Homicide offenders differ from other offenders in many ways, one of which is the long period of time they spend in prison before being released. Now, why should we care? Many people would claim that it is best to just lock these individuals up and throw away the key. Their serious crimes make this group unattractive in terms of public and political support. Regardless of the moral justifications and objections of long-term sentencing, there are indications that long-term sentences have a profound impact on a prisoner’s mental health.
This is particularly relevant given the rise in time spent behind bars for these crimes – worldwide, but increasingly so in the Netherlands. While not more than a few decades ago, these offenders were typically sentenced to seven to twelve years’ imprisonment, nowadays sentences of 20 years and over are not exceptional. We know very little, however, about the effects of long-term imprisonment – particularly on mental health. What if these men and women, in fact, come out in even worse shape than when they went in?
Barry is one of them. He was arrested and convicted at age 17, and spent 30 years behind bars. When he came out at age 47, he couldn’t cope. Everything had changed. Other than learning how to use a cell phone, a computer, and learning how to drive, he had trouble being around other people: “I just cannot be in crowds anymore”, he said, “it makes me anxious. People standing next to you on the metro, or walking on the sidewalk, getting in your space. It gives me panic attacks.” In prison, for all those years, people didn’t get in his space unless they were looking for a fight.
But that’s not all. Ever since he entered the prison system, he had no say over what he had for dinner, when he was going to work, what he could wear, where he could walk, when the lights went out and back on. The guards decided this for him. Now, he says: “I cannot make even basic decisions – in prison, we only had brown bread or white bread. Now I go to the supermarket and I have to choose between gluten-free, whole wheat, rye, pumpernickel, and hundreds of other things. There’s too much choice. I just can’t do it.”
Ray was incarcerated for 27 years. Even though he has been out for a while, until today, he admits: “I wake up, sweating, every night, thinking I’m hearing the guards coming into my cell when I’m asleep. And I feel like being in prison again.” He finds it hard to talk to people: “You know, I just don’t trust anybody. You don’t have friends in prison, you have associates. You don’t trust people in prison – you have to be paranoid, otherwise you don’t survive. So, how can I trust people now that I’m out?”
Barry and Ray are not the only ones suffering from these symptoms, collectively making up the Post-Incarceration Syndrome. And many more will join their ranks, as an even larger number of inmates are to be released in future years now that more inmates are sentenced to long periods of confinement. Recognising the existence and prevalence of the Post-Incarceration Syndrome may allow for appropriate treatment among ex-inmates and ultimately, successful re-entry into society. Only then can we prevent them going back to the life that landed them in prison so many years ago.