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Culture Shock!

We expect formerly incarcerated individuals to get right back into the swing of things when they are released. We assume they are ready, that just serving time is enough to consider the impact of their crime and make plans for reentry success.

But do those of us outside of prison really understand the challenges of prison life, and the difficulties faced in adjusting from being incarcerated to rejoining society? Life in prison, in many ways, functions opposite to life on the outside.

When we return home after spending time in another culture our own customs can feel a little strange. Although we cannot fully grasp what prison culture is like here, when we picture living for several years on a confined piece of land surrounded by fences and in buildings made of cement, we get quite a different perspective of daily life. Inside prisons there are no potted plants, pictures on the walls, or carpets on the floors to absorb sound. Everyone is tense and on their guard at all times. Quarters are very small; made smaller by the addition of a toilet and sink, and most likely a cell mate. Alternate sleeping accommodations can be found in large dormitories with dozens of bunk beds and little privacy or quiet.



People do adjust to these conditions in time, but it changes them; they become institutionalized and find it difficult to set schedules and make decisions upon release because prison administrators have done this for them for so long. We now begin to see why the transition from incarceration to independence can be quite difficult.

To appreciate some of the cultural challenges a returning citizen must address face, consider the following lifestyle differences:

Consider just a small sample of cultural and lifestyle differences:


IN PRISON: Survival in some prisons may require a tough appearance. Gentleness and kindness may

be perceived to be weak, leading to a person being taken advantage of mentally, physically, or both. Maintaining a stoic exterior, keeping thoughts to one’s self can be useful in prison.

OUT OF PRISON: Friendliness, smiles, and engaging conversations can show others we are open to interaction. These sociable attributes are critical for success many jobs.



IN PRISON: Trust is hard to give and hard to gain.  Concealment of emotions is important in many circumstances but it can make trust more difficult to attain.

OUT OF PRISON: One of our most treasured character traits is honesty. Trust is an important element in any relationship; whether with family, friends, or work-related. We work hard to build long- lasting relationships. It is within these deeper relationships that we can learn more about ourselves.



IN PRISON: In addition to having an established schedule in prison, incarcerated people have few choices about where to go, what to wear, what colors they would like to see on the walls, or what they would like to eat for breakfast.

OUT OF PRISON: We constantly make decisions. Life moves at a brisk pace with frequent changes. We’re constantly adjusting our plans, and re-prioritizing our goals to accommodate others and still keep time for ourselves. Lots of choice!



IN PRISON: There are few gizmos.  One gizmo is the music player. For twice the cost that unincarcerated people pay for a single song, an incarcerated person – who often earns about 1/100th of what they would earn outside of prison – can add a song to their MP3 player.   Another gizmo is the ‘public computer’, which offers email and news within the institution.  The most advanced gizmos are the tablets, which may or may not be free to the user.  They offer email, music and movie services that generally come with a cost, and may include free services, too, such as books from Project Gutenberg, prison and education programming, or even  Fair Shake’s free software.

OUT OF PRISON: Gizmos, such as phones, tablets and laptops are ubiquitous. The devices demand attention which many of us eagerly provide. They offer non-stop distractions from ‘real life’ in the form of videos (many of which people make and post themselves), TV, social media, email, music and radio.  Gizmos are also able to offer two-way communication through text, voice or video options.


Social Media

IN PRISON: People watching TV together, people reading the same article and then talking about it, and even teleconferencing visits with family or friends are pretty much the extent of social media.

OUT OF PRISON: Social media is on almost every gizmo, and the pressure to join facebook, twitter, instagram and linkedin is great.  Many of us claim social media is ‘pro-social’ and boosts our awareness of current events and their meaning, but it has been tied to anxiety, depression and suicide.


Quiet Time

IN PRISON: Prisons are noisy places. They offer few quiet places or opportunities for time alone. The buildings are made of concrete and offer few furnishings to reduce noise. When people get upset, they may become loud. Many incarcerated people keep earplugs with them at all times.

OUT OF PRISON: Life is very busy and we are constantly interacting; the gizmos make sure of that.  We have to be strong and determined to carve out time to be alone…to reflect on our day, our perspective, and life, or to sit quietly and listen. Quiet time can be rejuvenating and reaffirming.



IN PRISON: Incarcerated people are not able to provide daily, in-person physical or emotional care for children, partners, parents, or pets.

OUT OF PRISON: Caring for others is constantly affirming, taxing, challenging, and invigorating! We need to be needed, and we feel good supporting those we care about. Caring for others enhances our health!



IN PRISON: Incarcerated people may be referred to as “offender”, inmate, or by their last name or ID number.

OUT OF PRISON: We can insist upon being treated with respect.


Physical Contact

IN PRISON: Affectionate touch is brief and has been limited to family and close friends when they visit. Since COVID began, many visits have been replaced with tele-conferencing.

OUT OF PRISON: Handshakes, hugs, back-patting, and other signs of affection are welcome and encouraged among relatives, friends, teammates and colleagues.



IN PRISON: Incarcerated people can access a limited amount of information through magazines, newspapers, television, radio, and letters.  But a person can think, weigh options, and philosophize with others, and without a gizmo buzzing at them constantly.

OUT OF PRISON: We are overloaded with information, misinformation and disinformation, with very few tools to differentiate one from another and very little desire to hear things from outside of our bubble. Online, we have limitless reinforcements for our beliefs.



IN PRISON: Incarcerated people must ask for – and wait for – assistance, services, and professional help including doctor visits, rides to see specialists, meetings with administrators, phone calls, and daily meals.

OUT OF PRISON: We are impatient. We want ‘urgent care’ and we can get medical help immediately, if necessary.  We arrange meetings according to our schedule and we can spontaneously do things.


Consider these similarities, too!

  • In prison, people continue to love children, partners, parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, other relatives, friends, colleagues, clergy, advocates, etc.
  • We all appreciate humor and many of us support our favorite sports people / teams
  • We all feel sad, scared, excited, angry, caring, anxious, blue and vulnerable at times.
  • We are all concerned about safety, security, and the future.
  • We all need – and deserve – feelings of self-worth, agency, dignity and belonging.