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Prisoner Experiences

Summary and Keywords

The variables impacting how one experiences imprisonment are far ranging. George Jackson (1994), a pivotal character in American penal history, wrote that, “[b]lackmen born in the [United States] and fortunate enough to live past the age of eighteen are conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison” (p. 4). Ruth Wyner (2002), incarcerated 40 years after Jackson under vastly different circumstances, describes a very different sort of bleakness associated with her incarceration:

One evening, just before I settled down to try to sleep, I allowed myself to remember my daughter in a way that I usually suppressed: remembering and feeling all the love that I had for her, every bit. A huge chasm grew inside me, dark and raw, and my throat constricted as I felt enveloped by the sadness. This was what was inside of me when I allowed myself to touch it.

(p. 156)

Such personal experiences of incarceration offer a window into how prisons function, or often more correctly, fail to function, from the point of view of the prisoner. These perspectives are vitally important to a fulsome understanding of incarceration because prisoners and their experiences paint a picture of confinement that is patently different from those described by penal officials and governments.

There are numerous issues that shape the experiences of confinement, both historically and in the present day, a list longer than can be adequately addressed in this entry. Still, there are key concerns that recur in the literature and in ongoing debates about incarceration. Included here are human rights abuses, overcrowding, the overuse of solitary confinement, the situation of women prisoners, the incarceration of indigenous peoples, and health, especially mental health concerns.

Keywords: prisons, detention, overcrowding, women in prison, solitary confinement, mass incarceration, prison and mental health

A Brief History of the Carceral Experience

In Discipline and Punish (1977) Foucault opens with two starkly contrasting narratives. The first, a rather brutal and graphic description of the drawing and quartering of Damiens in France in 1757. These few pages are held up against two pages, cited 20 years later, of a regimented prison schedule. Foucault takes as his starting point the question of how this change, from a focus on punishing the body of the condemned to capturing, imprisoning, and working on the mind or the soul of the prisoner became possible. Though not known for his rigorous historical work, Foucault poses vital questions about the genealogy of the prison, theorizing not only the reformist conditions that made the prison as we know it today (curiously very much unchanged from that which Foucault describes) possible, but also how these changes, especially the design of a building intended to hold prisoners (the Panopticon) changed the ways in which punishment was thought about and done. David Garland (2001) refers to penalities, a neologism referencing different mentalities of punishment. While Garland would have us believe that there are different temporally marked eras of punishment, other more comprehensive and contemporary accounts of incarceration (Ignatieff, 1978; Hannah-Moffat, 2001; Simon, 2007) make a compelling case that we do not have different eras of punishment. Instead we see a drift in rationalities as some mentalities of rule gain greater or less purchase over time (Garland, 2001) while others serve to veil one penality over another (Hannah-Moffat & Moore, 2005) while still others coexist in what O’Malley (1999) aptly describes as “volatile and contradictory” ways.

In any case, the birth of the prison in the Global North remains factually consistent, at least in general terms, with the accounts given by historians. Christian reformers, wishing to turn away from the brutality of corporal punishment (Ignatieff, 1978), decided that what lay at the root of criminality was not, as their utilitarian and retributive predecessors believed, rationality, hedonism, or straightforward accounts of breaking the law. Rather, criminality was symptomatic of a broken soul, one that could be mended in houses of penitence with a heavy focus on religious education and the Protestant work ethic (Foucault, 1977). Spurred by a reform movement underway in Britain, two different systems of confinement were established in the United States within a twenty-year period. The first, the Pennsylvania System, was also known as the “separate system,” as prisoners were housed alone in their cells 24 hours a day. Work, religious study, meals, and washing all took place in the same space. Prisoners were expected to remain silent. Not surprisingly, the separate system, marked by its interminable periods of isolation, had a deleterious effect on prisoners’ mental health, often causing what would have been considered at the time “madness.”

Shortly after the Pennsylvania system was established, a second mode of incarceration, the congregate system, emerged in the United States. Auburn and Sing Sing state prisons worked on the “congregate model,” in which prisoners were individually celled but worked and ate together. Despite these opportunities to congregate, prisoners were strictly prohibited from talking with each other and were often hooded during transfers, work, and meals in order to prevent them from being able to identify each other. Much like its cognate model described above, the congregate system established in New York also had deleterious effects on prisoners’ mental and physical health.

Who is a Prisoner?

