The Psychological Effects of Being in a Detention Center

Mental Health Inside Detention Centers: The Unknown Toll on Latinx Child Immigrants

The Psychological Effects of Being in a Detention Center

August 18, 2020


In 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers, inundated immigration detention centers along the southwestern border apprehending nearly 70,000 children in 2019.

1,2 As a result, many of these children lacked consistent access to proper health care and to the developmental and educational opportunities which detention centers are lawfully required to provide.

3 Never before has it been more evident that there is an immediate need to increase the amount of quantitative research being performed on the mental and behavioral health outcomes of Latinx migrant children detained in US immigration detention centers.

Strong data is necessary to help confirm the validity of the plight of these children to the wider public.

While there is strong data on the detainment of children globally, the US is significantly lacking in the amount of quantitative data being gathered and researched on this important health issue.

4 Strong data is necessary to help confirm the validity of the plight of these children to the wider public, as well as to strengthen the understanding that the US immigration system is founded on racist practices and policies targeted toward Latinx populations.

5 As a public, we must direct our attention to the fact that children are being targeted and extensively harmed in this system, and that the government is doing nothing to spare them from suffering.

These data will help in advocating for their health and well-being so that this problem is  no longer ignored and these children are not put in jeopardy as a result of their ethnicity.

The recent influx in immigration rates is attributed to those who originate from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras).6,7 However, misguided notions on the rates of Mexican immigrants coming to the US dominate and obscure the realities of the current immigrant population.

In reality, immigration is a complex issue that involves a multitude of push and pull factors and a diverse representation of population demographics.

However, a common underlying decision motivating immigration into the US is the assumption that there will be more humane circumstances and opportunities to be found once in this country.

Immigration is a complex issue that involves a multitude of push and pull factors and a diverse representation of population demographics.

Yet, contrary to this common assumption, extreme measures to curb immigrants, specifically of Latinx origin, from coming into this country have been implemented through strict immigration policies created by the Trump Administration.

8,9 For example, the “zero-tolerance” policy refers migrants who cross the border without documentation to the Department of Justice to be criminally prosecuted, subsequently separating children from their parents in the process, and deliberately labeling these children as unaccompanied minors to be held in detention centers.

Policies such as zero-tolerance have in turn steeply increased the number of detained migrant and immigrant children in the country.

Additionally, these policies have exposed a shift toward a system of “crimmigration”—a system that weaves the criminal justice and immigration systems into one and transforms immigration court proceedings into criminal prosecutions, while simultaneously promoting for-profit, prison- detention centers.10 As a consequence, a hostile environment is created in these centers as migrant youth face inhumane and unlawful treatment, while their basic human rights are consistently violated due to being detained for indeterminate periods of time.

Substantial research focused on child development and trauma has shown us that young children are extremely vulnerable to environmental stressors. For migrant and immigrant children, the stressors resulting from being detained are multiplied beyond those children studied in typical environments.

Once detained and subsequently exposed to traumatic experiences, migrant children have exhibited high levels of mental, emotional, and behavioral consequences, only compounding the extent of damage to their development.

11 The most common resulting symptoms include conduct and hyperactivity difficulties as well as reexperiencing of trauma. In addition, detained adolescents experience post-traumatic stress disorder at a rate of 12.3 percent higher than their American peers.

Include the frequent stressors from parental separation, and immigrant children further face numerous other consequences such as strained parent-child relationships, self-harm, and withdrawal.12

When free of environmental stressors surrounding detainment, many immigrant children have shown positive academic attitudes and resiliency in their daily lives, leading to the assumption that their experiences pre-, mid-, and post-immigration have not yielded the same levels of trauma.

13 This assumption furthers the argument against inhumane immigrant and migrant child detainment and emphasizes a clear need for researchers to direct their focus toward gathering substantive data on the short- and long-term health impacts.

Such data can be presented to service providers and the general public in order to better inform the advocacy strategies detailed below.

