Psychology and the Penal System


In this article, I intend to look back and draw contrasts between the current situation of Irish prisons and what prevailed when I joined the prison service, as one of the group of four psychologists, newly employed in 1980.

Although the prison system in 1980 was under considerable strain and was preoccupied with the handling of paramilitary prisoners, who at that time comprised a substantial proportion of the prison population, this was actually a period of relative calm before the storms that were subsequently to shake the system and threaten to overwhelm it. It was also, in stark contrast to today, a period of intense, sustained public interest and concern regarding conditions in prison. From the late 1970s, several highly critical reports were published by the churches, trade unions, and groups of concerned citizens. Then, in 1985 the Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System (the Whitaker Committee), the state’s only major official enquiry into the penal system, published its report.1

However, what was to follow would dramatically change Irish prisons and alter the face of psychology in the prisons. I am referring in particular to the seismic changes begun by the disastrous heroin epidemic of the early 1980s and by the official ‘discovery’ of child sex abuse. The concentration of AIDS cases within the prison population and the growth of a violent drugs gang culture – now pervasive throughout Ireland but endemic in Irish prisons since the mid-1980s – were transformative. The criminal drugs culture in particular changed prisons beyond recognition and still poses immense challenges. A challenge of a different kind was the growing awareness of sex crime and the gradual strengthening of the collective will to prosecute and punish sex offenders. This eventually led to the imprisonment of many offenders from the respectable and privileged classes, including priests, religious brothers, and teachers.

Due to these changes but also because of the progressive closure of large mental hospitals and the failure to properly resource the community mental health movement (following the change in policy initiated by Planning for the Future in 19842) the task facing mental health professionals in the prisons gradually became truly enormous. In 2003, Human Rights Watch estimated that in the USA there were three times as many people with serious mental illness in prisons as in mental hospitals. Harry Kennedy, head of the Irish forensic psychiatric service who has carried out a major study of the prevalence of mental illness in the Irish prison system,3 has written:

It is now more difficult to provide treatment to those who because of paranoia and lack of mental capacity are unable to understand their own health needs. Prisons increasingly act as psychiatric A&E trolleys for such disabled citizens, mainly young men with schizophrenia.4

If you broaden the definition of mental illness to include serious forms of mental ill-health such as phobias, personality disorders, paedophilic disorder, suicidal tendencies, anger control issues, and in addition take account of addiction problems and learning disorders, the enormity of the mental health needs of the prison population is very obvious. While the psychology service has grown over the last three decades, it is still inevitably and massively under-resourced.

In reality, the mental health issues of prisoners represent an utterly intractable problem. It is the kind of impossibly big problem that excuses us from really trying. Our penal system concentrates thousands of troubling and troublesome people, afflicted with multiple social, psychological, and emotional problems, into a handful of carceral institutions which are utterly unsuited to dealing with them – and then expects them to come out to lead law-abiding lives. It should be obvious that radically different approaches are required.

Psychology, Psychologists and Prisons

I would like to focus not on the specific challenges facing prison psychologists, but rather on why psychology as a profession should be more engaged with the prisons and also on some broader insights that psychology and particularly social psychology can offer us into the reality of prison and into how our penal system might be improved by radically different approaches.

Since I will be criticising the prison system in trenchant terms, I should first acknowledge the significant contribution of most of the teachers, welfare officers, psychologists, medical staff, volunteers, chaplains and prison officers who continuously and over the long haul have struggled, often against the institutional grain, to create a more positive and fertile environment for prisoners and to ameliorate the damaging effects of prison. Thanks to their efforts, I believe that decency and a humane approach still characterise most interactions with prisoners throughout the Irish prison system. Given all the institutional constraints, that is a considerable achievement.

Melba Vasquez, the 2011 President of the American Psychological Association (APA), chose to devote her presidential address to the topic of psychology and social justice. She began by stating that:

… our discipline of psychology has broad relevance to social issues and social justice … and the APA has proclaimed a commitment to social responsibility and social justice, that is to decrease human suffering and to promote values of equality and justice.

Justice, according to Vasquez, means dealing with others as one would like to be dealt with oneself. This is, of course, a restatement of the Golden Rule, the central moral tenet of most major religions and related to Kant’s categorical imperative and Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance’ approach. This rule translates into a straightforward and undeniably relevant and useful prescription for the design of the penal system. This prescription could be stated thus:

Ensure that prisons provide an environment that you would find adequate, decent and worthy of your trust, if your son or daughter or indeed you yourself were to be rightfully imprisoned for some crime.

