How inmates deal with the stress of prison life can influence their future behaviors, according to new research by a Georgia State University criminologist Timothy Brezina and colleagues.
“While some inmates manage this stress quite well, for others the experience of prison may help to fuel more crime and violence,” he said.
In “Adapting to Prison Life,” Brezina and his colleagues Lindsay Leban, Stephanie M. Cardwell and Heith Copes examined the behaviors of prisoners based on the General Strain Theory. This theory draws a connection between an individual and their experience of adversity or negative treatment, known in criminology as “strain,” and their criminal or delinquent behavior.
“Prior studies have found that exposure to strain is a risk factor for crime, delinquency and drug use,” said Brezina, a professor in Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. Strains most closely associated with crime are severe, frequent, long-lasting or central to the goals or values of the individual, such as homelessness or violent victimization. These strains increase the likelihood that the individual will experience negative emotions such as anger, depression, resentment or anxiety.
“We focused on prison inmates because they tend to experience a lot of strain behind prison walls, especially conflict with other inmates,” Brezina said.
The study examined the different ways male prisoners responded to theft, violations of space, physical assault and having their honor insulted. The researchers found:
- 77percent relied on behavioral coping mechanisms that included physical retaliation, escape, or seeking help from a third party
- 73 percent stated that they believed it was necessary to respond to problems using violence or threats of violence
- A select few chose cognitive coping, simply “escaping,” or walking away from the situation
- Others chose to engage someone of authority
While behavioral coping focuses on the source of the strain, cognitive coping is directed internally. Inmates who use cognitive coping minimize the importance of the strain or ignore it.
“Bruce” demonstrated this coping mechanism when his personal property was stolen. He did not engage anyone, but chose to ignore and minimize the situation, directing his focus on getting out of prison to be with his family.
Although inmates responded to situations in ways they found most effective, the researchers found a trend that linked experience and maturity to more effective coping mechanisms.
“Inmates who had spent longer periods of time in prison, and who became very familiar with the strains of prison life, learned how to respond to strain more effectively over time,” said Brezina. Through trial and error, these experienced prisoners were more likely to develop mature and healthy coping strategies.
The research suggests a policy response. “Evidence indicates that mentoring is effective for at-risk youth and adult offenders coming out of jail or prison,” he said. “We can’t give strained or at-risk individuals more life experience, but we can provide them access to older, more experienced mentors.”
While mentorships will not eliminate crime, mentors can help immature individuals develop the tools they need to handle life’s stressors and strains.