Well-meaning policymakers sometimes suggest building “kinder, gentler” prisons that offer needed counseling — and indeed, one such project has recently been proposed for convicted women in Massachusetts — but in practice, prisons themselves are fundamentally in opposition with goals of supportive programming.

In fact, Professor Susan Sered, along with Erica Taft and Cherry Russell, have just published an extensive review of the research on the outcomes of existing, prison-based therapeutic treatments — particularly for women. They conclude that the value gained from prison-based trauma, mental health, and substance abuse interventions are far outweighed by the harms caused by incarceration. Instead, they argue, alternatives outside of prisons that provide trauma-informed support, alongside practical interventions such as housing assistance and health care, are far more beneficial than anything that can be offered in a prison setting.

Incarceration itself is retraumatizing and damaging to mental health. “Prisons are full of trauma-triggers,” Sered and her co-authors write, “such as unexpected noises, sounds of distress from other people, barked orders, pat-downs, strip searches, and looming threats of punishment for breaking any one of myriad rules.” Incarcerated women often experience new traumas and indignities, including the loss of their children and families, their bodily privacy, and their freedom of movement, time, and personal space. Meanwhile, “prison conditions including noise, crowding, lack of privacy, substandard diet, insufficient fresh air, harassment and ongoing threats of violence and punishment are further associated with negative health impacts.”

Even the most well-designed and decorated prison is still a prison, and inherently unconducive to trauma-informed therapeutic programs, where participants are encouraged to acknowledge their trauma and engage in practices that promote recovery and wellness. “Ideally, trauma-informed treatment should take place in a warm, welcoming and uncrowded space that provides room for a ‘time-out’ option. These conditions are difficult to meet in a prison context.”

Read the full article about therapy in prisons at Prison Policy Initiative.