In her thoughtful speech, Vasquez did not shrink from drawing attention to ‘the abuse of psychological science to support and maintain destructive and at times horrific and gruesome practices to maintain the status quo of dominance and subordination’. Psychology has undoubtedly been guilty of aiding and abetting oppressive systems of social control and is clearly wide open to abuse. The use of aversion therapy with gay people is just one example. Psychological techniques have also been widely used in prisons to establish control in a dehumanising and brutal fashion. The vast potential for the misuse of psychology surely demonstrates the need for an energetic commitment to the underlying principles of decreasing human suffering and promoting the values of equality and justice.

It is worth recalling that Mountjoy Prison’s original religiously-inspired penitentiary system, which isolated and silenced inmates and subjected them to Christian propaganda in order to engineer their repentance, was built on a specific psychological vision, a particular theory of human nature. The system quickly collapsed because, rather than converting and reforming inmates, it succeeded only in driving them mad.

The state’s behaviour towards its citizens is invariably animated by some kind of theory about human nature. Because these theories are often ill-founded and, however well-intended, frequently malign in their effects, it falls to psychology as an organised, scientific, caring profession to challenge them on the basis of both the best scientific evidence and psychology’s principled commitment to decreasing human suffering and promoting the values of equality and justice.

Before investigating these themes with respect to the Irish penal system, it is necessary to first outline how Ireland uses imprisonment.

Use of Imprisonment in Ireland

Arguably, the most important finding in the Report of the Whitaker Committee in 1985 was that prison is of ‘limited protective, deterrent or corrective value.’5 Certainly, the Committee’s most crucial recommendation to government was to ensure that imprisonment be used only as a last resort and that alternative non-custodial, community-based sanctions be greatly expanded. In line with this view and controversially, at a time when there was considerable public alarm about crime, the Committee recommended reducing the size of the prison population (which in 1985 stood at about 1,850) to 1,500 and, for the future, capping the population at that reduced level.

The trend in the prison population in Ireland since that time tells the disastrous story of the rejection of this advice. Prison numbers were not capped; on the contrary, they were allowed to burgeon out of all control – indeed, increasing at the fastest rate in the developed world. The daily average number of people in prison climbed steeply from 1,200 in 1980 to 4,390 in 2011.6

The recent higher level of prosecutions of sexual offending and a substantial increase in the number of homicides as well as mandatory ten-year sentences for certain drug offences have led to the accumulation of several hundred long-sentence prisoners within the system. However, compared with the early 1980s most categories of crime have increased only marginally and significant areas of crime have even decreased substantially. In other words, the more than tripling of the numbers held in prison cannot be justified by rising crime levels. Astoundingly, today in Ireland, an even greater proportion of those sent to prison are fine-defaulters or non-violent petty criminals than was the case in 1980. More than three times as many petty non-violent offenders are now held in prison despite largely unchanged levels of petty non-violent crime.

The Irish use of imprisonment is totally out of line with normal practice amongst our European neighbours. While our detention rate is close to the European average, our rate for imprisonment on conviction is much higher than average – this is because of the much greater Irish use of short sentences. This means we use imprisonment against a far wider range of petty crimes than do other countries. These countries use fines, alternative and community-based penalties and restorative approaches far more than we do. If you relate the use of imprisonment to the incidence of recorded crime, which is substantially lower here than in neighbouring countries, it is found that Ireland resorts to imprisonment between two and five times more frequently than these neighbouring countries.

Successive governments have sleep-walked into the current situation of gross prison overcrowding by adhering to two discredited, hardline doctrines, largely imported from the USA: first, that ‘prison as punishment’ works and that, if it doesn’t, harsher punishment of the same type will, and, second, that the offender has brought whatever the penal system does to him upon himself, so the state and its citizens do not have to answer for it.

Some structural factors in the Irish criminal justice system contribute to the disastrous failure to use prison only as a last resort. One example is the District Court’s role in dealing with the vast bulk of crime. In this court, justice is rapid and dispensed by judges sitting alone without juries. The District Court’s efficiency relies on guilty pleas – 80 per cent of those prosecuted plead guilty. These pleas are successfully incentivised by the fact that the District Court cannot impose a prison sentence of more than one year. This approach perpetuates the use of imprisonment against petty crime.

