Law and Human Behavior

, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 347-372

First online:

Reexamining the cruel and unusual punishment of prison life

  • James BontaAffiliated withOttawa-Carleton Detention CentrePsychology, Carleton UniversityPsychology, University of Ottawa
  • , Paul GendreauAffiliated withDivision of Social Sciences, University of New Brunswick at Saint JohnSaint John Police Force


It has been widely assumed that prison is destructive to the psychological and emotional well-being of those it detains. However, this assumption has rarely been critically examined. The present report evaluated the evidence pertaining to the effects of imprisonment. Studies on the effects of prison crowding, long-term imprisonment and short-term detention, solitary confinement, death row, and the health risks associated with imprisonment provide inconclusive evidence regarding the “pains of imprisonment.” Rather, the evidence points to the importance of individual differences in adapting to incarceration. As the use of incarceration is unlikely to decrease in the near future, research on its effects is urgently needed and a situation-by-person approach may be the most fruitful research strategy.