How to Help

Placing onus on the current administration and holding them, and for-profit prison companies, accountable for the abuses being committed against migrant children is one strategy we can use to improve the immigration system for detained youth.

We can accomplish this by pressuring Congress by means of lobbying, to hold an oversight hearing to review the executive branch’s immigration agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

This would allow a congressional committee to review current immigration regulations and pressure DHS to humanely enforce them as well as create future regulations with more humane protections for youth, reflecting constituent opinion.

Public pressure could also be implemented through the “notice and comment” process, facilitating a direct pathway for the public to voice opinions on proposed immigration regulations.

Individuals may also contact their local immigration organization to see how they may be of service.

Common opportunities include providing free legal counsel, interning or volunteering, donating money or goods, and educating the public on this issue.

You can also help differently documented Latinx families in your community to create a Family Preparedness Plan and build community networks that establish clear and safe guidance should they encounter facets of the immigration system.

By taking action at the community level, you build off the Social-Ecological and Macro-Level Social Work models, in that you promote communication and advocacy across multiple systems that disproportionately affect these youth, such as the immigration, health care, child welfare, and legislation. Emphasizing a strengths-based approach to service provision and advocacy, while prioritizing family diversity and other youth strengths as key components, encourages and empowers Latinx youth to develop self-advocacy skills.

Regardless of one’s strategy, it is important to advocate against the systemic abuses and traumas experienced by detained Latinx migrant children at the hands of the federal government and for-profit companies.

These youth and their trauma exist regardless of data, and as informed professionals and public, it is our duty to bring light to their suffering by backing up their experience with science and compassion.

Immigrant and migrant children matter, and they deserve to be fought for.


  1. Reichel, Chloe. “How Detention Centers Affect the Health of Immigrant Children: A Research Roundup.” Journalist’s Resource (July 22, 2019).
  2. Sherman, Christopher, Martha Mendoza, Garance Burke. “Nearly 70,000 Migrant Kids Were Held in US Government Custody in 2019.” Business Insider (November 12, 2019).
  3. Linton, Julie M.

    , Marsha Griffin, Alan J. Shapiro. “Detention of Immigrant Children.” Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics 139/5 (2017 May).

  4. Ortega, Debora M., Lisa Graybill, Christopher N. Lasch. “Enacting and  Sustaining Trauma and Violence through Policy Enforcement: Family Immigration Detention.” Sage Journals 30/3 (July 2015):281-285.

  5. Sherman et al., “Nearly 70,000 Migrant Kids.”
  6. Ortega et al., “Enacting and Sustaining Trauma.”
  7. Cheatham, Amelia. “US Detention of Child Migrants.” Council on Foreign Relations (February 10, 2020).
  8. Provine, Doris M. “Institutional Racism in Enforcing Immigration Law.” Norteamérica 8-Supp (November 2013):31-53.
  9. Sherman et al., “Nearly 70,000 Migrant Kids.”
  10. Linton et al., “Detention of Immigrant Children.”
  11. MacLean, Sarah A., et al. “Mental Health of Children Held at a United States Immigration Detention Center.” Social Science and Medicine 230 (June 2019):303-308.
  12. Linton et al., “Detention of Immigrant Children.

  13. MacLean et al., “Mental Health of Children Held.”

About the Author

Cecilia Galvan is a master’s student at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.

 She did research on mental and behavioral health impacts on children who have spent time in immigration detention centers as part of her coursework in a Families and Health course taught by Linda Chatters, professor at the School of Public Health and the School of Social Work.

Galvan has a range of interests from juvenile justice to grass-roots community organizing to immigrant/refugee social work but holds a specific interest in service provision for youth.

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Research Roundup: Incarceration can cause lasting damage to mental health

The Psychological Effects of Being in a Detention Center

by Katie Rose Quandt and Alexi Jones, May 13, 2021

We often talk about the disturbingly high numbers of people with mental health disorders locked up in prisons and jails.