As Castel (1991) observes, the “criminal” as such did not exist until a change in thinking with regards to crime was effected. Castel describes this as a shift from a focus on homo penalis (the person who has committed a crime) to homo criminalis (the criminal). The discovery of the criminal as a kind of person was pivotal to the establishment of the prison. If the commission of a crime indicated a particular identity rather than a failure of rational choice, it follows that such identities could be studied, worked on, and ideally changed. In order to effect these transformations of selfhood, the criminal self needed to be examined to discover the underlying pathologies that led to the adoption of a criminal identity. Early examinations uncovered spiritual shortcomings, hence the earliest iterations of the prison as a house of penitence in which religious instruction and the Protestant work ethic informed the day-to-day operations of the prison with the ultimate goal of saving the sinner. Later, as the medical model took hold post WWII, notions of spiritual shortcomings were replaced by medicalized explanations of criminal activity. Such a change in rationale however did not bring with it an accompanying shift in penal practices. On the contrary, the rise of medical and psychological treatments of lawbreakers was well suited to institutionalization through imprisonment. In the prison, criminals could be watched, pathologized, and “treated” so as to cure them of their criminality. This is often described as the welfarist model of punishment (Garland, 2001; Simon, 2007) and forms the basis for the kinds of rehabilitative practices that endure to the present day (Hannah-Moffat & Moore, 2005).

The persistent notion that the prison could do something productive with those who have broken the law has helped to ensure that rates of incarceration continue to rise despite an inverse correlation to crime rates. Imprisonment rates are tangentially but importantly related to experiences of incarceration. Countries like the United States that have seen decades of mass incarceration are often positioned as the rule of prison demographics. Following such a rule, the massive overrepresentation of racialized peoples, especially young black men followed closely by young Hispanic men, is all too apparent. But it is a grave mistake in prison scholarship to treat the United States as the bar against which all other jurisdictions should be compared. To do so creates a skewed understanding of incarceration, one in which there is a tacit suggestion that anywhere is better than the United States when it comes to prisons. While this argument may be normatively true in terms of sheer numbers, it is not helpful to compare all other jurisdictions to the one extreme standout. To do so runs the very real risk of minimizing and/or normalizing issues such as overcrowding, overuse of solitary confinement, lack of adequate medical care, and violent conditions that are endemic to other jurisdictions as well. This is not to understate the gravity of the crisis of overcrowding in the United States, but it is to suggest that the positioning of other jurisdictions as somehow “better” simply because their numbers are lower runs the risk of cementing gross misconceptions of the experiences of imprisonment elsewhere.

It is useful then to turn to other jurisdictions in order to capture a demographic snapshot of the prisoner population. Such a perspective is vital to understanding prisoner experiences as it provides at least a rough overview of who is incarcerated and more importantly, how these demographics impact the experiences of prisoners.

The most obvious place to look at are statistics on overcrowding. While the United States may incarcerate more of its population than any other nation in the word, almost every nation has a prison population that exceeds its stated capacity. This means that overcrowding is an endemic problem (that brings with it a host of ancillary problems discussed below) in which countries like the United Kingdom, Spain, and Canada far surpass their American counterpart. Remand and pre-trial detention are also important indicators of prisoner experiences, as remand centers typically offer the worst conditions and are known for their dangerousness and volatility. Again we see the United States losing the race to the bottom. Both Canada and Australia have significantly higher rates of pre-trial detention (35% and 27% respectively) as compared to the United States (20%) (Walmsley, 2016). The nature of this pre-trial detention varies from those denied or unable to post bail to those awaiting immigration and deportation decisions (a pronouncedly overrepresented group in Europe—see Ugelvik, 2014). Thus, while not discussed here, so-called “crimmigration” (see, e.g., Bosworth & Turnbull, 2015; Stumpf, 2006) cannot be overlooked as a significant and emerging phenomenon in prison studies. Regardless of the reasons why an individual is held in detention, the overcrowding and lack of programming and proper care results in a host of problems including increased violence, self-harm, and mental health issues, points expanded upon below.

Colonized nations including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have astonishingly high incarceration rates of Indigenous peoples. Canada takes the lead here as Indigenous, Aboriginal, Metis, and Inuit peoples collectively make up on average 23% of the prison population but only 4% of the general population (Statistics Canada, 2015).

What do these numbers tell us then about who is incarcerated? Importantly, the demography of incarceration varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, making possible arguments such as Loic Wacquant’s (2001) that the prison is the new ghetto while at the same time, given the burgeoning numbers of Indigenous prisoners, recognizing the assertion that the prison is the new reserve. In either case, there are three core conclusions about the demographics of prisons: (1) prison populations are rising dramatically; (2) racialized, Indigenous, and immigrant/refugee peoples account for a sizeable portion of that increase; and (3) the most rapidly expanding group of prisoners is women.

There are, however, other factors that need to be taken into account in attempting to describe the makeup of the prison population. Fazel and Danesh’s (2002) meta-analysis of psychiatric reports from prisons in 12 different countries showed a crude average of 50% of prisoners suffering from mental illnesses. While difficult to quantify, rates and duration of solitary confinement are also on the rise. As with the failed experiments of isolation in the first prisons, the use of solitary confinement, especially for prolonged periods, is tightly linked with mental illness and suicides.

