UK: how prison changes people

Longer and harsher prison sentences can mean that prisoners’ personalities will be changed in ways that make their reintegration difficult, finds Christian Jarrett.
Day after day, year after year, imagine having no space to call your own, no choice over who to be with, what to eat, or where to go. There is threat and suspicion everywhere. Love or even a gentle human touch can be difficult to find. You are separated from family and friends.

If they are to cope, then prisoners confined to this kind of environment have no option but to change and adapt. This is especially true for those facing long-term sentences – in England and Wales, around 43% of sentences now last more than four years.

In a report on the psychological impact of imprisonment for the US government, the social psychologist Craig Haney (who collaborated with Philip Zimbardo on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment) was frank: “few people are completely unchanged or unscathed by the [prison] experience”.

Based on their interviews with hundreds of prisoners, researchers at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge went further, stating that long-term imprisonment “changes people to the core”. Or in the stark words of a long-term inmate interviewed for research published in the 1980s, after years in prison “you ain’t the same”.

In the field of personality psychology, it used to be believed that our personalities remain largely fixed in adulthood. But recent research has found that, in fact, despite relative stability our habits of thought, behaviour and emotion do change in significant and consequential ways – especially in response to the different roles that we adopt as we go through life. It is almost inevitable then that time spent as a prisoner, in a highly structured yet socially threatening environment, is bound to lead to significant personality changes.

Particularly for anyone concerned about prisoner welfare and how to rehabilitate former convicts, the worry is that these personality changes, while they may help the prisoner survive their jail time, are counter-productive for their lives upon release.

Key features of the prison environment that are likely to lead to personality change include the chronic loss of free choice, lack of privacy, daily stigma, frequent fear, need to wear a constant mask of invulnerability and emotional flatness (to avoid exploitation by others), and the requirement, day after day, to follow externally imposed stringent rules and routines.


There is surprisingly little research on how these chronic features of the environment might change prisoners’ personalities in terms of the “Big Five” model of personality that dominates most modern research on the general, non-prison population (based around the key traits like extroversion and conscientiousness).

Nonetheless, there is widespread recognition among psychologists and criminologists that prisoners adapt to their environment, which they call “prisonisation”. This contributes towards a kind of “post-incarceration syndrome” when they are released.

Consider the findings from ’in-depth interviews with 25 former ‘lifers’ (including two women) in Boston, who had served an average of 19 years in jail. Analysing their narratives, psychologist Marieke Liema and criminologist Maarten Kunst found that the former prisoners had developed “institutionalised personality traits”, including “distrusting others, difficulty engaging in relationships [and] hampered decision-making”.

One 42-year-old male former prisoner said: “I do [still] kind of act like I’m still in prison, and I mean you [are] not a light switch or a water faucet. You can’t just turn something off. When you’ve done something for a certain amount of time… it becomes a part of you.”

The personality change that most dominated their accounts was an inability to trust others – a kind of perpetual paranoia. “You cannot trust anybody in the joint,” said another of the interviewees, a man now aged 52. “I do have an issue with trust, I just do not trust anybody.”

Interviews with hundreds of UK prisoners undertaken by Susie Hulley and her colleagues at the Institute of Criminology painted a similar picture. “Many… told us that they had undergone significant and sometimes wholesale personal transformations,” the researchers wrote in 2015.

The prisoners described a process of “emotional numbing”.

“It does harden you. It does make you a bit more distant,” one said, explaining how people in jail deliberately conceal and suppress their emotions. “It is who you become, and if you are hardened in the beginning then you become even harder, you become even colder, you become more detached.” Another prisoner stated: “It’s… I, kind of, don’t have feelings for people any more.”

In terms of the Big Five personality traits, one could characterise this as a form of extreme low neuroticism (or high emotional stability or flatness), combined with low extraversion and low agreeability – in other words, not an ideal personality shift for the return to the outside world.

That is certainly the concern of Hulley and her colleagues. “As the long-term prisoner becomes ‘adapted’ – in the true sense of the term – to the imperatives of a sustained period of confinement, he or she becomes more emotionally detached, more self-isolating, more socially withdrawn, and perhaps less well suited to life after release,” they warned.

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