What is the psychological impact of prison?

Prison changes people by altering their spatial, temporal, and bodily dimensions; weakening their emotional life; and undermining their identity. What psychological impact does prison have? Does it cause mental disorders? What relationships do inmates have with their environments and themselves? These questions and many others are the focus of a doctoral thesis and new book by Jérôme Englebert, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the University of Liège.

COVER Psychopathologie homme prison"Humans become aware of themselves in boundary situations." So wrote Karl Jaspers, a German psychiatrist and philosopher, in a monumental work called General Psychopathology, published in 1913. Jean-Paul Sartre also refers to the notion of humans in a situation in several of his books, particularly Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, published in 1939.

According to Jérôme Englebert, a clinical psychologist at the Paifve Social Forensic Centre (EDS - a psychiatric prison) and a lecturer at the University of Liège (Department of Psychology and Clinics of Human Systems), it is important to distinguish between the paradigm of "human beings in the laboratory" and that of "human beings in a situation". The first case is useful for studying isolated variables such as short-term memory or visual-spatial attention. But any reflection on clinical psychology and psychopathology requires considering the individual as a whole and as a unique being; in other words, humans must be studied in a particular situation, without removing the variables which define them or their environment.

Incarceration may undoubtedly be considered one of the boundary situations that Karl Jaspers was referring to. Jérôme Englebert therefore chose the context of prisons and social protection to examine fundamental psychological difficulties and psychopathology. His work was the subject of his doctoral thesis(1) and a new book published by Éditions Hermann (Paris): Psychopathologie de l'Homme en Situation: Le Corps du Détenu dans l'Univers Carcéral(2).

According to the psychologist from Liège, different existential coordinates must be taken into account whenever we study human beings. The main ones relate to space, time, and the body, as well as identity and emotion. Along with Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, he believes that the most fundamental issue affecting prisoners is the incarceration of the body. "When we imprison the body, we alter its relationship to space and time," says Jérôme Englebert. "Every inmate has a biased perception of space, time, and his/her own body. His/her imaginary world, psyche, and identity are all affected."

For inmates, there are two time lines that move at different speeds. The first is tied to their daily routine and is extremely repetitive. Prisoners cannot choose when to eat, bathe, sleep, or awaken - their section leader makes those decisions. The second time line relates to the external world, with which the prisoner is completely out of sync.   "I can recall inmates who weren’t aware of the euro or GSM when they were released from prison," says Jérôme Englebert. "This obviously raises the issue of the desocialisation of incarceration."

(1) Jérôme Englebert, Le corps du détenu : études psychopathologique de l'homme en situation, 2012.
(2) Jérôme Englebert, Psychopathologie de l'homme en situation. Le corps du détenus dans l'univers carcéral, Éditions Hermann (Paris), 2013.

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