General Population (Mass Incarceration)

The earliest windows into the experiences of incarceration come from Donald Clemmer (1940) and Gresham Sykes (1958). Both ethnographers, they independently provided the first empirically driven perspectives on the lived experience of incarceration from the point of view of both prisoners and guards. Key findings coming out of both Clemmer’s and Sykes’s work (as well as cognate researchers like Erving Goffman) include the documenting of the “convict code,” an unwritten set of rules by which prisoners must abide. The convict code endures in prisons as prisoners routinely talk about being “solid” (adhering to the convict code) by refraining from “snitching” (telling on other prisoners), paying back prison debts, carefully using language, and remaining decidedly detached from guards and prison officials. Additionally, these early ethnographies revealed specific cultures that emerge in prisons though there continues to be disagreement as to whether these cultures are brought in from street life (Clemmer’s importation model) or emerge as a way of coping with why Sykes calls “the pains of imprisonment.” Importantly, prison ethnographers (e.g., Liebling & Maruna, 2006), reaffirm the institutionalizing effect of imprisonment (something Clemmer originally referred to as “prisonization”) whereby time spent in a “total institution” (Goffman, 1961) has a long term impact on an individual’s psychic and social orientation to the world.

Jurisidictional differences make writing in general terms about prisoner experiences very difficult. Some jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom and the United States will, not without struggle, allow so-called “critical” researchers access to prisons to do ethnographic research. Other jurisdictions, most notably Canada (Wright, Moore, & Kazmierski, 2016), have effected an ethic of wagon-circling that makes it virtually impossible for researchers not interested in correctional managerialism to gain access to institutions. Fortunately, convict criminology and, importantly, periodicals like the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons help to widen the scope of knowledge of experiences in different jurisdictions. Still, what we know about imprisonment, especially from the perspective of prisoners, tends to be heavily skewed toward a handful of jurisdictions. Despite this, as with the demography of prisons described above, there are some crucial themes about doing time that are more or less universal.

Life in prison is simultaneously boring, stressful, dangerous, lonely, depressing, and, for some, comfortable and secure. The type of institution in which an individual is held heavily dictates experiences of confinement. Leaving aside the experiences of “special prisoners,” most who are incarcerated spend their time in general population (or Gen Pop as it is colloquially known). Life in gen pop typically begins for those either awaiting trial, sentencing, or transfer in remand and detention centers. These are universally the worst of the worst. Because these are places of transience in which individuals are not intended to spend more than a few days to a week (though many are housed in detention centers much longer), prisoners often cite their time in detention as the worst of their prison experiences. Often referred to as “the bucket,” remand and detention centers are generally incredibly overcrowded (in Ontario, Canada for example, it is not unusual to find three prisoners housed in one eight by 10 cell—two on bunks and one on a mat on the floor). This overcrowding not only increases stress levels but also has public health implications, as viral illnesses including tuberculosis, hepatitis, and HIV are at considerably higher rates among prisoners.

Because of overcrowding and the transient nature of the population, little is offered in terms of programming in detention centers. Aside from occasional volunteer-run programs, opportunities for education, work skill improvement, and even recreation are limited. High populations also mean that prisoners spend a great deal of time in their cells, often up to 23 hours a day. Though most jurisdictions allow for at least one hour of “yard time” every day, reports are surfacing that such yard time is translating into time out of cell and includes time spent showering, going to doctor’s appointments, and other basic necessities (see, e.g., Elger, 2009; Ontario & Marin, 2013; Weinrath, 2009).

Alongside concerns regarding infectious diseases, prisoners may also experience withdrawal, as all substances including tobacco are banned in most prisons. This may also encourage prisoners to seek out the prison underground economy in order to access contraband. Many report having trouble legitimately obtaining needed medications or having wounds tended. In more extreme circumstances, prisoners in detention are often denied access to necessary medical services including cancer treatments, prenatal care, and treatments for chronic illnesses.

Depending on the jurisdiction, those facing longer sentences are generally transferred out of remand or detention centers and into facilities designed to hold people for longer periods of time. Where and under what conditions an individual might be held is dependent on a variety of factors and increasingly informed by risk/need assessments. A prisoner management system that originated in Canada but now has global purchase, risk/need assessments are designed on actuarial tests of probability in order to decide the level of risk an individual might pose both within the institution (of harm to self and others) and also the risk of escape. On the other hand, prisoners are also assessed for their levels of need. These needs are usually predetermined, falling into categories such as education, substance abuse, marital/family problems, and social connections (Andrews & Bonta, 2010). Though widely critiqued for a range of problems, including skewing against racialized peoples, women, and Indigenous people (Hannah-Moffat, 2001) the risk/need rubric is now taken up as best practice in establishing rehabilitative programming in most jurisdictions in the developed world.

