In the Journals

In the Journals – Confinement and Mental Health

Cour des agitées by Amand Gautier via wikimedia
Welcome back to In the Journals! This ongoing series aims to bridge conversations that are often siloed by discipline, geographical region, language, and race. One of our goals is to make sure that the diverse voices currently reporting their research on policing, crime, law, security, and punishment are presented here. We are continuing our catch-up and also reaching back further to develop article collections around different questions and themes. This post brings together articles published throughout 2019 and one reaching back to 2014 looking at mental health in pathways leading to incarceration, in correctional facilities themselves, and in reentry following release from prison. Future posts will cover topics such as: defunding the police; abolishing the police; socialization in policing; and factors in producing discrimination by officers against people of colour.

In January 2019’s issue of the International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, an article entitled “Vulnerabilities, victimization, romance and indulgence: Thai women’s pathways to prison in Cambodia for international cross border trafficking” was published by Samantha Jeffries and Chontit Chuenurah. The article utilizes ten in-depth interviews with Thai women incarcerated in Cambodia for international cross-border drug trafficking, exercising a feminist pathways approach to understand women’s journeys into prison. Working in a largely under-researched area, Jeffries and Chuenurah identify that life experiences including personal mental illness, familial abuse and domestic violence, low education levels and limited employment opportunities have increased their vulnerability, and restrained their opportunities and choices. For many of the women interviewed, their histories and traumas resulted in increased vulnerability and susceptibility to exploitation, resulting in their knowing or unknowing drug trafficking through deception, coercion, force or threat, though some women willingly trafficked drugs for money or in order to travel. Categorizing their victimization or agency in trafficking, the authors identify four distinct pathways shaped by their lives and experienced traumas that led the women to prison: romantic susceptibility, domestic violence, criminogenic, and self-indulgent.

Looking at the mental well-being and social identity of undocumented immigrants detained in British Immigration Removal Centres, Blerina Kellezi, Mhairi Bowe, Juliet Wakefield, Niamh McNamara, and Mary Bosworth’s article “Understanding and coping with immigration detention: Social identity as cure and curse” was published in March 2019’s issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology. The authors interviewed 40 detainees to assess the intersection of social identity and struggle, with social identity serving as a social cure for some detained immigrants struggling with their loss of social networks, agency, and rights, and social identity serving as a social curse of burden and distress for others. Immigrants lived in the UK for an average of eight years in precarious situations as they waited for updates on their immigration status prior to detainment. Struggling with the loss of social networks and family, rights and legal status, as well as agency and control, some detainees sought existing identities and the support of available family and friends to cope with detention, and others found emerging identities within detention to cope with and make sense of their experiences. Amongst those seeking existing identities and family, some found support and validation within existing social identities, and some found those identities and social ties to be burdensome and not supportive in their experiences of detainment. Similarly, the adoption of emerging detainee identities was beneficial, supportive, and validating for some, but diminishing, bleak, and a reminder of trauma, struggle, and an uncertain future for others. In their analysis of the interviews, the authors conclude that the precarious nature of undocumented immigrants’ lives prior to detainment already contributed to poor mental health, stress, and suicidal tendencies, with detainment aggravating illness. Within detainment, existing and emerging social identities had both positive and negative impacts on mental health and well-being, and immigrants’ ability to cope with detainment.

The Journal of Sociology similarly published an article regarding immigrant detention, though “Crimmigration, imprisonment and racist violence: Narratives of people seeking asylum in Great Britain” explores the exacerbation of trauma through imprisonment for illegal immigration of asylum-seekers specifically, where the previous article included asylum seekers and immigrants who: overstayed their visa, had prison sentences, had problems with their passport, and entered illegally. Monish Bhatia’s article, published in the November 2019 issue, is the product of ethnographic research with asylum seekers in northern England over 18 months, as well as interviews with 22 asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, and six specialist practitioners. Bhatia focuses on racist violence against asylum seekers entrenched in UK social relations perceiving minority immigrant culture and national identity as a threat. The violence explored here manifests itself in the immigrant-perceived unfair use of criminal law to punish violations of immigration laws, and the social harm it inflicts on an already traumatized group of people seeking safety and asylum from violence elsewhere. Bhatia argues that imprisonment upon immigration serves to negatively impact already-fragile mental health, as asylum-seekers experience new trauma of racism and violence through and within imprisonment, finding a cage and lack of legal rights where they sought freedom.

The South African Journal of Psychology’s March 2019 issue included an article by Pieter Nieuwoudt and Jason Bantjes exploring the experiences of South African health professionals in correctional facilities with suicidal offenders. “Health professionals talk about the challenge of suicide prevention in two correctional centres in South Africa” sought to gather insight on factors contributing to suicidal behavior among incarcerated offenders, as well as areas and methods of improvement of mental health services in correctional facilities. The authors conducted interviews with ten health professionals from two correctional centres in Cape Town, with participants identifying the “unsafe, dangerous, stressful, and hopeless” environment of correctional facilities as heavily contributing to suicidal behaviour in offenders. Some of the factors that the health professionals identified as being linked with suicidal behaviour include pre-existing and often untreated mental health and drug use issues, violence, victimisation and gangsterism within the correctional facility, substance use within the correctional facility, overcrowding of the facility, and stigma associated with mental health issues. The authors discuss the identified factors as being systemic issues within the correctional facilities, and indicate that in order to improve mental health services and decrease suicidal behaviour, these systemic issues need to be addressed.

