controlling their environment. Social connectedness and the support provided from social interaction are prerequisite to long-term social adjustment as a prisoner.

Prisoners exhibit the paradoxical effect of social withdrawal after long periods of solitary confinement. A shift takes place from a craving for greater social contact, to a fear of it. They may grow lethargic and apathetic, and longer be able to control their own conduct when released from solitary confinement. The can come to depend upon the prison structure to control and limit their conduct.

Long-term stays in solitary confinement can cause prisoners to develop [clinical depression]], and long-term impulse control disorders. Those with pre-existing mental illnesses are at a higher risk for developing psychiatric symptoms. Some common behaviours are self-mutilation, suicidal attempts, and psychosis.

A psychopathological condition identified as "SHU syndrome" has been observed among such prisoners. Symptoms are characterized as problems with concentration and memory, distortions of perception, and hallucinations. Most convicts suffering from SHU syndrome exhibit extreme generalized anxiety and panic disorder, with some suffering amnesia.[1]

Stockholm syndrome

The psychological syndrome known as Stockholm syndrome, describes a paradoxical phenomenon where, over time, hostages have positive feelings towards their captors.

Inmate culture

The founding of ethnographic prison sociology as a discipline, from which most of the meaningful knowledge of prison life and culture stems, is commonly credited to the publication of two key texts:[2] Donald Clemmer's The Prison Community,[3] which was first published in 1940 and republished in 1958; and Gresham Sykes classic study The Society of Captives,[4] which was also published in 1958. Clemmer's text, based on his study of 2,400 convicts over three years at the Menard Branch of the Illinois State Penitentiary where he worked as a clinical sociologist,[5] propagated the notion of the existence of a distinct inmate culture and society with values and norms antithetical to both the prison authority and the wider society.

In this world, for Clemmer, these values, formalized as the "inmate code", provided behavioural precepts that unified prisoners and fostered antagonism to prison officers and the prison institution as a whole. The process whereby inmates acquired this set of values and behavioural guidelines as they adapted to prison life he termed "prisonization", which he defined as the "taking on, in greater or lesser degree, the folkways, mores, customs and general culture of the penitentiary'.[6] However, while Clemmer argued that all prisoners experienced some degree of prisonization this was not a uniform process and factors such as the extent to which a prisoner involved himself in primary group relations in the prison and the degree to which he identified with the external society all had a considerable impact.[7]

Prisonization as the inculcation of a convict culture was defined by identification with primary groups in prison, the use of prison slang and argot,[8] the adoption of specified rituals and a hostility to prison authority in contrast to inmate solidarity and was asserted by Clemmer to create individuals who were acculturated into a criminal and deviant way of life that stymmied all attempts to reform their behaviour.[9]

Convict code

The convict code was theorised as a set of tacit of behavioural norms which exercised a pervasive impact on the conduct of prisoners. Competency in following the routines demanded by the code partly determined the inmate’s identity as a convict.[10] As a set of values and behavioural guidelines, the convict code referred to the behaviour of inmates in antagonising staff members and to the mutual solidarity between inmates as well as the tendency to the non-disclosure to prison authorities of prisoner activities and to resistance to rehabilitation programmes.[11] Thus, it was seen a providing an expression and form of communal resistance and allowed for the psychological survival of the individual under extremely repressive and regimented systems of carceral control.[12]

Sykes outlined some of the most salient points of this code as it applied in the post-war period in the United States:

  • Don't interfere with inmate interests.
  • Never rat on a con.
  • Don't be nosy.
  • Keep off a man's back.
  • Don't put a guy on the spot.
  • Be loyal to your class.
  • Be cool.
  • Do your own time.
  • Don't bring heat.
  • Don't exploit inmates.
  • Don't cop out.
  • Be tough.
  • Be wary, and try to be a man.
  • Never talk to a screw.
  • Have a connection.
  • Be sharp.[13]


Main article: Prisoners' rights

United States

Both federal and state laws govern the rights of prisoners. Prisoners in the United States do not have full rights under the Constitution, however, they are protected by Amendment VIII which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. This Amendment ensures that prisoners are provided with a minimum standard of living.[14] The Geneva Convention, a World Rights organisation, states that prisoners may not do work against their will, and many more rules observed in many countries.


