Prison is not a place conducive to maintaining good mental health, whether in the United States or elsewhere. The Ministry of Justice in the United Kingdom has found that depression and suicide are major problems in that nation’s prison system. According to a University of Warwick report, citing a Ministry study, “49% of female and 23% of male prisoners were suffering from anxiety and depression, as opposed to 19% of women and 12% of men in the general UK population.”
These mental health conditions often arise as a result of little or no contact with family members and friends. The Ministry study indicated that 30% of prisoners who committed suicide had no contact with their families while incarcerated. A program called “Prisoners’ Penfriends” has stepped into the breach to counteract feelings of isolation and depression. Under the program, which is approved by HM Prison Service, trained volunteers whose identities are concealed for reasons of safety correspond with participating prisoners.
The project’s supervisor, University of Warwick professor Jacqueline Hodgson, stated, “The prisoner and volunteer accounts paint a rich picture of genuine relationships of care and trust between penfriends which demonstrate that even within the constraint necessary for the protection of volunteers, simple letter-writing relationships can lead to tangible benefits for both prisoners and volunteers.”
Based upon the Warwick report, “Prisoners who participate in the scheme are typically male, serving long or indeterminate sentences and many have little or no contact with anyone else outside prison. Typically they sign up ... for relief from isolation (whether friendship and support or simply contact with the outside world) or to get some distraction from prison life.” Both prisoners and the volunteers – most of whom are women over the age of fifty – are uniformly positive in their analysis of the program.
The benefits of Prisoners’ Penfriends are many, including relief from isolation, positive changes to self identity, distraction from the negative prison environment and “raised hopes for life beyond prison.” Also noted were the benefits of rehabilitation through interaction with people on the outside who are genuinely interested in the well-being and mental health of their correspondents.
Many prisoners commented on how they enjoyed being “believed in” and given a chance to see themselves as someone other than an incarcerated offender. Volunteers in the program expressed a profound feeling of satisfaction for having a helpful influence on prisoners’ lives through letter-writing.
The positive outcomes cited in the Prisoners’ Penfriends report could also benefit prisoners in the United States. Jails and prisons are regular stops for charitable and faith-based organizations, which provide a touch of the “outside world” to prisoners. It would be a small but welcome step for those and other groups to work with corrections officials to help prisoners maintain and improve their mental health through volunteer-based correspondence programs. Such programs would have an unquestionably positive impact in terms of motivating personal change and reducing recidivism.
Instead, however, prison officials in the U.S. often try to minimize contact between prisoners and the outside world – for example, by prohibiting offenders from soliciting pen pals or using pen pal services, as is the case in Florida, Indiana and Missouri (a similar policy is currently being considered in Texas). While security concerns are typically cited as reasons for such restrictions, the rehabilitative and mental health benefits of correspondence with people outside of prison are seldom discussed. At least three federal courts have upheld limitations on prisoners’ access to pen pal services. [See, e.g.: PLN, Aug. 2012, p.22; May 2012, p.24].
Sources: www.phys.org, www.prisonerspenfriends.org, www.firstamendmentcenter.orgdry run
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