Auburn criminology expert explains how prison conditions affect mental health

Published: September 21, 2022
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More than two million people are incarcerated in the United States—a 500% increase from just 40 years ago. As prisons across the country become overcrowded and incarcerated individuals suffer from mental health conditions, understanding the impact of prison environments is increasingly important. Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology Timothy Edgemon’s latest work, “Inmate Mental Health and the Pains of Imprisonment,” examines the individual effects of prison conditions and suggests ways to improve mental health outcomes.

What do we know about the relationship between prison and mental health?

Past research considered how prison itself can cause mental health problems, but I tried to disentangle the various aspects of the prison. I looked at how various conditions of confinement impacted mental health differently, and they impacted different facets of mental health differently.

As prisons become more and more overcrowded, this leads to a higher average rate of depression and hostility for people incarcerated in those prisons. People who are in prisons with less overcrowding have less depression and less hostility, and so as overcrowding increases, so do the mental health effects.

A higher proportion of work assignments in the prison is associated with reductions in negative mental health. As people inside of prison have the ability or the option to engage in work activities, that seems to improve their mental health on average.

Higher security-level prisons are associated with increased depression. Another interesting finding in this study is that lack of access to television increases hostility.

Why do prison conditions need to be studied from a sociological perspective?

People go to prison as punishment, not for punishment. No one wants to have their liberty deprived. That’s the punishment.

When we talk about prison conditions and conditions of confinement, it’s things like overcrowding, exposure to violence or being victimized while in prison. All of that is additional to the punishment that you’ve been given. It simply isn’t the original goal of prison.

The second reason why I think we should be concerned about this is because, insofar as these conditions of confinement impact people and they impact their mental health and they cause negative effects in people, most people that serve a prison sentence will be released back into society.

Past research has shown us that people who go to prison that develop mental health problems because of prison or in relation to it have worse outcomes when they’re released. They’re not able to find housing, they’re not able to find employment and they are more likely to go back into prison. We should be concerned about that from an individual humanitarian perspective, but we should also be concerned about that from a societal perspective. How does this negatively impact our society and our communities?

What would you suggest prisons do to improve inmates’ mental health?

What this research suggests and what past research suggests is that one, we should very seriously consider how conditions of confinement impact people. I think that tends to get lost, so we should really consider how environmental conditions of the prison translate to real impacts in the individuals incarcerated there.

Specifically, how might we improve those environmental conditions? There are numerous ways. The more expensive ways, obviously, are you could add more prison beds to reduce overcrowding, you could add more wings onto a prison or you could build new prisons to reduce overcrowding. I don’t necessarily think that’s the best way to do it. You could build more prisons or add more beds, but you could also de-incarcerate, so you could divert more people away from prisons. Reimagining other ways to punish is important for reducing overcrowding, and ultimately, reducing environmental concerns of the prison, but that’s a big-picture readjustment.

One thing that I note in the study is that simply adding more recreational opportunities in a prison and not using them as a method of control would be beneficial. And even things like readjusting work priorities, offering more work assignments or increasing the numbers of programs that are available to people would help. But again, that does get back to the issue of funding and back to the issue of overcrowding. Because if your prison is very overcrowded, you are limited in how much you can offer those programs.

Listen to the full conversation with Edgemon on the Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know podcast.


About Timothy Edgemon:
Timothy Edgemon is an assistant professor of sociology and criminology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Social Work in the College of Liberal Arts. His research examines links between criminal justice and health outcomes at the individual and societal levels. His current research focuses on the relationship between prison conditions, post-release mental health outcomes and recidivism rates.

More Information To arrange an interview with our expert, contact Charlotte Tuggle, director of news and media communications and marketing, College of Liberal Arts, at ctuggle@auburn.edu.