The Effects of Imprisonment on the Brain

In a study on the effects of imprisonment on the brain, statistics showed that out of 244,988 individuals recently released from prison, 382 committed suicide within the first two months after their release (Shaw, J. Baker, D. 184. 263-267). Why does this happen? What is so wrong with our prison system that after release, people kill themselves? This is a question that has many answers. Prison reform has been a debatable topic throughout the history of America. Because of the extensive use of force, solitary confinement, and neglect inside the United States prison system, reform is necessary.

Solitary confinement is a form of abuse used extensively in many prisons across the United States. Solitary confinement is a form of torture that consists of being locked in a small ‘room’ with a steel door, for twenty two to twenty four hours a day. Contact with other individuals is extremely limited. Phone calls are infrequent. Medical care is grossly inadequate and physical torture such as hogtying, restraint chairs, and forced extraction is extremely common. Prison isolation fits the definition of torture as stated in several international human rights treaties, and thus constitutes a violation of human rights law. The U.N. Convention Against Torture defines torture as any state-sanctioned act “by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for information, punishment, intimidation, or for a reason based on discrimination (Center for Constitutional rights.).

In relation to this, The brain is not fully developed until age twenty five. These forms of torture mainly affect the prefrontal cortex, this part of the brain is responsible for decision making. People who have been recently released from prison have a higher risk for suicide than those who have not been in prison. When extreme force and torture is used on teens and young adults with undeveloped brains, it causes severe long term effects. In general, prisons do not make people “crazy”; However, even researchers who are openly skeptical about whether the pains of imprisonment generally translate into psychological harm concede that, for at least some people, prison can produce negative, long-lasting change. And most people agree that the more extreme, harsh, dangerous, or otherwise psychologically-taxing the nature of the confinement, the greater the number of people who will suffer and the deeper the damage that they will have. (Haney, 4)

In 2010, a young man named Kalief Browder, age 16, was falsely accused and arrested for the theft of a backpack in New York. His family in the south Bronx could not afford his three thousand dollar bail. He sat on Rikers Island State Penitentiary for three years awaiting trial, two of these three years were spent in solitary confinement; ultimately, this violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial. After three years and no trial, his charges were dismissed after it was discovered that he did not steal the backpack. Struggling with the acute trauma of incarceration, Kalief Browder committed suicide soon after.

This shows the long term effect that being in solitary can have on the average person. He was released and then enrolled into a community college and seemed to be doing well and even his lawyer, who was a friend of Browder, said that he thought Browder was happy and that things were looking up for him but on June 6th, 2015 in his mother’s home he hung himself. Many believe that he was placed in solitary because of his skin color, and racism in prisons isn’t uncommon, but ultimately after his release, many members of his family said he was depressed. ‘I feel like I’m still in jail…I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.’ (Browder, 267)

A common misconception about treatment in prisons is that it is deserved. With the availability of commissary and other opportunities, prison seems to be enjoyable and not that harsh. This is entirely inaccurate considering that the majority of people in prisons are poor, people who cannot afford to post bail and get halfway decent attorneys, like Browder. The people in prisons can not afford to purchase commissary and can not get the money to make phone calls about bail and to speak to family members. Under no circumstances would this be enjoyable for anyone. Guilty or not, no one deserves to be tortured in prison. Criminals are still people. Prison reform conjures up the question as to whether or not prison is for rehabilitation or for punishment. This is important because the majority of people in and out of our prisons in the US are repeat offenders.

They don’t know any better than to be in prison. Yes, certain prisons offer educational opportunities within them, such as GEDs, college courses, getting a high school diploma, but when an individual is being tortured, which is the sad reality in the majority of U.S. Prisons, why would he or she want to apply themselves. They begin to speak up about the way they are being treated and as a result they are put in solitary, they can not contact their lawyer and say something about the treatment they are receiving because in solitary they do not have phone privileges. What the public fails to realize is that one mistake doesn’t define an individual as a whole, neither does many mistakes, but what really matters is taking the time to realize mistakes and improving upon them so that the behavior does not repeat. U.S.prisons lack this rehabilitative structure. Regardless of the crimes these people committed, they are still people and they don’t deserve to be treated that way. It is inhumane.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” People have been in United States Prisons, in fact, the United States currently has more people behind bars than in any other country. As of 2016, the U.S. incarcerates 655 per every 100,000 people. The U.S. also imprisons black men at a higher rate than South Africa did under apartheid. Many efforts have been made to combat this unjust imprisonment, and the highly unethical practices used within United States prisons. Perhaps the most notable is that of President Donald J. Trump. He has made countless efforts to help recently released prisoners become productive, law abiding citizens.

“We want former inmates to find a path to success so they can support their families and support their communities. Crucial to this effort is helping former prisoners find jobs.” (Trump, 2) All of this in consideration, some may ask, Why does this matter? Or, How does this pertain to me? It matters because the American Citizens tax money is being used for this so called prison reform but nothing seems to actually be changing. Prisons need to be reformed and changed for the sake of the American people. With a more rehabilitative structure in our prisons we could drastically reduce the rate of repeat offenders and arrests.