Human Behavior in the Prison Environment: Adaptation as Survival

Marisa Singer


No different than any other context, incarcerated men and women have psychological responses to the environment in which they live. The physically and emotionally aggressive atmosphere of prison requires heightened protections for the ¡°Self.¡± The following topics will be examined in the context of survival responses to prison: 1) dependence and learned helplessness; 2) victimization, exploitation and hypermasculinity; 3) hypervigilance; 4) emotional over-control and social withdrawal; 5) isolation, loneliness and depression, and; 6) diminished sense of Self. This paper argues that it is necessary to shift perceptions away from seeing these psychological adaptations in prison as disturbances and instead realize that they are unique survival achievements towards the goal of maintaining one¡¯s mind, spirit, and body in prison.


The human experience of incarceration is intentionally hidden from society. Men and women are placed behind bars as a punishment for breaking the law and are removed from society for varying periods of time. We do not see them and they do not see us. This segregation relegates prisoners to a lower social status. They have lost the right to live freely. Under continuous supervision by authority figures, incarceration has tremendous implications for prisoners in how they interact with those authority figures and with one another (Haney, 2001). Incarceration often forces individuals to shed or suppress certain aspects of one¡¯s personality in order to fit this new living situation. Men and women who are incarcerated or who are free have psychological responses to the environments in which they live. What is unique about incarceration is that the physically and emotionally aggressive atmosphere of prison requires heightened protections for the psychic ¡°Self¡± (Winnicott, 1963).

There is scarce research in the U.S. that examines the relationship between the Self and the prison environment (Kupers, 2005). A number of studies were found that discuss generally agreed-upon psychic consequences of long-term incarceration. Hartmann (1936) writes that over time our primitive regulating functions are supplemented with more effective and nuanced ego regulations or adaptations. Prison requires that ego functions including reality-testing, judgment, and impulse control that were developed earlier in life be used to adjust behavior in order to fit a new environment. In prison, I would argue that prisoners are using a forward adaptation to revert backwards to primitive regulating factors of aggression. These are personalized ego adaptations for survival. Hartmann (1936) explains that ¡°adaptation disturbances may turn into adaptation achievements when appropriately elaborated¡± (p. 54). In prison, individuals are constantly seeking ways to ¡°achieve¡± adaptation in order to retain their physical and psychical existence.

This paper will explore how humans adapt and react to long-term prison life in the U.S., arguing that those very adaptations represent individual survival mechanisms. Such an argument could be seen as controversial and could be interpreted as a defense for violent, disruptive, or pathological behavior. When viewed within the context of human development, it is reasonable to assert that these psychological effects and adaptations are a means of existential survival (Haney, 2001).

Context of U.S. Incarceration Policy

High-level political decisions dictate someone¡¯s day-to-day experience in prison. Before examining life in prison it is imperative to present the political context in which prison life was created. In the U.S. from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s, the public sentiment was that a prison sentence should be a period for rehabilitation and an opportunity to reform problematic behavior (Haney, 2001). In order to create such an opportunity, prisons offered a wide variety of programs geared towards personal development. Activities that facilitated productive re-entry into society were readily available. Educational advancement was attained as prisoners studied for vocational, bachelor¡¯s, and master¡¯s degrees while incarcerated. Corporal punishment was discouraged and there were heightened protections against cruelty towards prisoners. In short, men and women could change their lives for the better while incarcerated.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, incarceration rates in the U.S. increased exponentially and the number of incarcerated individuals quadrupled (Haney, 2001). In 1972 there were 330,000 people incarcerated in the U.S., compared to nearly 2.3 million people in 2008 (Jordan- Simpson, 2011). Today the U.S. maintains the highest incarceration rate in the world (Kupers, 2005). Despite a massive increase in incarcerated individuals, the U.S. did not allocate a relative increase in funding to accommodate for this change. Prisons became grossly overcrowded and even more punitive in nature to control the increasing numbers of prisoners (Haney, 2001).

