When people commit crimes, it is common in our society that they be sent to prison. Throughout history, prison has been a constant and reliable punishment for those who break the law. However, the question of crime and punishment far exceeds the confinements of any jail; although those who break the law deserve to undergo some type of punishment, and jail is by far one of the most humane types of punishment in our history, it is not without its repercussions.

Punishment for crimes serves to prevent people from committing crimes in the first place, as well as to prevent repeat offenses. However, many argue that rehabilitation is a better option, either to be used instead of or with incarceration. Sadly, rehabilitation is astonishingly lacking, leaving people unprepared to re-enter society and increasing the chances that they end up back in prison — or worse.

The Effects of “Prisonization”

Since the current criminal system does little to ensure that ex-inmates will be able to rejoin society, it has major and lasting repercussions. Even basic human interactions become difficult after spending time in prison. The BBC reported on these effects, also called “prisonization.”

The effects of prisonization can be temporary, but some are whole-scale personal transformations. According to the report, many times, these changes include not being able to trust others, becoming emotionally numb, concealing and suppressing your emotions, becoming cold and detached, self-isolating, emotionally withdrawn, and more.

The report also found there to be some hope and positive effects of inmate’s time in prison. According to surveys, which were reported to be unbiased, they found that “while the prisoners scored lower on extraversion, openness, and agreeableness, as you might expect, they actually scored higher on conscientiousness, especially the ‘sub-traits’ of orderliness and self-discipline.” These findings support a positive personality adjustment.

Mental Health is Key

Despite any positive benefits that might be developed on an inmate’s personality in prison, the negative consequences are critical to consider. Many of the above-mentioned changes associated with time in prison are also signs of mental illnesses such as depression; for many, prison creates trauma in the mind. For example, feeling emotionally numb, being cold, detached, and emotionally withdrawn are typical indicators of depression.

It is no surprise, then, that when freed from prison, many people aren’t capable of re-entering society in a healthy way. This also greatly increases the odds that an ex-prisoner will self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, and consequently acquire an addiction. In fact, mental health and substance abuse experts have found the following correlations with trauma exposure and substance abuse:

Environmental factors also to play a role in mental illness and substance use development. For example, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reported that more than 70% of adolescents receiving substance abuse treatment indicated a history of trauma exposure. Trauma exposure varies, but it can include neglect, family conflict, difficulties in school or friendships, bullying, poverty or medical illness.

Not only is it dangerous to abuse drugs and alcohol, but it can also land a liberated ex-inmate back in jail. For this reason, it is imperative that mental health professionals work together to provide adequate care — whether it is rehabilitation, therapy/counseling, or a combination, to ensure that ex-prisoners are able to rejoin society successfully.

Finding Normalcy

Fortunately, the medical world is recently focused on increasing its efforts where mental health is concerned. It is no surprise that mental health challenges affect a myriad of factors in everyday life, and often increase the chances that a person will go to jail in the first place. Medical programs at universities across the U.S. are focusing on behavioral health in their curriculum, a revolutionary asset for the well being of citizens across the country.

Such development in the medical world can help those trying to regain control of their lives after getting out of prison. The psychological effects incurred will take time to overcome, but with hard work and the right treatment, it can be done. Besides seeking professional help from a psychologist or therapist, ex-inmates can do other things to get back on the path to a regular life.

The first matter at hand is to look into sealing or expunging their criminal record. Of course, not all records may be expunged, and laws will differ according to each state. If they can get their record expunged, however, it can make doing regular — and important — tasks a lot easier, such as getting a job, getting housing, being able to pursue further education, among other things.

Going to prison doesn’t indicate the end of your life. In the best cases, it can simply indicate the need to live your life differently. With reformation in healthcare, and also in the prison system itself, we, as a society, can design a better system — one that encourages re-entering society and offers ex-inmates a second chance and a fulfilled life.