Critical Criminology’s December 2019 issue included the article “‘It’s Like Everyone’s Trying to Put Pills in You’: Pharmaceutical Violence and Harmful Mental Health Services Inside a California Juvenile Detention Center” by Jerry Flores and Kati Barahona-López. The article is based on two years of ethnographic research, interviews and focus groups in El Valle, a California juvenile detention center, and examines the prescription of psychotropic medications by mental health staff to incarcerated young Latina women. Perceived as hyper-dangerous within the criminal justice system, the interviews and ethnographic research indicate that young Latina women in El Valle were subject to pharmaceutical violence during diagnosis and (mis)treatment stage, which led to psychological harm and exacerbated existing mental health issues, and during the prescription of medication stage, in which the women were coerced and forced to take medication despite their resistance. The authors indicate that the women were incorrectly and haphazardly diagnosed and medicated, with doctors forcing a combination of psychotropic medications, antidepressants, and sleeping medications on incarcerated women. In bringing this research to the larger field of research in prisons, the authors identify pharmaceutical violence through mental health services as an emerging form of punishment in centers of confinement, and implicate legal statutes as justifying pharmaceutical violence – what the authors deem legal violence.

In January 2019’s issue of the American Journal of Criminal Justice, Dana DeHart and Aidyn Iachini published the article, “Mental Health & Trauma among Incarcerated Persons: Development of a Training Curriculum for Correctional Officers.” The authors conducted a study assessing the implementation and effectiveness of a three-part training curriculum for U.S. correctional officers on dealing with serious mental illness and trauma amongst prisoners. With high rates of people with mental illness in prisons, and the U.S. carceral system unable to adequately support the needs of those people and contributing to recidivisms, a training and education curriculum of some form for officers is a necessity. After developing the training curriculum alongside an institution for higher education, DeHart and Iachini conducted pilot testing and analyzed the results. They conclude that their curriculum had positive results amongst correctional officers partaking in pilot training, “enhancing officers’ attitudes, knowledge, and skills in responding to mental health issues of incarcerated persons.” As well, the curriculum is easily accessible, available for free online, and adaptable to specific trainers and officers’ needs.

In The Prison Journal’s May 2019 issue, Jason Williams, Sean Wilson, and Carrie Bergeson published an article looking at the lasting impacts of incarceration on Black males post-incarceration, “‘It’s Hard Out Here if You’re a Black Felon’: A Critical Examination of Black Male Reentry.” Through critical ethnographic accounts and interviews with nine formerly incarcerated Black males in the United States, the authors analyze their perceptions and lived experiences of reentry and its challenges. The challenges identified by the formerly-incarcerated males include criminal record stigma, othering and heightened discrimination which limit and hinder their successful societal reintegration by restricting their access to employment, housing, and social interaction, leading to difficulties in supporting their families and children, and issues with masculinity and self-identification. As the formerly incarcerated Black males indicated social relations, relationships with and providing for their children as necessary to maintaining their mental health and successful reintegration, challenges and an inability to succeed in these areas upon reentry serve to negatively impact their mental health, and often lead to substance abuse and recidivism.

Finally, an article published in September 2014 in Medical Anthropology Quarterly by Joseph Galanek, “Correctional Officers and the Incarcerated Mentally Ill: Responses to Psychiatric Illness in Prison,” analyzes correctional officers’ ability to use discretion when making decisions regarding inmates with mental illness. Using ethnographic fieldwork, as well as interviews with 23 staff and 20 inmates in the Pacific Northwest Penitentiary in the United States, Galanek indicates that correctional officers’ ability to form connections and relationships with mentally ill offenders, as well as their autonomy in being flexible with rules, allowed for positive impacts in inmate behaviour while ensuring the safety and security of the penitentiary. Relationships between officers and mentally ill inmates in the penitentiary rely on trust and respect, as well as insight gained through intensive interactions. This insight and trust allows officers to use their discretion in how they treat and punish inmates with mental illness, how they speak to inmates, and if they provide help requested by inmates. The use of discretion by officers in the author’s ethnographic accounts indicate an emerging institutional space for officer agency and discretion, as well as relationships and trust with inmates with mental illness, as maintaining the stability of inmates was critical to maintaining safety and security within the penitentiary.

As always, we welcome your feedback. If you have any suggestions for journals we should be keeping tabs on for this feature, or if you want to call our attention to a specific issue or article, send an email to with the words “In the Journals” in the subject line.

One thought on “In the Journals – Confinement and Mental Health

  1. Pingback: In the Journals – Conflict and Captivity | Anthropoliteia

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