People Believe that Prison Transforms Prisoners for the Better
Criminals remain some of society’s most reviled individuals. Because they have broken the law, people often treat criminals as though they are unthinking brutes or unfeeling machines—in other words, as less than fully human. This dehumanization of criminals is commonplace. What we don’t know is how this dehumanization changes over the prison sentence. Do people dehumanize prisoners more as they spend more time in prison? Or do people dehumanize prisoners less as their release date approaches? Before we started our research, we thought either could be true.
People may dehumanize prisoners more the longer they stay in prison for several reasons. For instance, people may see these individuals as increasingly associated with prison—a place most do not think of fondly. They may be forever tainted by the stigma associated with incarceration. We may also see these individuals as more criminal given that they are surrounded by fellow prisoners and may be learning more ways to be criminal. Or, perhaps we see these individuals as worn down by their time behind bars. Prison is a difficult place to live, and the more time someone spends there, the more it will take a physical and mental toll.
Alternately, people might dehumanize prisons less as their release date approaches. When their sentence is up, prisoners are released back into society. It is no longer easy to simply ignore their existence—we have to think about them and their humanity. Moreover, by serving their time, we might think of prisoners as having “paid their price” or as having been sufficiently rehabilitated—points we return to below. Maybe people think that prisons improve prisoners.
Our experiments tested these questions. Does prisoner dehumanization change over the course of the prison sentence? We showed American participants pictures of actual prisoners alongside information about their sentence. All prisoners were serving a 4-year sentence, but some were described as having served only the first month of their sentence, whereas others had served all but the last month. We measured prisoner dehumanization by having participants rate the prisoners on how mentally and emotionally sophisticated they seemed—to what extent are they able to think? To feel? To enact self-control? In other words, did they have fully humanlike mental and emotional abilities? Our results showed that people reliably see prisoners as more emotionally and cognitively sophisticated when they are closer to their release date. In other words, people dehumanize soon-to-be-released prisoners less than those who have just started their sentence.
But why? To answer this, we turned to explanations for why we incarcerate criminals. Philosophers and criminal justice scholars advocate four primary functions of prisons. The first is rehabilitation, which is about reforming prisoners for successful reentry into society. Second is retribution, which is about punishing criminals to balance the scales of justice. Third is deterrence, which is about preventing future crimes from happening by threatening lawbreakers with punishment. Finally, the fourth is incapacitation, which is about removing criminals from society to prevent them from victimizing anyone else.
We tested each of these possibilities, asking people how much they believed the prisoners they viewed were rehabilitated, punished, deterred from future crimes, and isolated from society (thus preventing wrongdoing). Results revealed that our participants believe that prison changes people for the better—they thought prison rehabilitates prisoners and deters their future criminal behavior—which caused participants to humanize them more.
We think it makes sense that people who see prisoners as changed by their time in prison, either because they are rehabilitated or deterred from committing future crimes, see these prisoners as more emotionally and cognitively sophisticated. In other words, changes in beliefs about prisoner dehumanization over the course of a sentence can be partially explained by perceived changes in the prisoners themselves.
It’s important to stress that this research does not answer whether prisons are actually effective at rehabilitating or deterring prisoners. Instead, our findings indicate that people who perceive prisoners as having been rehabilitated or deterred may be less likely to dehumanize those prisoners. It’s also important to note that, so far, we have only used photos of White male prisoners and primarily White, and only American, participants, which limits our findings. Different nations have different incarceration policies, which may affect attitudes toward prisoners. The type of crime for which one was incarcerated may also be an important question in this dehumanization. Perhaps there are some types of crimes—such as crimes against children—that are seen as so abhorrent that rehabilitation seems impossible. Furthermore, racial stereotypes could change the results—for example, if White participants were judging Black prisoners.
Although there is much still to learn, our findings may help researchers who study dehumanization and criminology, and they also have practical implications as well: the more people see prison as rehabilitative or deterring, the more prisoners might be more accepted at the end of their incarceration.
For Further Reading
Deska, J. C., Almaraz, S. M., & Hugenberg, K. (2020). Dehumanizing prisoners: Remaining sentence duration predicts the ascription of mind to prisoners. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(11), 1614-1627. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220911496
Vasiljevic, M., & Viki, G. T. (2014). Dehumanization, moral dis-engagement, and public attitudes to crime and punishment. In P. G. Bain, J. Vaes, & J.-P. Leyens (Eds.), Humanness and dehumanization (pp. 129–146). Psychology Press.
Jason C. Deska is an assistant professor of psychology at Ryerson University who studies how the impressions people form of others produce and sustain inequality.
Kurt Hugenberg is professor of psychology at Indiana University Bloomington who studies stereotyping, prejudice, and intergroup bias.