top of page
Image by George Pagan III

Resources -> Stress

The Cycle Of Stress, Violence, and Mental Health in Jail

Jails and prisons are often characterized primarily by the fear, violence, and stress experienced in them. What if the very structure of a jail is contributing to this cycle? And what if the mental health effects of being in jail, the stress and worsening of mental health conditions, is causing some of the violence?


Research shows jails and prisons are extremely stressful environments.

(Moran and Turner 2019, Morin 2016, Wolff et al. 2007, Boxer, Middlemass, and Delorenzo 2009)

The methods of control used in prisons and jails often cause fear and more violence, not less

(Morin 2016)

Mental Health

High stress and exposure to violence makes preexisting mental health conditions worse - and the trauma from experiencing violence can cause new trauma and mental health problems

(Boxer et al. 2009)

  • Living in a highly stressful environment and witnessing violence causes ‘hypervigilance’ (always ‘on alert’ for threats)

    • Hypervigilance causes ‘mental fatigue’ (your brain gets so tired you become even more impulsive, afraid, and reactive) (Moran 2019)

  • Mental fatigue from hypervigilance causes long-term emotional distress, mental health problems, and antisocial behaviors (Boxer et al. 2009, Schappell et al. 2016)


High levels of stress and worsened mental health cause impulsivity, including reacting poorly out of fear. High stress is associated with higher levels of violence.

  • The rate of physical assault in jails and prisons is 18 times higher than in the general population for men; for women it is 27 times higher (Wolff et al. 2007)

  • The rates of victimization (being assaulted) in prisons and jails have been reported as high as 80% (Schappell et al. 2016)

  • The rate of physical assaults in jails and prisons didn’t change 1995-2000 (Boxer et al. 2009:795) – indicating what these facilities are doing about assaults isn’t working

What does it mean for reentry?

A large portion of the literature on reentry confirms that worsened mental health is a huge risk factor for recidivism and harms someone's chances of successfully re-entering the community.

There's not a lot of research on the effects of things that happen WHILE incarcerated on someone's adjustment after being released. However, research has shown that experiencing or witnessing violence as a youth is associated with anxiety, depression, PTSD, violent and non-violent anti-social behaviors, substance use and abuse, and antisocial belief systems, emotional dysregulation. It disrupts normal development and often leads to problems when they're older. 

(Boxer et al. 2009)


Emotionally, as discussed earlier, the violence, tension, and mental fatigue in incarceration all contribute to long-term harmful effects (Moran 2019) such as poor adjustment, antisocial behavior, aggressive behavior, depressive and anxious symptoms, and continued hypervigilance (like extreme anxiety, always being ready for a fight or to defend yourself).

(Boxer et al. 2009, Schappell et al. 2016)


Persistent fear of victimization -  the threat or possibility of violence is omnipresent, potentially leading to hypervigilance among inmates. Hypervigilance is key component of anxiety-related syndromes like anxiety disorders and PTSD.​

Encounters with violence during incarceration were significantly related to aggressive and antisocial behavioral tendencies as well as emotional distress.

The Literature Discussed Here:

Boxer, Paul, Keesha Middlemass, and Tahlia Delorenzo. 2009. “Exposure to Violent Crime during Incarceration: Effects on Psychological Adjustment Following Release.” Criminal Justice and Behavior 36 (8):793–807. doi:10.1177/0093854809336453.

Article Info - PDF of Article

The authors discuss how research on non-sexual forms of violence during incarceration is lacking, and even less attention is paid to the long-term effects of this violence. However, research has shown major negative effects of both the witnessing and the experience of violence outside of jails and prisons. So, the authors studied the impact of experiencing or witnessing violence while incarcerated on longterm psychological adjustment after being released from jail or prison.

The researchers recruited 124 men who had served time in state prison or county jail and had returned to the community. They were recruited through social service agencies and educational institutions that serve offenders re-entering the community. Most of the participants had returned to a very urban community in the Northeastern United States. Participants were interviewed with yes/no questions about their lifetime experiences as victims or witnesses to violent crimes. Then, the interviewers delivered several standard measures of psychological and social adjustment (assessing things like depression, anxiety, aggressive behavior, emotional distress, etc).


The researchers found that witnessing and/or being a victim of violence during incarceration were significantly related to emotional distress and aggressive and antisocial behaviors. Men who were both victims and witnesses of violence had the worst adjustment after being released from incarceration. This was not affected by how long they had been out in the community after release (meaning it currently does not get better over time), nor if they had committed violent crimes in the past (ie people with violent charges were affected at similar rates to people without violent charges). The researchers showed this impact on adjustment was definitely connected to violence occurring while incarcerated by controlling for the effects of violence outside of incarceration as well as several demographic factors that can also impact adjustment (like race/ethnicity, unemployment, and education level).


Wolff, Nancy, Cynthia L. Blitz, Jing Shi, Jane Siegel, and Ronet Bachman. 2007. “Physical Violence Inside Prisons: Rates of Victimization.” Criminal Justice and Behavior 34(5):588–599.

Article Info - PDF of Article


Morin, Karin. 2016. “The late-modern American jail: epistemologies of space and violence.” The Geographical Journal 182(1):38–48.

Article Info - PDF of Article

Schappell, Ashley, Meagan Docherty, and Paul Boxer. 2016. “Violence and Victimization during Incarceration: Relations to Psychosocial Adjustment during Reentry to the Community.” Violence and Victims 31 (2):361. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.VV-D-13-00188.

Article Info - Available for purchase here

bottom of page