Day-to-day life in prison is a mix of relentless boredom, fear, survival, and occasionally connection. Some prisoners describe their time incarcerated as “a hiatus on life” (Murphy, Murphy, & Johnsen, 2002) during which, as the quote from Wyner in the introduction suggests, they must force themselves to forget the lives they had prior to incarceration. This act of forgetting is largely a survival strategy as prisoners find reminders of family and their previous lives difficult, especially for those serving long sentences (Crewe, 2015; Matthews, 1999).

Prisons run on schedules and these schedules come to shape the prisoners’ lives. Revelry, washing, eating, working, and recreation are all monotonously timed. While this rigorous scheduling has obvious advantages from the perspective of prison management, its effects, as Foucault (1977) suggested (an observation post-dated by Goffman (1961)) become insidiously internalized. Foucault theorizes the internalization of the prison schedule and its accompanying system of micro punishments (i.e., being refused mail) and micro rewards (more time out of cell) as an expression of what he calls disciplinary power or a subtle, non-corporeal, productive power that is meant to make people up in particular ways to become what he terms “docile subjects.”

Prisoners often report that life in general population in a prison as opposed to a remand or detention center is better. Because the population of the prison is relatively stable, prisoners are better able to establish social networks, acclimatize themselves to a particular routine, and have more opportunities for out of cell activities including school, work, and rehabilitative programming. Despite these reported improvements, those in general population in prison are not immune to the same problems experienced by those in detention. For those who are unable to stay true to the convict code and/or are immediately rendered outcasts because of their crimes (pedophiles, “cop killers,” and snitches being among the worst), life in general population can be difficult if not intolerable as they face constant threat from either guards, in the case of those whose crimes are against law enforcement personnel, or other prisoners, for those whose crimes are unpalatable (like pedophiles) or constitute a breach of the convict code (perhaps they cut a deal with the prosecution in order to indict someone else, or they carry into prison an existing street beef such as a drug debt or a gang related conflict.) For these people, life in general population can be dangerous and it is prisoners in these kinds of situations who most often find themselves in long-term segregation.

Solitary Confinement and Human Rights Abuses

Because incarceration happens in a hyper private and heavily regulated space, prisoners are vulnerable to all manner of transgressions, and though formal mechanisms for redress exist in some jurisdictions (i.e., complaints processes), there is no guarantee that a prisoner’s complaint will be taken seriously or that it will lead to any systemic change (Calavita & Jenness, 2015). Such transgressions include what we might see as fairly minor (i.e., a guard denying a prisoner shower privileges) to violent and even lethal. Prisoners often describe prisons as “conflict zones” (Murphy et al., 2002) in which guard-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-prisoner violence, though not necessarily the norm, are always possible in any given day. The globally familiar images of guards torturing and humiliating prisoners at the Abu Ghraib military prison as well as accounts of prisoners being shackled while giving birth, made to stand for counts when it was physically impossible for them to do so, or being made the target of either street or house (prison) beefs (acts of vengeance) are all part of the carceral landscape.

Segregation is increasingly used as a population management technique in prisons. There are two kinds of segregation: disciplinary (the result of an institutional transgression such as the possession of contraband, fighting, failing to follow guards’ orders) and administrative. Administrative segregation is supposed to be a short-term measure for prisoners who are deemed in danger either because they have transgressed the convict code or they have committed a crime for which they might receive retaliation from either guards or other prisoners. Administrative segregation is intended to be voluntary, though increasingly it is used as a means of managing prisoners whose needs are simply far too great to be adequately handled in the general population. Mainly this means those with mental illnesses, discussed more below. Regardless of the reason for segregation, watchdog bodies such as Amnesty International routinely find that people are spending indeterminate and lengthy periods in segregation (in some cases exceeding a year). There is ample research now to show that any time in segregation has negative health consequences (Abramsky & Fellner, 2003; Browne, Cambier, & Agha, 2011; Metzner & Fellner, 2010). Solitary confinement is so thoroughly recognized as damaging to those placed in the hole that the United Nations has established a threshold of 15 consecutive days in segregation before a prisoner must be released to the general population unless just cause is shown. Still, the use of segregation continues to rise in most jurisdictions.