By contrast, hugely damaging financial crimes, which we now know have been widespread in Ireland, take years to get to the higher courts, where penalties may be much higher, but where expensive legal advice, the presence of juries and a more measured judicial approach all ensure that every trick in the book can be employed to delay or even avert justice. The structural features of the criminal justice system that result in current levels of imprisonment are not set in stone and so are open to change, but political inertia along with increasingly intolerant and punitive public attitudes and widespread ignorance and indifference about the criminal justice system are real stumbling blocks to achieving constructive reform.

Imprisonment and Social Disadvantage

It is highly relevant that the vast majority of offenders we imprison in Ireland not only tend to be convicted for relatively minor non-violent crimes but also tend to have a life-long history of failure and of being failed by society in areas that link to economic success and social acceptance. Irish prisons are full of those who, by accident of birth, come from deprived communities and from families that suffer from chronic unemployment, low income, poor nutrition, deficient education, and bad housing. Many people in prison have alcohol, heroin addiction, and emotional or psychiatric problems, and a large number come from disturbed family backgrounds. Most have left school without qualifications or before reaching the legal school-leaving age and consequently struggle with low levels of literacy and numeracy and have very poor employment records.

Psychology has been at the forefront in developing the risk factors model of the causation of criminality and this strongly confirms the role of deprivation and inequality. However, psychology has been slow to embrace the obvious political implications of the evidence. A key implication is that criminal responsibility is diluted when certain bad things happen to you, and certain good things do not happen to you, in childhood.

When these negative childhood experiences are the result of inequitable social structures, unfair distribution of income and benefits, and uncaring social policy, criminal responsibility is not only diluted for the individual offender, but is shared by wider society.

The late Fr Fechin O’Doherty, Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at UCD, made a good attempt at describing the complexity at the core of this problem when he wrote:

Responsibility is not an all or nothing concept. We are not captains of our fate, masters of our soul. Responsibility admits of an infinite series of gradations to which many factors contribute. Of these the most important, perhaps, are education, humanisation and socialisation … The capacity to obey the law is not equally distributed over the whole population.

Inevitably, the criminal justice system must hold people to account for their harmful behaviour regardless of the mitigating circumstances of their past lives, but to legitimate the kind of punishment it metes out, the system must also recognise society’s contribution to criminal behaviour and actively set about correcting society’s own flaws and deep-rooted inequities. A vital part of that process is assisting the imprisoned person to overcome his or her past social disadvantages and the unmet needs of childhood in an attempt to help the person to maximise his or her personal potential and learn to live in a pro-social manner.

A shocking example of government indifference to these fundamentally important principles was the decision of the then Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell TD, to close down Shanganagh Open Centre for young men in the age-group sixteen to twenty-one in 2002. This prison, set within many acres of fine land in a middle-class district, was one of the few effective and hopeful elements in the prison system’s treatment of young offenders. The closure was a brazen act of cashing in on vital state assets at the cost of losing one of the most hopeful elements in the system and, like many other retrogressive steps in our penal system, it went almost unchallenged in both the public and the political domain.

Harms Caused by Imprisonment

On the issue of the reality and effects of imprisonment, the Whitaker Report observed that:

The possible rehabilitative effects of education, training, welfare and guidance are offset by the triple depressant of overcrowding, idleness and squalor which dominates most Irish prisons.7

Despite considerable investment in new, if largely poorly-designed, prisons, increased medical services, including a large-scale methadone maintenance programme, a more independent complaints and inspection system and concessions such as in-cell television, the triple depressant of overcrowding, idleness and squalor still dominates large sections of our prison system. This is clearly in part due to the system’s failure to use prison as a last resort and as a rehabilitative opportunity. The drugs gang culture has also helped create a situation where the prison environment today is far more physically and psychologically damaging to inmates than in 1980. Incidents of assault, suicide, death by overdose, severe bullying, and initiation into injecting drug-use give testimony to the damage caused by our prisons.

But the damage caused by imprisonment is by no means confined to the harms resulting from poor prison conditions or the prisoners’ own violent culture. As many social scientists have documented, prisons are total institutions that deliberately isolate, control and stigmatise. They are powerful contexts that can overwhelm and reshape individual personalities. Traditional prisons are by their very nature effective tools for distorting the emotions and behaviour of inmates.

