The Psychological Effects of Long-Term Imprisonment

by Herman Bell

Loneliness is a prominent fixture in a long-termer’s life. S/he wakes with it and beds with it. It can lead to mental depression that is marked by sadness, inactivity, difficulty in thinking and concentration, to a significant increase or decrease in appetite and time spent sleeping, to feelings of dejection and hopelessness, and sometimes to suicidal tendencies. In such a state the will is fragile: Your hair might come out in clumps. You might pick at your skin, at your nose, or at both. Your lack of hygiene may cause noses to flair, people to talk about you, and even to avoid you. Another prominent feature of prison life is tension, which is so rife that it is worn like an extra layer of skin. Anger is yet another feature: an unpaid debt, a slight – real or imagined – a look, an unguarded word and it flares-up like a volcanic eruption. A person could well take a life or lose his or her own, or wear some hideous, disfiguring scar because of it.

I write this not as a critique of the practice of imprisoning human beings, which I believe is an unacceptable form of punishment, but as a commentary on my observations and experiences in prison. Years ago I read a behavioral science report that said to confine a person in prison beyond five years is potentially damaging to his or her mental health. I knew this pig would not fly. Given the stiff prison sentences meted out to the poor and people of color in america, a five-year stretch is like doing a day. A twenty-five-to-life sentence is more like the norm than the extreme. When judges sentence people, they have no discretionary sentencing power. For the most part they read from a legislated script. (Not to say they would be more lenient. In some cases judges rely on a legal-proviso called “enhanced sentencing” and add even more time to the sentence imposed.) The scale of american justice tilts toward political and corporate interests rather than toward social justice or rehabilitative ones.

Getting out of prison is far more difficult than getting in. From the streets to detention centers, to the courts, and finally to prison. Your rights, or what you imagined them to be, were unquestioned. Now everything is different. Even your family, friends, children, wives, girlfriends, former employers and the like are different. The noblest intention may have inspired you to commit your crime. You may have not even committed a crime or think yourself undeserving of the sentence imposed. It matters not. You are here now, alone, behind bars, and you may be here for the rest of your life.

As I think about the psychological effects of long-term imprisonment, I can only think of it in terms of day-to-day existence. Some days are better than others; none are ever great. In truth, I hate writing about prison. I hate reading or seeing movies about prison. Yet people need to know what goes on in them. Many prisoners and people on the outside fail to discern the political and economic interests that prisons serve. Unfortunately, the economics of prison will not be part of this discussion. While some prisoners see prison as a way of life, people on the streets see it as a necessary evil. But in the main, as regards prison, education, and health care in particular, the nation’s citizenry has grown woefully lax in its civic duty. And as regard to administrations, the current one has embarked on a unilateralist doctrine coupled with a misguided foreign policy that has embroiled the nation in an unjustified war, which depletes precious economic resources and lets pressing domestic needs go unfulfilled. Our nation, as well as our uniformed young men and women who stand in harms way, deserve better. We all get in trouble and suffer when we fail to fulfill our duties and responsibilities.

I have been in prison 31 years. I am not sentenced to “life without parole”, yet I can be here for life. Denied parole at my first parole hearing, I reappear in ’06. If I am denied then, I reappear every two years after that until I am released on parole or by death. How does one grapple with a predicament like that and still feel optimistic? It is as much a physical blow as a psychological one. I cannot think about it. I cannot feel it. I can only “keep it moving.”

I am keenly aware of my time spent in this menagerie, aware of each step I take and of having to decide what to do next. Through the years I have witnessed behavior reminiscent of my youth: the bully, the posse – both inmates and guards – the strong preying on the weak. I have known days when depression sagged my spirits, days when men gave themselves to violent acts against their fellow man, days when the law of the jungle superceded all others. Days that I considered a success because I made it through the day.

Often I have found myself having to choose between what I believe to be right as opposed to what is expedient. The choice taken defines who I am and what I think of myself. Because the conditions of confinement take everything else, all we have in here is our self-respect and “good word.” To lose one is to lose the other. Life in jail is comprised of one decision-making episode after another, some large, some small. In this confusing, intricate network of pathways, the choices we take, what we decide to do in each one, leaves a lasting impression on the psyche. And the individual is compelled to choose how he will live his life in here (or someone will do it for him). Fence straddling is a non-option.