Women in Prison

Women constitute a “special population” of prisoners for two core reasons. First, prisons were never designed or imagined to hold women and second, the numbers of women incarcerated are such a small fraction of their male counterparts that they are often relegated as “too few to count” (Adelberg & Currie, 1987) and thus generally treated as add-ons to the penal system. The overall ethic towards incarcerated women is to “add women and stir” (Morash & Schram, 2002, p. 2), an axiom signaling the ongoing ignorance of the specific problems facing incarcerated women and the dire outcomes of ignoring these issues. It bears noting that this marks one significant change in prisons over the past 150 years. Historically, the ethic of treatment for women prisoners drew on the maternal as well as the pastoral and played up tropes of idealized femininity specific to class positions (Zedner, 1995; Hannah-Moffat, 2001).

There are a number of ways in which gender informs prison experiences. On a very basic level, because there are relatively few women prisoners (despite being one of the fastest growing demographics) there are relatively few women’s prisons. This means that women are often held in facilities dominated by male prisoners, or that women-specific institutions are often geographically far removed from a woman’s place of origin, making the kinds of access to support, family, and friends that men enjoy difficult if not impossible. Further, the children of incarcerated men are typically cared for by spouses or partners who will bring children for regular visits, helping men to maintain a connection to their children and ensuring that that connection continues upon release. In contrast, incarcerated women are often the sole caregivers of their children. Thus, when they are incarcerated, their children are often placed in state care. This “collateral damage” (Chesney-Lind & Mauer, 2002) of incarceration means that women find maintaining relationships with their children difficult if not impossible and often lose custody or have to fight to regain custody of their children upon release (Balfour & Comack, 2014).

The principle of lesser eligibility coupled with a backlash against and co-optation of feminist ideals to reform the prison (Hannah-Moffat & Shaw, 2000) is largely responsible for both the rise of the population of incarcerated women as women have been caught in the dragnet of the war on drugs (Chesney-Lind, 1995; Sudbury, 2005) as well as a worsening of carceral conditions under the logic that women should receive treatment equal to men (Chesney-Lind, 1995; Sudbury, 2005). The reality, however, is that women experience the pains of imprisonment at a much higher rate than do men. Self-harm, suicide, and mental illness are all much greater in the population of women prisoners (Mills & Kendall, 2016, p. 188), a situation which lead to a federal taskforce and inquiry in Canada in the 1990s, both of which rendered scathing critiques of the system of women’s incarceration in that country (Arbour, 1996; Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women, 1990).

There is recognition that women experience the pains of imprisonment differently than do men. Most nations in the Global North now have women-specific or what are euphemistically referred to as “woman-centered” prisons (Hannah-Moffat & Shaw, 2000). These institutions attempt to embody feminist ideals in order to feminize the experience of incarceration. Changes here include the introduction of mother-baby programs, the redesign of the traditional prison into communal housing units and offering “woman-centered” programs such as parenting classes and hairdressing. As Hannah-Moffat (2001) points out, many of these changes reinvent age old tropes of the incarcerated woman as being either mad, bad, or sad (Chunn & Menzies, 2014), continuing to rely on the hyper pathologization of women and reverting back to stereotypes of femininity that fail to address the diversity of women’s lives.

Kilty (2012), for example, points to the rampant escalation of diagnosing incarcerated women as mentally ill, a 65% growth from the 1960s to present day. This rise in “madness” among the female prison population likely has far less to do with actual epidemiology and far more to do with the introduction of a male-centered actuarial assessment regime that routinely finds women as higher “need” (Hannah-Moffat, 1999; Kilty, 2012). The designation of high need not only cascades into the cognate designation of high risk (a label which almost invariably indicates higher conditions of security) but also an increased finding that women prisoners suffer mental illness. While mental illness is certainly a reality and a growing problem among the prison population (see below), as Kilty (2012) points out, the equation of the realities of many women prisoners’ lives (drug and sex trade involvement, high rates of prior victimization, especially sexual victimization) has the effect of ignoring the systemic and structural issues facing criminalized women (most notably an aggressive war on drugs and a rise in punitive mentalities overall). Instead, we see a neoliberal turn toward individuating and pathologizing structural inequalities. Thus, criminalized women whose offenses are largely poverty related see their very understandable anxiety and depression in the face of incarceration translated into mental illness. This in turn renders them higher risk and higher need, indicating more secure forms of confinement (which amplify stress) as well as greater findings of psychological pathology. While women are ostensibly given a choice as to whether or not they will comply with the treatment regime (often a combination of psychotropic drugs and therapeutic modalities, see Moore, 2007), this choice is little more than a liberal veil (Hannah-Moffat & Moore, 2005) cloaking a much more draconian regime through which non-compliance with recommended therapeutic trajectories is met with the assignation of an overall non-compliance on the part of the prisoner (Kilty, 2012). One of the most troubling aspects of the overuse of therapeutic regimes among women prisoners is their heavy reliance on psychotropic medications, specifically sedating and hypnotic pharmaceuticals such as Seroquel. While Seroquel is intended for use with those experiencing acute mania and/or schizophrenia, Kilty (2012) finds widespread, almost rote use of the drug as a governmental technology that literally became the opiate of the masses. Seroquel’s sedating effects (alongside a host of undesired side effects including weight gain, somnolence, and addiction) become, according to Kilty, an effective tool of prisoner management. Long thought of as the most difficult population to manage (Hannah-Moffat, 2001), the use of Seroquel and other sedating drugs among female prisoners is an effective management tool for prison administrators who want to keep their populations tranquilized and thus easy to control.

