How prison condemns young people

Felicity Allman discusses a study on how incarceration impacts youth health.

Felicity Allman
8th May 2021
Image Credit: LisaRedfern on Pixabay
The factors that lead a person to prison are complex, often related to substance misuse, social deprivation, poverty, institutional racism, lack of education or opportunity, homelessness and other vulnerabilities. Given that background, it is unsurprising that those in prison are 10 times more likely to have mental health issues. And they aren’t getting the support they need.

This isn’t to say that wealthy, well-educated white people don’t commit crimes, but that education and social status goes some way towards covering it up or arranging alternative ways to handle those crimes, according to the authors of a recent study on the effects of incarceration on youth mental health. The study found that the majority of young people entering prison with pre-existing mental health issues still struggled with their mental health 15 years later. In a vicious circle, these issues serve only to aggravate the poverty, lack of education and other factors that led to their incarceration in the first place. These findings may seem obvious, but present us with definitive evidence that prison condemns young people.

The World Health Organisation is explicit that prisoners of all ages need multifaceted psychosocial support, such as financial management, interview skills and working through trauma. They go further to say that everyone should be screened for mental health issues on entry, with regular check-ups, and that this isn’t just for mental health professionals to do, but for all prison staff. Most importantly, these services need to be designed by those receiving them: imprisoned people will have the greatest insight into what will be most helpful. And what they want doesn’t seem like too much to ask:

  • ‘Someone to talk to’ about their feelings and problems;
  • Better planning for their release;
  • ‘Something to do’ during the day: meaningful activity, including work and exercise; 
  • Help in a crisis;
  • Access to psychological therapy and advice about medication. 

The Prison Reform Trust says this isn’t happening in the UK. Although mental health services have been developed to ensure people are placed in the most suitable service for them, it seems that if a person has made it as far as prison, then it’s too late. 

There also isn’t enough interagency working to prevent young people slipping through the net. These people are more likely to be survivors of abuse and other traumas, and early help can go some way towards reducing their vulnerability. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are well validated predictors of future outcomes from depression to STIs, diabetes to unemployment. Addressing and preventing them is essential for public and global health. This holds true for the USA, where the study was conducted, as much as it is in the UK. Juvenile incarceration is another ACE, so we need better options than just increasing the burden of trauma on these young people – diversion away from prison, early help with problems, and support from education and healthcare professionals – to avoid effectively condemning them.

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