But less attention is paid to the ways in which incarceration itself perpetuates this problem by creating and worsening symptoms of mental illness.

Research shows that, while it varies from person to person, incarceration is linked to mood disorders including major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.

The carceral environment can be inherently damaging to mental health by removing people from society and eliminating meaning and purpose from their lives.

On top of that, the appalling conditions common in prisons and jails — such as overcrowding, solitary confinement, and routine exposure to violence — can have further negative effects.

Researchers have even theorized that incarceration can lead to “Post-Incarceration Syndrome,” a syndrome similar to PTSD, meaning that even after serving their official sentences, many people continue to suffer the mental effects.

Incarceration itself is inherently harmful to people’s health

Many of the defining features of incarceration are linked to negative mental health outcomes, including disconnection from family, loss of autonomy, boredom and lack of purpose, and unpredictability of surroundings. Prof.

Craig Haney, an expert on the psychological effects of imprisonment and prison isolation, explains, “At the very least, prison is painful, and incarcerated persons often suffer long-term consequences from having been subjected to pain, deprivation, and extremely atypical patterns and norms of living and interacting with others.” And as Dr. Seymour L.

Halleck has observed, “The prison environment is almost diabolically conceived to force the offender to experience the pangs of what many psychiatrists would describe as mental illness.”

Family disconnection

By its very nature, incarceration separates people from their social networks and loved ones.

In 2018, when researchers at the University of Georgia analyzed the relationship between prison conditions and mental health in 214 state prisons, they found that people incarcerated more than 50 miles from home were more ly to experience depression.

This isn’t surprising: Psychologists have long known that people with social support and positive family relationships tend to have better psychological wellbeing.

Similarly, in a 2015 review of the research on the impact of prisons on mental health, separation from family and friends emerged as a major stressor for incarcerated people; it was also associated with psychological distress. In fact, many people described this separation as the most challenging aspect of their incarceration.

Goomany and Dickinson, who authored the review, found that even when incarcerated people receive visits from family members, the prison environment makes it harder for them to connect.

Correctional facilities are built and operate around the goal of security, and these “regulations and security measures inevitably impact on the relationships between prisoners, their families, and children.”

Separation from children can be especially distressing for incarcerated women.

As one 1998 article in Behavioral Sciences & the Law noted, “Separation from children is one of the most stressful conditions of incarceration for women and is associated with feelings of guilt, anxiety, and fear of losing mother-child attachment.

” A 2005 study found that “most mothers described an intense focus on feelings of distress, depression, or guilt.” One mother in that study explained her feelings: “All I’d do was cry. It is horrible being away from your kids, especially when they the only people who care for you.

” Another said, “I was very hurt, depressed, crying constantly, and worried.” The study noted that 6 percent of the mothers interviewed described themselves as suicidal early in their incarceration; as their separation from their children continued, 22% “continued to focus intensely on their distress.”

Loss of autonomy & lack of purpose

Incarcerated people have virtually no control over their day-to-day lives, including when they wake up, what they eat, what their jobs are, and when they have access to recreation. This can lead to feelings of dependence and helplessness.

The three main studies included in Goomany and Dickinson’s review all concluded that this loss of autonomy harms mental health.

Once again, this makes sense; we know people feel better and have better mental health outcomes when they have control over their surroundings.

Similarly, incarceration is often characterized by boredom, monotony, and lack of stimulation. Many incarcerated people have limited access to education, job training, and other programming that can fill their time and become a meaningful part of their lives.

In a 2003 study of incarcerated people in England, participantsreported that lack of activity and mental stimulation leads to extreme stress, anger, and frustration. Some reported using unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage boredom, including substance abuse.

The 2018 University of Georgia study mentioned earlier also found that people in prisons with limited access to work assignments experienced higher levels of depression.

Once again, this fits with psychological research that shows meaninglessness and a lack of purpose can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.