On the flip side of this, as Kilty explains, Seroquel is often used as a replacement for other, less sedating drugs like clonazepam, which prisoners may have been taking prior to incarceration. Kilty cites the experiences of one former prisoner who told her of being refused all medications she had been taking prior to incarceration, informed by the prison nurse that Seroquel was an effective replacement. Removal of other medications is not limited to other psychotropics, but can also include potentially life-saving medications such as those used to treat high blood pressure or other chronic illnesses. Importantly, the routine prescription of drugs like Seroquel on admission to prison also comes with a lack of informed consent. Prisoners report feeling pressured into taking certain medications and also having little idea about the nature of medications they were now taking. While medication is always presented as a choice to prisoners, this choice is a fallacy. Prisoners who, for example, sought alternate, non-pharmaceutical means to address their mental distress are routinely told such avenues are not available and/or labeled as non-compliant, a designation which has serious impacts on their lives which incarcerated as well as their eligibility for release.

Approximately 5% of women are pregnant upon incarceration. Pre- and post-natal care as well as treatment during childbirth are growing areas of concern for female prisoners. In Fritz and Whiteacre’s (2016) study of prison nurseries and mother-child programs, prisoners they interviewed related a host of troubling if not unethical practices. Pregnant prisoners reported minimal prenatal care, often indicating their prenatal appointments lasted less than a minute, giving them little to no chance to ask questions or raise concerns with doctors. Women with pregnancy-related complications reported inadequate care ranging from a lack of sufficient monitoring for those with a prematurely ruptured amniotic sac to a void of genetic counseling for those whose fetuses were at risk of developing genetic complications such as cystic fibrosis. When it came time to give birth, reports of laboring women being shackled to beds are not uncommon. The question of whether or not a woman will be able to maintain contact with her child post-delivery is contingent on a range of factors. Despite research definitively revealing only positive benefits to keeping mothers and babies together for at least a year after birth, the possibility of this depends entirely on whether or not the facility in which the woman is held is equipped with a mother-baby facility and whether penal authorities deem the mother is capable of caring for her child (Fritz & Whiteacre, 2016).

The question of whether or not women want to keep custody of their babies is also fraught. Part of the age-old tropes of maternal femininity embedded in the mentalities of incarcerating women is that they ought to WANT to have their children with them. Regaining custody of children is often used as an incentive to gain compliance from criminalized women (Moore, 2007). Such a rationality proves problematic to women for whom motherhood is not a desired status either temporarily or permanently. Thus the woman who does not which to retain or regain custody of her children is looked poorly upon by penal authorities and such a lack of desire is typically used against women in considering their rehabilitative progress and release.

Mental Illness

The deinstitutionalization movement in the 1970s saw widespread closures of mental institutions in favor of a model of “community care.” The requisite community-based care programs and facilities failed to materialize in a way that met the overwhelming need. As a result, prisons have become de facto mental hospitals. While most penal systems offer specialized psychiatric units for those with the most serious mental illnesses, these units are typically overtaxed and under-resourced, offering a quality of care that is far below medically indicated best practices. There are many examples that illustrate the crisis of mental health in prisons. Canada continues to deal with the legacy of the Ashley Smith case. Smith was a youth when she was incarcerated for a relatively minor charge (level one assault—she threw apples at a letter carrier). However, because of a combination of Ashley’s mental health issues and their concomitant mismanagement by penal authorities, Ashley ended up spending several years incarcerated in 19 different institutions across the country. Ashley’s story came to a tragic end when she strangled herself in her cell as a team of guards stood outside her cell door and watched.

After a failed attempt at striking a coroner’s inquest into Ashley’s death in 2011, a second coroner was appointed in 2012 to strike a full investigation. Almost a year of testimony lead to 103 recommendations, almost none of which were taken up by federal penal authorities despite damning evidence including forced medication, questionable use of shackles and restraints, inconsistent and at times inhumane mental health care, and ultimately the finding that the Correctional Service of Canada was indeed responsible for and ought to have prevented Ashley’s death (Carlisle, 2013).