Criminals are prisoners that are incarcerated under the legal system. In the United States, a federal inmate is a person convicted of violating a federal law, who is then incarcerated at a prison that exclusively houses similar criminals. The term most often applys to those convicted of a felony.

Detainees are prisoners. Certain governments use this term to refer to individuals held in custody. They are referred to detainees as it is a general term, and as such, does not require the subject to be classified and treated (under the law) as either a prisoner of war or a suspect or convict in criminal cases. It is generally defined with the broad definition: "someone held in custody".

Prisoners of war, also known as a POWs, are individuals incarcerated in relation to wars. He or she can be a member of the civilian population, or a captured soldier.

Political prisoners describe those imprisoned for participation or connection to political activity. Such inmates challenge the legitimacy of the detention.

Hostages are historically defined as prisoners held as security for the fulfilment of an agreement, or as a deterrent against an act of war. In modern times, it refers to someone who is seized by a criminal abductor.

Slaves are prisoners that are held captive for their use as labourers. Various methods have been used throughout history to deprive slaves of their liberty, including forcible restraint.

Other types of prisoner can include those under police arrest, house arrest, those in insane asylums, internment camps, and peoples restricted to a specific area such as Jewish people in the Warsaw ghetto.

See also


  1. Bruce A. Arrigo, Jennifer Leslie Bullock, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, November 2007, "The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners in Supermax Units, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 2008-Arrigo-622-40, DOI: 10.1177/0306624X07309720
  2. Simon, Jonathan (1 August 2000). The `Society of Captives' in the Era of Hyper-Incarceration. Theoretical Criminology 4 (3). Crewe, Ben (2006). Male prisoners’ orientations towards female officers in an English prison. Punishment & Society 8 (4).
  3. Clemmer, Donald ([1940] 1958). The Prison Community, New York: Holt, Rhineheart and Winston.
  4. Sykes, Gresham M. (1958). The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Secutiry Prison, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  5. Clemmer, Donald (Mar. - Apr. 1938). Leadership Phenomena in a Prison Community. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 28 (6).
  6. DeRosia, Victoria R. (1998). Living Inside Prison Walls: Adjustment Behavior, 1. publ., Westport, CT: Praeger.
  7. Faine, John R. (Autumn 1973). A self-consistency approach to prisonization. Sociological Quarterly 14 (4).
  8. Pollack, Joycelyn M. (2006). Prisons: Today and Tomorrow, 95–96, Ontario: Jones & Bartlett Publishers Inc..
  9. Bright, Charles (1996). The Powers that Punish : Prison and Politics in the Era of the "Big House," 1920-2009, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  10. (1990). Conversational actions and organisational actions 8 (2).
  11. Brannigan, Augustine (May 1976). Review: D. Lawrence Wieder, ‘’Language and Social Reality: The Case of Telling the Convict Code’’. Contemporary Sociology 5 (3).
  12. Colvin, Mark (February 2010). Review: David Ward. ‘’Alcatraz: The Gangster Years’’. The American Historical Review 115 (1).
  13. Pollack, Joycelyn M. (2006). Prisons: Today and Tomorrow, Ontario: Jones & Bartlett Publishers Inc..

Further reading

  • Grassian, S. (1983). Psychopathological effects of solitary confinement. American Journal of Psychiatry, 140(11).
  • Grassian, S., & Friedman, N. (1986). Effects of sensory deprivation in psychiatric seclusion and solitary confinement. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 8(1).
  • Haney, C. (1993). “Infamous punishment”: The psychological consequences of isolation. National Prison Project Journal, 8(2).

External links

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