What do you mean institutionalised? Part 2

It can be difficult adapting to the prison environment, but it can be equally difficult readjusting to the home environment.

A compelling description of institutionalisation comes from a report published in 1971: 

Imprisonment . . . denies autonomy, degrades dignity, impairs or destroys self-reliance, inculcates authoritarian values, minimizes the likelihood of beneficial interaction with one’s peers, fractures family ties, destroys the family’s economic stability, and prejudices the prisoner’s future prospects for any improvement in … economic and social status. 

(AFSC, 33) 

Slave to routine.

From day one of their sentence prisoners lose their freedom and autonomy to make decisions for themselves. Prisoners become increasingly dependent on the prison life they once feared and resisted. It may even become second nature to lose control over day-to-day decisions. Prisoners can get so accustomed to the prison making their choices and decisions for them and become reliant on the prison to provide their daily routine. 

David’s routine is as close as it gets to the prison regime. He still begins his day at 4am, the quietest time of the day in prison before everyone else wakes up. I have been told the same so many times by so many people who have been to prison that I can’t help picture 73% of the landing tip-toeing around their ‘pads’ in complete silence.

Ssshhhhh! Everyone’s sleeping!

David is uncomfortable with any deviation from his routine. Especially meal times. I’m very slap-dash when it comes to mealtimes. I don’t plan meals. I eat what I fancy on that day, when I fancy eating it. Or, I used to!

Breakfast is served at 7am. Lunch is served at 12pm. Dinner is served at 6pm

I don’t really watch tv until the evening. David’s viewing starts at 4pm, when he watches a selection of programmes on antiques, boot sales, bargains, repairs and restoration. (Anyone else see the link to reform and rehabilitation?)

I prefer to watch TV when the soaps start around 7.30, unfortunately David likes to keep to his prison bedtime of 8pm. We have often discussed how we can be more flexible with his routine so it works for both of us.

We finally agreed a compromise … I too follow his routine now.

Institutionalised prisoners may become unable to adjust when their freedom and autonomy is returned. This is particularly true of those who return to society without a network of close personal contacts who know them well enough to sense that something may be wrong and additional support is needed. Those who are severely institutionalised struggle with challenge or conflicts, especially unexpected events. The myriad of challenges may become overwhelming. The facade of normality begins to deteriorate, resulting in dysfunctional and destructive behaviour because the prison regime and support have been taken away from them.

‘David, we can’t continue this way. You were released from prison more than three years ago.’

Reaction to authority

In addition to the formal rules of prison (PSIs & PSOs), there are many unwritten rules and the prisoner culture and code that must be adhered to. Prisons can be dangerous places from which there is no exit or escape. Prisoners learn quickly to become hyper-vigilant and ever-alert for signs of threat or personal risk.

This can be seen in David’s reaction to authority. My limited experience of the Police has always been positive and I have always found them to be helpful and friendly.

“If you want to know the time, ask a Policeman”.

David’s experience of the Police could not be any more different. We recently came out of the train station to see two Policemen waiting by the ticket barrier. David’s body language completely changed, and I knew he was nervous. He’s the same when he sees a police car and I have to remind him that he hasn’t broken the law in the last few years and has no reason to be worried. He can spot undercover police walking down the street or driving a car from 50 metres.


He says there is a very specific way that Police knock on the door. Unfortunately, it would appear that Amazon use the same knock. When he hears it David immediately leaps up as if preparing to do a runner, scanning the room for anything that needs to be concealed. It takes a few seconds for him to remember that he has nothing to hide or worry about. I suppose it’s just habit.

I can assure you there is nothing to “plug up” in our house! 

Social interaction

Some of those in prison learn to develop an impenetrable “prison mask” promoting alienation from themselves and others, leading to debilitation in social interaction and relationships, often resulting in a permanent and unbridgeable distance between themselves and other people. The alienation and social distancing from others is a defence not only against exploitation but also against the lack of interpersonal control in the immediate prison environment that makes emotional investments in relationships risky and unpredictable. Indeed, as one prison researcher put it, “unless a prisoner can convincingly project an image that conveys the potential for violence, he is likely to be dominated and exploited throughout the duration of his sentence.”

Of course, embracing these values too fully can create enormous barriers to meaningful interpersonal contact after prison, preclude seeking appropriate help for one’s problems, and a general unwillingness to trust others out of fear of exploitation.

David can find it difficult to trust others and can be suspicious of their intentions. Any gesture of kindness and support and he will immediately question “what’s the trade?”

Darling! I’ve told you that’s covered when we pay our Council Tax. You don’t have to do a trade with the bin men!

There is so much more I would like to say about the whole subject of institutionalisation so next time I’m going to interview David on his own podcast! Exciting!!

A long caged bird once freed will sometimes fly back to the familiarity of its cage!

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