When prison psychiatric units are at capacity (which is virtually the norm in every jurisdiction), prisoners with mental illnesses are often placed on administrative segregation. As stated above, administrative segregation is not intended to be punitive but rather protective. There is an increasing use of administrative segregation as a means of addressing the overflow of mentally ill prisoners. These people are not being held in administrative segregation for the reasons initially intended but rather because there is simply no other place to safely contain a so-called high-needs prisoner (Gendreau & Labrecque, 2016). Circle back to the above discussion about the deleterious effects of extended segregation (Ashley Smith spent the better part of a year in segregation) and the concerns with this practice are obvious. Even those who enter prison in a state of relatively good mental health experience the pains of imprisonment and their accompanying impacts on mental health. Amplify this for those who enter prison with often comorbid psychiatric problems, and a serious problem already begins to develop as the day-to-day stresses of prison life tend of exacerbate their illnesses. Now recognize that the real limitations of the carceral enterprise make it impossible to adequately address the mental health needs of a significant proportion of the prisoner population, to the extent that the only means of controlling them is to place them in isolation for 23 hours a day, and it comes as no surprise that we see mental health issues worsening and suicide rates increasing among the incarcerated mentally ill (Gendreau & Labrecque, 2016).

Indigenous Peoples

Given that the vast majority of the mass incarceration crisis is happening in colonized nations (Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand), there is a need to pay special attention to the experiences of Indigenous prisoners who are, across the board, grossly overrepresented in colonial prison systems. In the face of histories of cultural genocides and other forms of mass incarceration such as residential schools, it comes as no surprise that Indigenous-identified prisoners face a host of issues layered on top of those experienced by their non-Indigenous counterparts. Top of the list here is of course systemic and overt racism. Tropes of the lazy, drunken Indian continue to pervade narratives of criminalized Indigenous peoples. Likewise, as Russell and Carlton (2013) reveal in their study of race and gender in Australian prisons, pathologization, hyper punitiveness, and cultural conformity are all now hallmarks of the treatment of Indigenous and racialized prisoners, leading to the assertion that the prison has now become the new reserve or ghetto in colonized nations. Famous Indigenous prisoners such as Leonard Peltier (Churchill & Vander Wall, 2002), incarcerated as a political prisoner for his involvement in the American Indian Movement, give us a window into their own experiences of incarceration, revealing relentless racism and denial of legally protected cultural and religious practices all as a means of maintaining the cultural trope of “taming the savage.” In one excerpt from Peltier’s prison diaries, he describes much of the racism endemic to Indigenous prisoners:

At least I’m alive. Recently, for some unexplained reason, they confiscated the ceremonial skirt towel I’ve used for years in our sacred sweat lodge; they tell me it’s been thrown away. That hurt more than the physical deprivations and the bouts of solitary confinement.

(Peltier, 1999, p. 23)

Peltier goes on to describe beatings, food denial, and a lack of health care all as chronic features of his confinement.

While colonial jurisdictions including Canada have taken steps to “Indianize” the prison through the establishment of designated “healing lodge” prisons and the presence of sweat lodges, teepees, and other artifacts of cultural importance on the grounds of general population prisons, such measures are tempered with routine affronts to varied Indigenous traditions including banning smudging, confiscation or investigation of medicine bags, difficulties accessing culturally appropriate elders, and the like (Monture-Angus, 1999).

Resistance, Abolition, and Exceptionalism

While most countries in the Global North conform to the models of incarceration described above, Scandinavian countries are often cited as the exception. Generally, incarceration in Scandinavian prisons is kept to a minimum and the conditions are seen as more humane than those found in other Western countries (Pratt, 2008). The Scandinavian model embodies the notion that imprisonment, that is the deprivation of liberty, is the punishment and otherwise the experiences of those incarcerated ought to resemble those of the general society. Prisons are small, services are delivered by external community organizations, and prisoners have a direct role in shaping the system. Still, even as many would argue that the Scandinavian model is normatively better than those found in other Western countries (Pratt, 2008; Christie, 2000), the prison abolition movement maintains that there is nothing humane about incarceration, no matter the conditions.

The violence, brutality, and inhumanity of incarceration does not come without resistance. Bosworth and Carrabine’s (2001) thorough study of microforms of resistance within the prison is an important illustration of the seemingly small but nonetheless important ways in which prisoners push back against the totalitarian powers of the prison in order to ease the pains of imprisonment. Here acts as seemingly insignificant as lobbying for small-scale comforts such as shampoo for people of African or Caribbean descent become significant victories in making prison life more bearable. Likewise, common practices like kiting in solitary in which prisoners will send messages and other small items between cells to the creation of a vibrant underground prison economy trading in everything from tampons to illicit drugs are all ways to resist the regimes imposed on prisoners even if this resistance, on the face of it, does not appear to be particularly political.