Locked behind gates and cars too numerous to count, the contact we have with the outside world sustains our sanity. Visits from family members and the occasional attorney provide a respite from the tedium. As our visitors provide mental snapshots of life on the outside, people you know – an ex-wife, an old girlfriend, an ailing relative, your son or daughter – we live in the moment with them. A visit is like a dream and when it’s over your wonder if it ever happened. But the “life-giving” force inside you affirms that the smiles, the tears, the holding of hands, the style of dress, and the perfume were real. You hate to see your people go and they hate having to go. But the portal connecting one reality to another remains open only for a short while. Then suddenly, like ripples from a stone cast into water, they disappear as though they never were.

When my cell door suddenly unlocks and guards stand in front of it, hands sheathed in rubber gloves, ordering me to step-out for a cell search, crashing waves, instead of ripples, rush over me. The search is routine they tell me; it’s never routine to me, regardless the number of recurrences. My private space is violated each time I go through this. It transforms me into a non-person, as if I were an object, to be lifted-up and set aside, during the search, and the disconnect magically vanishes when I am allowed back inside.

We prisoners are “trained” to be obedient to authority and “conditioned” to obey it. “Trained,” which suggests, “however long it takes to achieve the desired mental state,” bears more of a sinister connotation than does “conditioned”. The “training” process is fixed in the management of prison operations: “Hands on the wall and don’t move until ordered to do so,”; “I order you to …”; “For violating rule # …, I hereby sentence you to segregation … with loss of phone and commissary privileges.” The “conditioning” process presents itself through prison operations: that is, through rules, enforcement of rules, giving and withholding of privileges and the like. With everything else remaining equal, the jail runs itself. Authority and obedience to it plays big in jail. In absence of one’s liberty, obedience or non-compliance to authority is the main bone of contention inside of prison – how much do you concede to authority weighed against how much it demands of you.

Because of its violent and coercive nature, authority, in prison, is tolerated at best. A prisoner soon recognizes that a certain look from a guard, hand gesture, facial expression, jangle of keys, and the like are a language that is as coercive as a verbal order. The prisoner even learns the unspoken “I’ll get you later look.” In this light, how much you concede to authority, weighed against its demands, is no small deliberation in the mind of a prisoner. Depending on the choice s/he makes, a slow methodical “weeding-out” process beings. At this point a prisoner affirms or gains some sense of who s/he really is as a person. At that point, whatever part of himself of him/herself s/he wishes to hold onto, s/he has to fight to keep it.

For a black prisoner, his or her choice is like the Sword of Damocles suspended over his/her head by a hair. The historic enslavement of blacks in america and their maltreatment by white slaveholders is well documented, though much of it still remains to be told. When Lincoln freed u.s. slaves, vestiges of the slave system remained firmly in place, and blacks remained subordinate to white authority. And while the intervening years and subsequent battles won black civil rights victories, some would argue that the more things would seem to change for blacks, the more they remain the same. For blacks, taking this history into account – arrested by white police, prosecuted by white prosecutors, sentenced by white judges, and confined in american jails and overseen by white guards and administrators – how much to concede to authority weighed against its demands is no small consideration indeed. This very construct evokes strong imagery of overseer and slave on the plantation and its psychological underpinnings.

Against this backdrop are people inside u.s. prisons who have fought long and hard against american social and economic injustice. They are political prisoners (pps) whose spirit is cast in the tradition of Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, and Malcolm-X, to name a few. In some quarters they are called Freedom Fighters. They display cat-like independence in prison, which is taboo in an environment that cultivates dependence and insecurity. Therefore special treatment for them is foreordained. They are imprisoned not for social crimes – robbery, murder for hire, extortion, drug sales, and the like – but for fighting racist, unjust laws and insensitive social and economic policies that ignore the needs of the poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized.

Already sentenced to the maximum allowable time and severely penalized for prison rule violations, the pp as well as everyone else is damaged by the prison experience. And the longer they are in, subjected to years and years of unremitting anguish, the deeper the scars and, hopefully, the stronger the resolve … .

Comments are closed.