Prisonization: America’s Expanding Prisons and Their Effects on the Mind

Prisonization: America’s Expanding Prisons and Their Effects on the Mind

Prisonization is a term first coined by Donald Clemmer in his 1940 book The Prison Community, where he defines it as “the taking on, in greater or lesser degree, of the folkways, mores, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary”(Clemmer, 1968). Prisons and their social conditions had not been in the public’s concern until about the late 1800s when scholars began to publish works ruminating on the important role that prisons play in a society. Around this time, Dostoevsky wrote “the degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.” If one was to follow this guideline when looking at the United States prison system, they might think that it was a much less developed society stricken with poverty. This is concerning, especially since the “U.S. [incarceration] rates have consistently been between four and eight times those for these other nations” (Haney, 2017) The other countries being compared here are Japan, Australia, the U.K., and the Netherlands. At the same time as this incarceration rate’s expansion, allocation of funds for “prisoner services or inmate programming” (Haney, 2017) has been nearly stagnant in comparison. These figures are particularly disturbing when one realizes how detrimental these substandard prison conditions affect the minds of the prisoners that inhabit them. The current dreadful conditions seen in U.S prisons, in combination with an unprecedented incarceration rate, put the country on track to be releasing hundreds of ill adjusted prisoners who pose an even bigger threat than they did before being locked up.

Regardless of one’s opinion on whether or not the United States should take a more punitive stance on the prison system or should instead focus on more reform and rehabilitation, it is impossible to deny that the effectiveness of prison is important because there are simply a lot of prisoners. According to David Bierie of University of Maryland’s Criminology department, “At any given time, approximately 2 million U.S. citizens (i.e., 1% of the adult population, or 698 people per 100,000) are in prison” (2017). With such a substantial portion of adults in prison, it’s astounding that the U.S still underfunds its prisons. In fact, as recent as March of 2018 there have been lawsuits like the one in Meridian, Mississippi where prisoners are suing for unconstitutional conditions in their privately-owned prison, East Mississippi Correctional Facility. The prison even faces accusations of breaking the eighth amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. These sorts of cases are not new for U.S prisons. In the 1990s California and Texas prisons both faced lawsuits and were found guilty of failing to “provide adequate treatment services for those prisoners who suffered the most extreme psychological effects of confinement in deteriorated and overcrowded conditions.”. This failure to provide adequate conditions, in addition to subjecting prisoners to unnecessary suffering, only contributes to the adverse effects prison has on an inmate’s mind. If the U.S prison system continues to fail to, as Haney puts it in his work on Incarceration’s effects on the mind, “facilitate productive re-entry into the freeworld” (2001) then it will continue to release prisoners who will have a higher tendency towards crime than before, in addition to being unable to contribute to society.

Being incarcerated, especially in a prison system like the United States, can cause a myriad of negative effects on a prisoner’s mental state, many of which can follow them outside of prison. The dangerous, high stakes environment of prison can cause inmates to develop a sense of hypervigilance, as well as a general distrust of others. This is due to the fact that prison is an environment where the week are taken advantage of. As a result, prisoners must always stay ready for any threats they might encounter, which can carry over after they are released, making them permanently jumpy and suspicious. This makes inmates relationships and personal interactions more like that of someone with severe paranoia. In order to fly under the radar of threatening prisoners, some inmates choose to isolate themselves, in hopes to become completely “[socially] invisible” (Haney, 2001). The results of this isolation are often a person who is filled with apathy and little emotion as a method of coping, similar to clinical depression. Often, the degrading conditions of prison, little to no personal privacy, and lack of control lead many prisoners to begin to feel a lower sense of self-worth, a condition that can shape their success in the freeworld as well. The largest risk for prisoners being released back into the outside world is the post-traumatic stress reactions that might be triggered by remembering the difficulties of incarceration. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, scheduled to go on for two weeks, Dr.Phillip Zimbardo’s team was forced to stop the experiment after just six days due to the extraordinary amount of stress and depression shown by the college students participating. If these college students were experiencing these symptoms of the prison experience just six days after being incarcerated, just imagine the long-term effects on prisoners who go in for upwards of twenty years. 

As prisons in the United States continue to expand, more and more prisoners will be affected by these sort of conditions, and without proper access to rehabilitation, as well as proper medical care, those with logic will have no choice but to view the prison system as unconstitutional, based upon the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In order to correct these issues a safer, rehabilitation focused system must be developed. One that would prepare prisoners for the outside world through training and job programs, and decent mental and physical health professionals provided. It is only through these steps that the United States can begin to handle its prison problem in a productive way. 



Bierie, D. M., & Mann, R. E. (2017). The History and Future of Prison Psychology. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law,(4).

Clemmer, D. (1968). The Prison Community. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Haney, C. (2017, March 23). The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment. Retrieved from

Stanford Prison Experiment. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Trial Begins in Lawsuit Against Mississippi Department of Corrections Over Years of Unconstitutional Conditions at Privately Operated Prison. (n.d.). Retrieved December 06, 2018, from