Long-term Prison Sentences and Prison Population
Long prison sentences may seem like a solution to managing crime, yet mass incarceration has a devastating impact on the prison population.

Actions have consequences. In the same way that working hard can lead to a promotion, so can criminal behaviour lead to incarceration. To continue the analogy, receiving a promotion should inspire an employee to step it up a level, and incarceration should lead to reform and rehabilitation.

Sadly, this isn’t always the case.

impact of long term sentences

True impact of long-term incarceration

There is a lot of research on the true impact of long-term incarceration on offending individuals, especially those who are sentenced under the age of 25 years old.

During the early stages of incarceration, individuals experience confinement as the biggest challenge. As the sentence progresses, a different trauma emerges, leading to the severe reconsideration of self-identity and worsening of mental health.

During this time, it’s essential that an effective rehabilitation guides thoughts on future identity. Instead, studies show that anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder are common in those who have lived in prison for a long time. These symptoms can prevent successful reintegration upon release.

Impact on mental health

While there is routine and structure in prison, the hostile environment can impact individuals in a dramatic way. For example,

  • Overcrowding and punitiveness decrease privacy reduces access to amenities and limit opportunities for programmes 
  • Solitary confinement increases the likelihood of developing psychiatric disorders 
  • Experiencing and witnessing violence leads to aggressive and antisocial behavioural tendencies and emotional distress

    The longer the prison sentence, the more exposure to this hostile environment and the larger the collateral consequence. Research reveals that these triggers can worsen symptoms of mental illness and have long-lasting effects once an individual is released.

decarceration trend

The Sentencing Project argues that “a key issue in assessing the decarceration trend is American sentencing policy and practice related to the length of prison terms.”

One could argue that this principle could apply around the world.

are long-term prison sentences a solution?

Did you know that 32% of US adults say that incarcerated individuals spend too little time in prison?

understanding long term prison sentences

Long prison sentences may seem like a solution to managing crime, yet mass incarceration has a devastating impact on the prison population. Overcrowding, limited opportunities, lack of resources and diminishing returns for public safety are all negative side effects of long-term prison sentences. Long sentences are also counterproductive for public safety, and time served can be reduced without putting dangerous individuals back on the street.

Growing prison population

While the use of long-term prison sentences is an anomaly in the United States, with one out of seven individuals serving life sentences, the trend is prevalent around the world In South Africa, the prison population has grown by 60% between 1995 and 2004.

Other countries with high incarceration rates include Russia, Turkmenistan, Thailand and Brazil. These countries use mass incarceration to control crime rates, but the temporary solution has led to overcrowding, limited resources and damaged mental health.

growing prison population in sa

In comparison, Norway, which has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, abolished life sentences in 1981. In Denmark and Sweden, lifers have the opportunity to be released after 12 and 18 years, respectively. Moving across to Latin America, only six of the 19 nations support life imprisonment.

Of course, specific crimes need to be considered as well as the offender's degree of responsibility and motivation for the crime. By assessing individual cases and focusing on rehabilitation, powerful and positive stories can emerge.

impact on pubic safety

the role of eduation

Prison can be a dark and dangerous place, but it can also lead to powerful stories of transformation and opportunity. When effort is made to educate and rehabilitate incarcerated individuals, it can change their lives, as well as the lives of those in their community.

importance of rehabilitation

A study by Emry University reveals a fascinating insight into recidivism rates that support this theory. Their findings on recidivism rates are as follows;

  • 55% of individuals who complete high school course 
  • 30% of individuals who take part in vocational training 
  • 13.7% of individuals who earn an associate degree 
  • 5.6% of individuals who earn a bachelor’s degree 
  • 0% of individuals who earn a master’s degree

Not only does education improve mental fortitude and increase skills, but it also provides an opportunity to build businesses and get a job upon release.

powerful stories of reformation

There are many people’s stories that add context to these statistics, and Stand Together shares a few of these stories.

One focuses on Sean Pica, who received a 24-year sentence while in the 9th grade. He enrolled in an organisation called Hudson Link and took college classes. After release, Sean continued his education and returned to lead Hudson Link as its Executive Director, and his work saves New York State taxpayers over $21 million per year.

Marilyn Barnes is a formerly incarcerated individual who uses education to empower others and break free from the cycle of recidivism. Having experienced two decades in and out of prison while struggling with drug addiction, Marilyn found an opportunity with the Root and Rebound’s Roadmap to Reentry guide. She earned her master’s degree, published her own book and founded a non-profit, proving that change is possible with support.

These are just a few of the (many) stories of redemption, reformation, and fulfilled potential. There are plenty more…