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The Psychological Effects of Imprisonment

November 11, 2006
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BY ALI KHALID ABDULLAH

The psychological effects of being in prison is one that many psychologists, behavioral scientists and social workers have been studying for some time in order to measure or gage the mental condition of one who has spent a considerable number of years behind bars. There is ample literature out to suggest there is a psychological impairment that takes place from – incarceration. The longer one is imprisoned and the condition in which that person lives under while incarcerated, determines the amount or degree of psychological damage that individual has incurred.

As one who is a prisoner and who has a bachelors degree in Behavioral Science, it doesn’t take much for me to know that there are psychological negatives from long-term incarceration, albeit acute or subtle. My being in prison a number of years has seen the damage long-term incarceration can do, including what I have noticed of my own psychological difference — not all necessarily for the better. In fact, I “know” I have some psychological damage because of the endless tension, frustration, harassment, stress and strain of everyday living in an abnormal environment among thousands of different personalities and behaviors. Included among these are the court sanctioned oppressive and repressive behaviors of the prisoncrats.

There are times when my mental state is, in my mind, sound, while there are other times when I fall into such a deep depression that I feel I am never going to recover. This angers me, because when I fall into that depression there is no one for me to go to for relief. Yet, through the years I have learned to channel my negative energies and psychological damages or impairment into areas of constructiveness rather than destruction, which is perhaps, why I do a lot of reading, studying and free thinking. Free thinking is the ability to let your mind and your thoughts float and go as they desire without conscious interference. In other words, without guiding your thoughts to any structural format or form, as we normally would do. Free thinking allows me to unleash without shame or guilt, thoughts that are floating in my mind. I have found that when I allow myself to ‘free think’ I am much more relaxed afterwards and more energized because there is no energy being expended. But this is not the case for many. For many, the anger and tension within is so tight and compressed that once exploded there are usually serious consequences to the individual or to others.

One of the things that I have suffered and learned to adapt to a little, but still find hard to deal with, is the light being in my face at night. A constant dull light that glows in my face and no matter how much I try to blot that light out, it has become a part of my psyche to where if I do not have the light I cannot sleep. And I never really sleep. Not like the non-incarcerated sleeps. For many in prison we must “half sleep.” That is, never go in to a sleep that you cannot immediately wake up at the slightest unfamiliar movement or sound, because that is a survival mode or mechanism one automatically acquires while in prison. Thus, I do not know what it is like to have a real deep sleep anymore. My mind has been conditioned and reinforced not to sleep in the normal fashion. That is an abnormality that prison life offers to the incarcerated.

Also, my being viewed and hated as a political prisoner or consciously active person by prison officials is not a thing one can live down once prison officials recognize who you are. Thus, you are and become a target for them at all, times. You must mind your “ps and qs” or you will fall and fall hard. You must be ever sensitive to many things those on the outside would not be as sensitive too. But prison sharpens your senses because this also becomes a survival tool, but make no mistake about it, prisons are designed to destroy you; to destroy the personality of your “self” and leave you broken and dependent. Political prisoners of any kind and jailhouse lawyers are targets for prison officials because you are presumed a threat. A threat because of your knowledge or because your thinking is different from others and you aren’t likely to be intimidated by petty tactics. And so they (prisoncrats) design things especially for the ones whose wills remain unbroken.

Just look how long they have held in prison, many political prisoners in Amerikkka. Many of them are languishing on death row or in solitary confinement for well over 25 years. Some have been in such conditions for even longer than that. Not because they are a threat physically, but because they have not been broken down mentally, psychologically or spiritually and so they pose a danger to an element that must have complete control. Control of your body, the food you eat, the clothes you wear and the type of health care you receive (if you receive any). But they also want the absolute prize of control, which is your mind and/or your soul, and I am not inclined to give that away to any human being.

I have seen men, strong men, breakdown and become a shell of who they once were due to the type of psychological warfare placed upon them. I knew a man whose mother had passed. The prisoncrats refused to allow him to have funeral visit, or to even visit his mother in the hospital before she passed, even though guards would have been with him and his family who have paid an extortional price to the department of corrections for him to have such a visit, and even though he met the criteria to attend such a visit, they still refused him. That was the beginning of this man’s psychological downfall to where he fell so low he is now a walking zombie on an, assortment of tranquilizers.

Society does not think of these atrocities because they are not readily known, nor are all the ramifications of prison life and what we endure. Further, the average human being does not want to believe that another human being would be so cruel and so sadistic as to torture and mangle other humans who are helpless, whether it be physical, psychological or spiritual. Yet that is the reality those of us in prison all too well know exists in many varying ways.

Amerikkka has a “lock em up” mentality that does not open its hand to rehabilitation anymore. It is all about punishment and warehousing to the highest degree. But such treatment only creates ticking time bombs that will one day be back in society and living as your neighbor.

To a large degree I feel fortunate because I have been able to survive many traumas during my incarceration thanks to having some outside help and support through the years. This is something many do not have. That is why it is imperative that you — the public — take an active role in learning about prisons and what prisoners endure, and even give critical thought to what role prisons really play and its effectiveness. As I have stated earlier, the vast majority of prisoners will be coming back out in society and it would seem that you would want to know, or have some kind of vested interest in what kind of person you will have walking and Living around you.

The psychological effects of imprisonment are real and serious. If we want to have a healthy nation, then it is up to the people — the public in general, to think about how to deal with the problem of warehousing human beings and the kind of treatment they are receiving inside Amerikkka’s prison system.

This article was originally written and presented to the International Human Rights Initiative for the “From Attica to Abu Ghraib” conference in April 2005, in
Berkeley, California.

Ali Khalid Abdullah (148130)
Mound Correctional Facility
17601 Mound Road
Detroit, MI 48212

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