Beginning in the mid-1990s a drastic shift in incarceration philosophy emerged. The U.S. moved away from rehabilitation and towards a policy of punitive containment. A movement in the direction of social conservatism dictated that prison should become a place where wrongdoers were made to pay for their crimes (Haney, 2001). Funding was pulled from most prison programs. This philosophy has remained to date.

Mental Illness and Substance Use or Abuse Among Prisoners

In examining how a person experiences incarceration, it is essential to discuss the overrepresentation of mental illness and substance use or abuse among prisoners prior to becoming incarcerated. It is also estimated that nearly twenty percent of prisoners suffer from some type of mental illness (Kupers, 2005). For many, incarceration does not deter recidivism because their mental illness is the reason why they committed crimes. It is also common for persons who struggle with mental illnesses to self- medicate by using drugs. In fact, a disproportionate number of prisoners are convicted for drug-related offenses and not for violent acts. Seventy-five percent of men entering prison have not been convicted of a violent crime (Haney, 2001). It is essential to understand the co- occurrence of mental illness and substance abuse among prisoners when considering the psychological implications of a prison environment. These individuals have a pre-existing psychic vulnerability due to illness and addiction. This vulnerability is often exacerbated once behind bars because of the aggressive, authoritative atmosphere of the prison environment and associated lack of adequate mental health treatment.


The shift in both incarceration policy and rates, as well as the propensity for mental illness and substance use or abuse among prisoners, lays the groundwork for exploring how individuals adapt to long-term prison stays. Overcrowding in prisons, drastically reduced funding for programming, prisoner idleness, more punitive disciplinary measures, and high rates of mental illness and substance use or abuse among prisoners. These elements contribute to what Haney (2001) describes as ¡°prisonization.¡± This process describes how the human psyche adapts to the external demands of being incarcerated. I will examine the following topics in the context of survival responses to prison: 1) dependence and learned helplessness; 2) victimization, exploitation and hypermasculinity; 3) hypervigilance; 4) emotional over-control and social withdrawal; 5) isolation, loneliness and depression and; 6) diminished sense of Self.

Dependence and Learned Helplessness

An immediate consequence of incarceration is the loss of personal control over daily decisions (Haney, 2001). Prisoners live in a world of rules, regulations, limits, and boundaries. Prisoners lose the right to make choices such as what to wear and when to eat, sleep, and use the telephone. As a result, prisoners must constantly exercise great constraint, muting their own self-initiative in order to conform to the infinite mandated decisions of prison life. In connection to this, Schill and Marcus (1998) discuss the theory of learned helplessness and its prevalence among prisoners. They argue that prolonged exposure to uncontrollable aversive experiences such as incarceration leads to a decrease in motivational, cognitive, and behavioral functioning. Consequently, individuals learn to rely on others to dictate their daily functions. In a study of 60 male adult inmates in Texas, men who had spent over five years in prison had developed a ¡°helpless attributional style,¡± becoming compliant and disinterested in making personal decisions (Schill & Marcus, 1998). Similarly, Schill and Marcus (1998) showed that prisoners exhibit a learned helplessness that is consistent with those who undergo long term hospitalization or institutionalization.

In contrast, Herman (1997) refutes learned helplessness theory when exploring the topics of violence and captivity. She asserts that individuals do not learn to be helpless but rather choose to place their independent self in temporary hibernation for reasons of survival (Herman, 1997). I would propose that the reality for long- term prisoners lies somewhere between the arguments of Schill and Marcus (1998) and Herman (1997). A prisoner who continually resists the constricted decision-making power that is inherent in being a prisoner is continually frustrated. It seems a prisoner makes the inevitable and wise adaptation to give up control over daily decisions. Simultaneously, it would seem that if someone entered prison with a history of independence and self-reliance that these skills would not dissipate but instead be temporarily suspended. If someone had a limited history of independent decision-making, I would argue that over a protracted period of time those skills and the desire for those skills could genuinely atrophy or fail to re-emerge altogether.