The negative and criminogenic psychosocial effects of imprisonment which have been well documented include:

  • Stigmatisation; demonisation
  • Alienation
  • Disruption of relationships
  • Negative socialisation and learning
  • Dependency and lack of personal responsibility
  • Displacement of responsibility
  • Social rigidity and lack of ‘genuine’ communication
  • Mechanisation of life, with consequent depersonalisation, dehumanisation

These psychosocial processes are inimical to normal psychological well-being; they combine to create a widespread climate of desperation and hopelessness and a brutalising culture of toughness. They also tend to undermine the deterrent, reforming and constructive purposes of imprisonment. The great paradox of prison, then, is that it tends to create more of what it is designed to eliminate.

I will focus briefly on just one of these issues – stigma – in order to provide an example of these far-reaching negative effects. Self-enhancement is a key motivator in human behaviour and is inextricably bound up with how we are seen, or think we are seen, by others. What has been termed the ‘struggle for recognition’ is universal and it is especially difficult for those who find themselves in stigmatised and marginalised groups. Many forms of mental illness or emotional distress are experienced as, and are most clearly manifested in, perturbed self-perceptions and self-related fantasies and anxieties. Prisoners, then, face a particularly difficult struggle for the respect of others – a struggle which has probably already begun in their schools and marginalised communities and which is inevitably and profoundly influenced by the treatment they receive in prison and by their acute awareness of the public’s frequently excessive and hypocritical condemnation and demonisation of them.

The point is that, while some people have problems because they internalise other people’s negative evaluations of them, a common psychological reaction of the rejected is to reject their rejectors, sometimes angrily and violently. Prisoners very often respond to imprisonment by finding acceptance and a positive identity in a counter-culture that upholds renegade and antisocial values, such as personal toughness, daring, quick resort to violence, disrespect for private property, and callous indifference to the feelings of others. This is one of the important but largely unrecognised reasons that the traditional prison is an inherently negative environment which promotes resentment, rationalisation of criminal behaviour, increasingly anti-social attitudes, and reckless drug use.

In 1974, Hans W. Mattick, criminologist and Director of the Center for Research in Law and Justice, University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote:

If men had deliberately set themselves the task of designing an institution that would systematically maladjust men, they would have invented the large, walled, maximum security prison.

What Psychology Can Contribute

Psychology can make a contribution by identifying and analysing these essentially social psychological processes, but in my view it could and should make a further contribution by helping design, on the basis of sound psychological principles and evidence, less self-defeating, less harmful and more constructive forms of imprisonment. Following the lead of the American Psychological Association, I believe that the profession also has an important role in advocating for change.

There are practical, well-established models for how to do things better, embracing everything from colour schemes for walls to the design of holistic, psychosocial environments that actively counter the ill-effects of the total institution. The therapeutic community, for example, sets out to provide, in the words of one practitioner, a ‘24-hr per day learning experience in which a drug user’s [or prisoner’s] transformations in conduct, attitudes, values, and emotions are introduced, monitored, and mutually reinforced as part of the daily regime’.

The successful therapeutic community for seriously violent offenders in the English system, Grendon Prison, provides an inspiring model for an alternative to the predominant forms of imprisonment that are not just inert in terms of rehabilitation but even counterproductive.

The Nordic prison systems offer other excellent examples of prisons where genuine attempts at normalisation and humanisation of the prison environment have proven effective and beneficial.

With regard to advocacy, the American Psychological Association (APA) has been part of a movement that has shown that the law itself can be used to improve the quality of imprisonment. One of the many APA amicus curiae briefs focusing on prisons has helped win a US Supreme Court victory in the case of Plata v Schwarzenegger. This effectively placed a cap on the number of prisoners that can be held in a particular prison. The APA argued, and helped convince the court, that the overcrowding permitted in the Californian system was actively damaging to the mental health of inmates and was therefore in contravention of the US Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual treatment.

Distorted Perceptions of Prisons and Prisoners

Ultimately, little significant improvement in prison conditions is likely in this country until such time as imprisonment is truly used only as a last resort. The chief barriers to progress in this area are, arguably, distorted public, political and media perceptions and the misunderstandings and injustices they drive. These distortions result from a lack of information about the true facts but more importantly from a stubborn resistance to being informed. Public, political and media representations feed on and reinforce each other and play a crucial role in creating, not just describing, social reality.