These feelings of anxiety and depression can be exacerbated by the unpredictable nature of the carceral environment.

As the Behavioral Sciences & the Law article mentioned above explains, there are numerous rules in prisons and jails that do not exist in the free world — many of which are ambiguous and only enforced erratically.

The authors note that “institutional rules are enforced selectively, depending on factors such as inmate-staff relationships, staff member’s mood, the severity of the rule violation, and the convenience of rule enforcement.” This lack of clarity and predictability can contribute to feelings of uncertainty and stress.

Cruel conditions make a negative environment worse

Even a relatively “humane” prison or jail can contribute to negative mental health outcomes for the reasons outlined above. But the reality is that poor conditions in prisons and jails cause significant additional suffering and trauma.

As the World Health Organization explains, “There are factors in many prisons that have negative effects on mental health, including: overcrowding, various forms of violence, enforced solitude or conversely, lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activity, isolation from social networks, insecurity about future prospects (work, relationships, etc.

), and inadequate health services, especially mental health services.” This list of mentally damaging conditions accurately describes most U.S. jails and prisons.

Overcrowding & punitiveness

Many jails and prisons throughout the country are overcrowded, which makes the inherently negative carceral environment even worse.

Overcrowding often means more time in cell, less privacy, less access to mental and physical healthcare, and fewer opportunities to participate in programming and work assignments.

Correctional administrators may respond to overcrowding by forgoing screening and monitoring of vulnerable people. A 2005 study found that overcrowding is highly correlated with prison suicide.

The 2018 study from the University of Georgia similarly found that overcrowding and punitiveness are correlated with depression and hostility. The researchers noted that punitive environments “ly set inmates on edge, making them overly hostile or even depressed.”

Solitary confinement

Being put in solitary confinement, which is a common practice in many prisons and jails, is especially harmful to mental health. As we discussed in a briefing last year, the stress caused by spending time in solitary confinement can lead to permanent changes to people’s brains and personalities.

Depriving humans — who are naturally social beings — of the ability to interact with others can cause ‘social pain,’ which affects the brain in the same way as physical pain.

A 2000 study found that people were significantly more ly to develop psychiatric disorders while in solitary confinement than while housed in non-solitary units.

Trauma from experiencing and witnessing violence

Prisons and jails are extremely violent places. People often experience traumatic verbal or physical assaults and dehumanization at the hands of correctional officers.

And the various stressors in a carceral environment also increase the chances of violence between incarcerated people.

Researchers in a 2009 study found that experiencing violence during incarceration was significantly related to “aggressive and antisocial behavioral tendencies as well as emotional distress.”

In fact, even witnessing violence behind bars can be traumatizing, as we have discussed previously.

Exposure to violence in prisons and jails can exacerbate existing mental health disorders or even lead to the development of post-traumatic stress symptoms anxiety, depression, avoidance, hypersensitivity, hypervigilance, suicidality, flashbacks, and difficulty with emotional regulation.

Lasting effects

Some researchers suggest that the trauma people experience behind bars can lead to Post-Incarceration Syndrome, a syndrome that shares characteristics with PTSD.

A 2013 study of 25 released lifers found that participants experienced a specific cluster of mental health symptoms, including institutionalized personality traits ( distrusting others, difficulty maintaining relationships, and problems making decisions), social-sensory disorientation (issues with spatial reasoning and difficulty with social interactions), and social and temporal alienation (the feeling of not belonging in social settings).

Similarly, a 2019 literature review found that incarcerated people experience high rates of Potentially Traumatic Events, often shortened to PTEs. The review further revealed that experiencing PTEs behind bars was strongly correlated with rates of PTSD upon release.

We often think of incarceration as something people live through and from which they can ultimately be released.

But the reality is that time spent in prisons and jails can create a host of collateral consequences that haunt individuals even after release.

As the research shows, incarceration can trigger and worsen symptoms of mental illness — and those effects can last long after someone leaves the prison gates.


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