At the same time, especially in those jurisdictions such as the United States, in which draconian laws like the California three strikes law lead to people serving unfathomably long sentences, we see a continuation of the traditions begun by prison activists like Angela Davis and George Jackson in the 1970s. Here there is organized and often widespread political resistance to prison regimes. Historically there are any number of riots and insurrections linked to prisoner resistance, the most famous of which is likely the Attica riot in the 1970s. Largely due to overcrowding but also substandard food and overall conditions, prisoners at Attica rioted in 1971, overtaking the prison (Useem & Kimball, 1987). The Attica riot lasted over a week and left 41 dead, a combination of prisoners and guards. Importantly, despite the harsh crackdown on prisoners at Attica in the wake of the 1971 riot, prison authorities did make important changes to the prison regime including concerted attempts to alleviate the problems of overcrowding.

Angela Davis, perhaps one of the most famous former prisoners alive today and now a professor at the University of California—Berkley suggests incarceration is intimately tied to global events as well as structural inequalities (2005). Reflecting on her years incarcerated during the 1970s, Davis sees racism, poverty, gender inequality, and globalization as inextricably bound to the prison industrial complex. It is for these reasons, she argues, that prisons themselves can neither be humane nor just institutions, observations that led her to the conclusion that all human rights-minded democracies need to move toward the goal of abolishing prisons as the response to criminal behavior, a sentiment echoed by her contemporaries like George Jackson (1994), as well as a new generation of prison abolitionists whose numbers are rapidly growing. Those who take an empathic and/or social justice approach to incarceration now see it as an inherently flawed and irreparable system which ought to be abolished, perhaps with the exception of a select few who appear to pose a relentless threat to public safety.

Giving Voice to Prisoners

Spivak (1988) reminds us that giving voice to the subaltern is a fraught and in many ways impossible task. This entry outlines some of the most salient issues that exacerbate the pains of imprisonment originally identified by Sykes (1958). This is not an exhaustive list. Omitted here are the experiences of both youth and the elderly as well as those with diverse sexual and gender identities who are incarcerated. Likewise, this entry has not located these experiences within and against their broader backdrop of a prison industrial complex (Davis, 2005) which reveals a troubling political economy of punishment from which prisoners’ experiences cannot be teased out.

This survey offers the reader a window into what it means to be incarcerated and, perhaps most importantly, that there is an easy slippage, as Mme. Justice Louise Arbour (1996) noted in her investigation of the conditions of incarceration of women in Canada, between the notions that individuals are sent to prison AS punishment, not FOR punishment. Such a distinction seems obvious when we look at law and human rights directives but again, as Arbour points out, the closed nature of prisons means they are places in which rules are everywhere but the rule of law is elusive. The ephemeral nature of the regulations meant to protect prisons from experiencing amplified punishments while incarcerated remains the unsolvable problem of prisons. Laws protecting human rights mean nothing when there is no means to enforce them, a lesson taught to us by Bentham (1843) centuries ago.

Further Readings

Bosworth, M., & Flavin, J. (Eds). (2007). Race, gender and punishment: From colonialism to the war on terror. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Find this resource:

    Davis, A. (2005). Abolition democracy: Beyond empire, prisons and torture. New York: Seven Stories Press.Find this resource:

      Gilmour, R. (2007). Golden gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis and opposition in globalizing California. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Find this resource:

        Guenther, L. (2013). Solitary confinement: Social death and its afterlives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

          Simon, J. (2015). Mass incarceration on trial: A remarkable court decision and the future of prisons in America. Chicago, IL: The New Press.Find this resource:


            Calavita, K., & Jenness, V. (2015). Prisoner rights, grievances and carceral logic. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Find this resource:

              Elger, B. (2009). Prison life: Television, sports, work, stress and insomnia in a remand prison. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 32(2), 74–83.Find this resource:

                Garland, D. (2001). The culture of control: Crime and social order in contemporary societies. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                  Jackson, G. (1994). Soledad brother: The prison letters of George Jackson. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press.Find this resource:

                    Marin, A. (2013). The code: Investigation into the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services’ response to allegations of excessive use of force against inmates. Retrieved from

                    Seena, F., & Daneesh, J. (2002). Serious mental disorder in 23 000 prisoners: a systematic review of 62 surveys. The Lancet, 359(9,306), 545–550.Find this resource:

                      Turnbull, S. (2016). Parole in Canada: Gender and diversity in the federal system. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press.Find this resource:

                        Weinrath, M. (2009). Inmate perspectives on the remand crisis in Canada. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 51(3), 355–379.Find this resource:

                          Wyner, R. (2004). From the inside: Dispatches from a Women's Prison. London: Aurum Press.Find this resource:

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                                  Arbour, L. (1996). Commission of inquiry into certain events at the Prison for Women in Kingston (Canada). Ottawa, ON: Public Works and Government Services Canada.Find this resource:

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