In Hartmann¡¯s (1936) discussion of human development, differentiation, and adaptation, he states that ¡°processes of adaptation are, first of all, purposive only for a certain range of environmental situations; moreover, they involve internal self-limiting factors¡± (p. 54). By silencing the need to make autonomous decisions, prisoners are not becoming robots; they are exercising self-preservation. The self-limitation of taking on a ¡°helpless attributional style¡± (Schill & Marcus, 1998) is extremely purposive in prison, as it helps someone simply move through the day without a constant reminder of his or her powerlessness. Within Hartmann¡¯s (1936) ego psychology, the ego defense of helplessness would reflect a reciprocal cause and effect relationship with the prison environment.

Victimization, Exploitation and Hypermasculinity

Within the context of a prison environment where little or no programming exists, incarcerated individuals are often unable to immerse themselves in meaningful and productive activities. Prisoners no longer feel purposeful and that can lead to a diminished sense of Self over time (Haney, 2001). Inmates often utilize hypermasculinity to victimize and exploit others in order to validate themselves and to gain control over something in their environment (Haney, 2001). Hypermasculine prisoners affirm their existence by dominating others who are equally vulnerable.

Kupers (2005) discusses the notion of ¡°toxic masculinity¡± in prison as a combination of domination, wanton violence, and a non-display of emotion. This type of masculinity manifests itself in a tough-guy posture, outbursts of temper, and poor impulse control. Despite the fact that the majority of prisoners are incarcerated for non- violent crimes, Kupers¡¯ (2005) study of several hundred prisoners in 15 states showed that ¡°… even men who were not especially aggressive and misogynistic when they entered prison confide(d) that they believe they must become versed in hypermasculine posturing and violence merely to stay alive and protect their honor¡± (p. 717). To counteract the anonymity and powerlessness of prison, this posturing shows the outside world that one¡¯s existence is seen and felt by others. I argue that this serves as an emotional survival mechanism.

In his discussion of group formation and exclusion, Laing (1967) states that ¡°…we obey and defend beings that exist only insofar as we continue to invent and to perpetuate them. … This human scene is a scene of mirages, demonic pseudo-realities, because everyone believes everyone else believes them¡± (p. 78). The fabrication of new hierarchies and rules systems by inmates for other inmates is a way for prisoners to reclaim their identity. A powerful example of this exists at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), a facility for men from 16 to 18 years of age who are incarcerated on Rikers Island (Gray, 2011). The situation illustrates a prison administrator¡¯s comment that ¡°prison is a barely controlled jungle where the aggressive and the strong will exploit the weak, and the weak are dreadfully aware of it¡± (Haney, 2001, p. 6). In collusion with correction officers, inmates at RNDC created a complex chain of command to rule over, victimize, and exploit weaker inmates. Some examples were routine beatings, public shamings, withholding food from inmates who did not abide by the ¡°bosses¡±, and disallowing prisoners from sitting in chairs and using the telephone to call family (Gray, 2011).

Viewed through the lens of object relations theory, wherein the primary motivator for human behavior is the formation and maintenance of human relationships (Mitchell & Black, 1995), this victimization of others in prison could be seen as object-seeking behavior. The context of these relationships is critical to the nature of their formation. Prisoners are subject to dominance, hierarchy, and anonymity. Personal relationships can only be formed with correction officers or other inmates. Prisoners would capitalize on their only opportunity to feel real, powerful, and independent when living in a prison environment. Becoming a victimizer signifies that someone is being victimized, which means that someone is responding to you and that you have formed a relationship with that person. While this may not be a ¡°healthy¡± relationship, it is a functional one. Each individual¡¯s existence is not in question and a connection has been formed and maintained.

The drastic nature of an exploitative connection removes any doubt in the victimizer¡¯s mind that this particular object relationship is a figment of his or her imagination. Grounding themselves in this certainty, victimizers convert the dysfunction of object relatedness in prison to self-satisfying functionality.

