While there has been increased attention paid to the emotional, psychological and physical well-being of inmates in recent years, a sentence of imprisonment still means that an offender is relegated to a life isolated from the rest of society. Inmates are an insular minority vulnerable to oppression and discrimination, not only from the "outside" but from the strict rules and values of the inmate power structure and its own codes of silence and loyalty. Whether male or female, young or old, inmates have to adjust to an environment in which relationships (sexual or platonic) with the opposite sex are denied them. In penitentiaries for men especially, homosexual sex is often viewed as a commodity which must be forced, bought or traded; new inmates have to find their place in the sexual order by developing a sexual identity and establishing a reputation in the prison "sex pressure game," which is designed to determine who is weak or strong (Hopper, 1990). The emergence of prison gangs comprised of groups of inmates for group protection and power dominance has become yet another reality for the incarcerated offender. In United States penitentiaries in particular, the proliferation of prison gangs has reached crisis proportions. Many of these gangs have evolved to become organized crime syndicates involved in gambling, extortion, drug trafficking, prostitution and contract murder; and, where there is organized crime, violence prevails. For example, in Texas alone between 1979 and 1985, 62% of the 94 inmate murders recorded were committed by prison gangs. Overall, prison gangs also accounted for at least 50% of all problems and violence in United States penitentiaries (Fong & Buentello, 1990).


Until the 1980s, most studies and theories concerning the long term effects of incarceration were aimed at substantiating the belief that lengthy incarceration inevitably lead to a systematic physical, emotional and mental deterioration of the long term inmate. However, more recent studies have suggested that not only is this deterministic premise too simplistic, but that the methodology applied in many of the studies provided little in the way of substantiated, empirical facts. According to Bonta and Gendreau,

Studies on the effects of prison crowding, long-term imprisonment, short-term detention, solitary confinement, death row, and the health risks associated with imprisonment provide inconclusive evidence regarding "the pains of imprisonment." (1990, p. 75)

Cornerstone theories about the effects of imprisonment as deterioration, deprivation and prisonization have been challenged and found lacking in reliable evidence based on systematic observations of behaviour. Despite the inconclusiveness of the research findings, an exploration of the literature on the effects of long term incarceration gives us a great deal of insight into the prison experience. Understanding the impact of prolonged imprisonment is essential, as the vast majority of long term inmates will one day be released. It is therefore imperative that we address the potentially damaging aspects of incarceration in order to improve each offender's chance for rehabilitation, as the protection our communities hinges on treatment and reintegration of offenders.


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