How Prison Makes You Worse

I’ve been reading a lot recently about how people survive in extreme environments. Most of the material I’ve been looking at focuses mainly on environments such as research facilities in the Antarctic or on board the MIR space station. But, in many cases, the conclusions drawn can also be applied to people who spend long periods in prisons.

In the summer, the Antarctic is swarming with researchers. But during the polar winter, air travel becomes impossible. Most scientists leave the continent before it is sealed off from the outside, leaving only a minimal contingent behind them. There are no comings and goings. No supplies. No possibility of evacuation. Those that remain are truly isolated and alone.

Due to the extreme cold and total darkness, the scientists tend to spend most of the season inside, confined to small quarters that account for their entire lives. And it is in the midst of this cold and lonely darkness that depression sets in. The effects of the polar winter on human psychological well-being were documented as far back as the 1800s. Explorer Frederick Cook wrote, during his expedition of 1898, that “The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has descended upon the inner world of our souls.” Doctors who have spent seasons in the Antarctic have documented a pattern of behaviour whereby people withdraw increasingly over time until communal areas are left barren. Some have even reported what has been dubbed “the polar stare”, with people sitting for hours, just staring into space.

And it doesn’t stop at depression. The biggest stress factor of living and working in a confined environment such as the Antarctic or space has consistently been shown to be interpersonal tension. One Russian cosmonaut reported that states of conflict predominated over thirty percent of his time aboard the MIR space station. Ordinary annoyances and grievances become exaggerated in confined environments and have resulted in recorded incidents of violence, sexual assault, and even murder.

The causes of such behaviour are numerous, but the monotony of the surroundings, the food, the work, and even the colleagues, creates an intense boredom which results in hostility to each of these in turn. Another factor is the increased sense of isolation which has been reported at the halfway point. Workers in the Antarctic and in space have both reported an exacerbated sense of loneliness setting in at this time, leading it to become known as “the third quarter effect.” Separation from family and friends can become unbearable and, often, this results in blame and hostility.

But there are things which have been done to decrease instances of conflict and depression. Researchers in the Antarctic and Cosmonauts aboard the MIR space station have both held celebrations of the halfway point with special meals and messages from home as standard. The sexual composition of teams has also been found to play a part. All male teams, for example, have been found to develop more tribal behaviours with increased conflict. But teams with even a single female member tend to be more civilised. The men seem to act more appropriately and even to cooperate and support one another more when there is a woman around. Similarly, combining team members with both similar and different cultural experiences strengthens teams. It is thought that they will relate to one another better because of their similarities, and remain close due to their differences. But perhaps the strongest influence over team cohesion in such environments is leadership. Teams who experience the fewest instances of conflict have been found to be those in which there was a strong, task-oriented leader at the start of the mission, who steps back later on, giving the other team members more responsibility and autonomy whilst maintaining a role of providing personal and social support. In particular, those teams whose leaders help to eliminate the formation of cliques tend to function much better, whilst socially divided groups tend to exhibit considerably higher rates of depression.

But there are also positive effects that derive from periods in extreme environments. It has been shown that individuals who got through periods of stress and trauma will later experience “post-traumatic growth” whereby the experiences which the individual would previously have considered neutral are more likely to be considered positive following a period of extreme negative experiences. Upon return, research suggests that people are less likely to experience depression and more likely to show signs of improved mental health when compared with others who have not gone through the same negative experiences. In fact, when the polar winter ends and researchers have a chance to return home, many of them actually volunteer for repeat assignments. One psychologist who has spent regular periods evaluating Antarctic scientists reported that, for some people, Antarctica is the whole world. It becomes their family.

But how does this relate to prisons and prisoners? Well, like the Antarctic and the MIR space station, once you’re in you cannot leave, often for significant periods of time. You are physically confined, usually to very small quarters for most of the day. There are also few opportunities to go outside. Most of the light prisoners experience is artificial. The surroundings become monotonous. As does the food and the work. Depression rises. Hostilities grow. Conflicts increase. The vast majority of British prisoners are male, and male prisons are all male. There are no neutralising female influences. At the halfway point of a prison sentence, there is no celebration to reinvigorate and rejuvenate. Fatigue sets in and resentment builds. As for leadership, there are prison leaders (often the more violent or intimidating individuals) and there are staff leaders (any member of staff in fact). Both of these will start off firm but, unlike the ideal leaders suggested by research, neither of them back off later on. Depression continues to rise. Hostility continues to grow. Conflicts continue to increase. You get all of the psychological damage, with none of the recovery. Like the Antarctic scientists, the extreme environment becomes your world. It becomes your family. So, when you leave, the chances are that it won’t be long before you come home. Welcome to the revolving door of our criminalising prisons. Welcome to the Hotel California. You can check out any time you want. But you can never leave.

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