In her book Trauma and Recovery, Herman (1997) explores the topics of captivity and violence. She pays particular attention to the bond between perpetrator and victim, stating that ¡°in situations of captivity, the perpetrator becomes the most powerful person in the life of the victim,¡± while ¡°… methods of psychological control are designed to instill terror and helplessness and to destroy the victim¡¯s sense of self in relation to others¡± (Herman, 1997, p. 75-77). In prison both victimization and the threat of victimization by correction officers and between inmates become powerful agents of coercive control. A culture of fear and submission is created through the destruction of individual autonomy. Hence, prison is a place where object relations are extremely skewed since the entire system is designed to denigrate the Self. Inmates respond creatively to this by victimizing others and creating informal rule systems that subvert damaging relations and invent new ones.

Hypervigilance and Emotional Over-Control

As prisoners are locked in a dangerous place where both physical and psychical threats exist around every corner, individuals become hypervigilant for their own safety. All decisions become dominated by fear. Inmates begin to self- monitor what they say and where they congregate, calculating each and every action with a potential reaction. In a Tennessee prison study, 40% of prisoners reported that they continually avoided ¡°high risk areas¡± out of fear they would be victimized (Kupers, 2005). A ¡°trust no one¡± attitude emerges as a survival response (Kupers, 2005) and eventually social interaction among prisoners is no longer authentic. Haney (2001) discusses the ¡°prison mask¡± of social invisibility that allows inmates to control all emotional responses and to create a fa?ade of emotional flatness.

In prison, the objective of developing this prison mask could be compared to Winnicott¡¯s (1963) description of the ¡°False Self,¡± whose ¡°… defensive function is to hide and protect the ¡®True Self¡¯¡± (p. 142). The True Self could be viewed as the most authentic and instinctual impulses of the Self¡¯s identity. As more time passes in prison, inmates become more adept at retaining a False Self as a protective measure to avoid harm to their True Self. This False Self can be either emotionally flat or overly aggressive. Prisoners develop these defenses because of the way inmates and correction officers relate to them. This transformation of Self also connects to Sullivan¡¯s discussion of human development, whereby individuals conform their behavior in order to fit into the interpersonal environment in which they exist (Mitchell & Black, 1995). Sullivan asserts that interpersonal interactions dictate the way that we present ourselves, and this presentation is always in service of avoiding short- term anxiety (Mitchell & Black, 1995). By becoming hypervigilant and overly-controlling of their emotions, prisoners are molding their human behavior to become compatible with the violent, aggressive, and emotionless world behind bars. They change themselves in order to manage their prison experience since they cannot change their environment.

However, these reprieves from anxiety are temporary in nature. Sullivan (Mitchell & Black, 1995) might argue that the energy spent to constantly adjust their behavior likely leaves prisoners to suffer from long-term feelings of unease. These conscious choices to shut down or act up seem an essential way for prisoners to protect their True Selves while also staying physically safe. Because protection of Self in mind and body are arguably the two primary goals of human existence, prisoners are simply reaching towards a basic human goal through hypervigilance and emotional control.

Isolation, Loneliness and Depression

Prisoners who retreat into social withdrawal for their own protection begin to feel lonely and isolated. In a discussion of coping with loneliness in prison, Rokach and Cripps (1998) compared incarcerated males with men in the general population. They found that men in the general population utilize reflection and acceptance as the most productive method for easing loneliness. In contrast, incarcerated men reported that this same coping mechanism was ¡°less beneficial¡± (Rokach & Cripps, 1998). Without using substantive data, the authors cited high rates of antisocial personality disorder among offenders as the reason why they did not turn to reflection and acceptance (Rokach & Cripps, 1998). I would assert that prison does not provide a safe holding environment (Winnicott, 1963) in which to delve into the root causes of one¡¯s loneliness. Someone who feels alone should be able to profoundly reflect on feelings of loneliness and to allow others to support or even guide his or her process. A prison setting is a place where people are eager to prey on any sign of open and honest connection. It would seem that profound reflection on one’s loneliness would actually be an unwise coping mechanism while incarcerated.