This is an immensely complicated cultural issue, but one of relevance to psychologists who study group processes, collective decision-making, attitude formation and attitude change. Particularly important in the criminal justice area are pervasive cognitive distortions such as the fundamental attribution error, which favours persons over situations as causes, and the ‘just world’ bias, which tends to blame victims and accept our current social reality as the best of all possible worlds.

One major problem is the skewed coverage of crime and punishment by the media. Public zeal for the use of imprisonment is fuelled by endless tabloid headlines about vicious crimes and violent and dangerous offenders. A clear example of the low level of debate on prison conditions was a Late Late Show of some years ago, which featured a journalist who – to huge applause – remarked that ‘prison was meant to be traumatic, meant to be degrading and the more traumatic it is the more likely it is to deter’.

In fact, psychology tells us that it is highly dangerous and counterproductive to inflict unnecessary trauma and degradation on human beings, whether you think they deserve it or not.
Moreover, international human rights conventions, Irish law and the Irish Prison Service’s own Mission Statement state that loss of liberty should be the sole punishment and that the deliberate creation of traumatic and degrading prison conditions is morally wrong and totally unacceptable from the human rights perspective.

The general tone of public, political and media debate is often self-righteous, emotive, condemnatory and vengeful. Debate tends to individualise blame, excuse society of responsibility and reject the wrong-doer, not just the wrong-doing. This process both strengthens the malign psychosocial effects of prison and effectively closes minds to any concern for the vast majority of people passing through the system, who, as we have seen, are petty offenders and tend, in a serious misuse of state power, to be further damaged, hardened and criminalised by the system. It turns attention away from core issues such as the efficacy and legitimacy of state punishment and the scandal of the avoidable harms inflicted by imprisonment.

Need for a New Mindset on Imprisonment

Changing the national mindset on imprisonment is a challenge akin to transforming or preventing, through counter-cyclical actions, the kind of blind optimism of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period that led us straight over the economic cliff. Crime and punishment is an especially controversial area, even amongst psychologists, involving very emotive and fiercely defended beliefs. But this is not an entirely hopeless cause.

Just as there are more sensible countries with a more rational grasp of economic realities, so also there exist countries with a more mature collective understanding of the complexities of crime and punishment. The Scandinavian countries, in particular, offer models that we could follow – models that demonstrate a more credible commitment to justice and equality and are rooted in a more realistic understanding of society, individual psychology and the potential of institutions for both good and harm.

By raising awareness of the broad factual situation, and the distorting psychological processes that prevent us from seeing that situation, it may be possible to persuade leaders in politics and the media to self-correct the lenses through which they view crime and punishment. It is surely possible to plot our way towards a society where a mother, while not happy to see an offending child sent to prison, would no longer be terrified for his or her physical, psychological and moral well-being and may even anticipate some genuine benefits.


  1. Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System, Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System (Whitaker Report), Dublin: Stationery Office, 1985.
  2. Department of Health, The Psychiatric Service: Planning for the Future, Report of a Study Group on the Development of the Psychiatric Services, Dublin: Stationery Office, 1984.
  3. Harry G. Kennedy, Stephen Monks, Katherine Curtin, Brenda Wright, Sally A. Linehan, Dearbhla M. Duffy, Conor Teljeur and Alan Kelly, Mental Illness in Irish Prisoners: Psychiatric Morbidity in Sentenced, Remanded and Newly Committed Prisoners, Dublin: National Forensic Mental Health Service, 2005.
  4. Harry Kennedy, ‘“Libertarian”groupthink not helping mentally ill’, The Irish Times, Wednesday, 12 September 2012.
  5. Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System, op. cit., par. 2.10,   p. 11.
  6. It should be noted that there has been a reversal in the upward trend in prison numbers since the second half of 2012, with the result that the daily average for that year was 4,318 as against  4,390  in 2011 (a decline of 1.6 per cent). Throughout 2013, the number in prison on the last day of each month showed a general downward trend. On 13 January 2014, the number was 3,955. (Irish Prison Service, ‘Statistics and Information’ (
  7. Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System, op. cit., par. 11.6, p. 90.

This article is an edited version of a Joint Presidential Keynote Address given at the Psychological Society of Ireland Annual Conference, Rochestown Park Hotel, Cork, 9 November 2012.

Paul O’Mahony is a former Associate Professor of Psychology, School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin, and author of ‘The Irish War on Drugs’ (Manchester University Press, 2008), among other books on the Irish criminal justice system.