The combined impact of solitude, the emotional inauthenticity of prison life, and the separation from loved ones often leads to depression among incarcerated individuals (Ashkar & Kenny, 2008). There are few social or proactive activities with which prisoners can involve themselves. Askhar and Kenny (2008) describe social isolation and prolonged sleep, which are often traits of depression, as passive coping strategies for the young offenders they studied in Australia. Inmates survive the monotony of prison by retreating to their cells to listen to the radio or to sleep. In exploring conformist psychology, Jacoby (1975) states that ¡°personal insecurity is a direct response to collective repression¡± (p. 48). In such an inherently repressive situation, I would argue that emotional insecurity and its consequent depression are entirely reasonable responses.

Diminished Sense of Self-Worth

Long-term prisoners often internalize the constant dehumanization that they experience behind bars. This commonly leads to a diminished sense of self-worth. Inmates live in a 60-foot cell, wear uniform jumpsuits, and are known as a number rather than a name. Someone tells them when to sleep or eat. They are routinely degraded as they go through the day. These aspects of their life remind them of their lower social status and stigmatized social role.

Over time these internalizations can bring a prisoner to self-identify as a ¡°bad¡± person. In Mahler¡¯s (1979) exploration of the psychological birth of an individual, she discusses the moment when infants realize they have a separate identity than their caretaker by saying ¡°it is not a sense of who I am but that I am¡± (p. 8). It could be argued that long-term prisoners begin to feel a sense of disappearance into non-existence; they no longer are. This could actually be a protection against constantly hoping to have your individual existence affirmed only to be met with repeated degradation of your Self. A prisoner may slip into a sense of being a lesser human in order to save himself or herself from a more acute existential crisis. Accepting a diminished status is the only way to eventually regain one¡¯s self-worth later.


In discussing the prisonization of the Self, Haney (2001) states that ¡°these are natural and normal adaptations to the unnatural and abnormal conditions of prisoner life¡± (p. 10). Of the varying human development theories, this assertion truly exemplifies ego psychology. Ego psychology asserts that individuals internalize environmental challenges along the life course and create adaptive ego functions and defenses to manage that environment. It is necessary to see psychological adaptations in prison not as disturbances but as unique survival achievements towards the goal of maintaining one¡¯s mind, spirit, and body.


Ashkar, P., & Kenny, D. (2008). Views from the inside: Young offenders¡¯ subjective experiences of incarceration. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 52(5), 584-597.

Gawande, A. (2009, March 30). Hell hole. New Yorker, 85(7), 36-45.

Gray, G. (2011, February 7). The lord of Rikers. New York, 44(4), 16-21.

Haney, C. (2001). The psychological impact of incarceration: Implications for post-prison adjustment. Retrieved from hsp/prison2home02/Haney.htm.

Hartmann, H. (1936). Ego psychology and the problem of adaptation. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Jacoby, R. (1975). Social amnesia. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Jordan-Simpson, E. (2011, January 29). Removing the bars. Paper presented at the 2011 Removing the Bars Skills-Based Conference on Criminal Justice, Columbia University, NY.

Kupers, T. (2005). Toxic masculinity as a barrier to mental health treatment in prison. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61, 713-724.

Laing, R. D. (1967). The politics of experience. New York: Random House.

Mahler, M. (1979). The psychological birth of the human infant. New York: Basic Books.

Mitchell, S. A., & Black, M. A. (1995). Freud and beyond: A history of modern psychoanalytic thought. New York: Basic Books.

Rokach, A., & Cripps, E. (1998). Coping with loneliness in prison. Psychological Studies, 43(1& 2), 49-57.

Schill, R. A., & Marcus, D. (1998). Incarceration and learned helplessness. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 42(3), 224-232.

Winnicott, D. W. (1963). The maturational processes and the facilitating environment: Studies in the theories of emotional development. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Zosky, D. (1999). The application of object relations theory to domestic violence. Clinical Social Work Journal, 27(1), 55-69.


About the Author

Marisa Singer is from the Bay Area of California. She moved to New York in 2006 to take a job managing international humanitarian assistance programs for refugees. Prior to that, Marisa worked in California as a legal representative for Latino immigrant families who were immigrating family members to the U.S. As a second year social work graduate student, Marisa is studying Clinical Practice with Individuals and Families at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. She looks forward to using her social work degree to continue working with immigrant and refugee communities. Marisa can be reached

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