Coping Strategies of Prison Inmates: Literature Review

03 Apr 2018

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Chapter II


This chapter discusses some relevant literature and studies that provide an overview, with sufficient knowledge and insight, about the present study. This includes articles, journals, published and unpublished studies and books, which contributes to the study.

Related Literature

In this section, the researchers provided discussions about the relevant facts, issues and principles in support to the present study.

ERG Theory

The study could be explained by the Existence, Relatedness, and Growth theory of Clayton Alderfer. This perspective claims that more than one need may motivate a person at the same time and unlike Maslow’s hierarchy, needs do not have to be satisfied following an order from the bottom of the hierarchy up to the uppermost level (Griffin & Moorhead, 2013). A person might try to satisfy the growth needs of meeting a tough goal even though that person’s relatedness needs are not fully satisfied (Alhstrom & Bruton, 2009). The theory also includes the satisfaction-progression idea that after satisfying one category of needs, a person moves on to the next level; and the frustration-regression process wherein those who are not able to satisfy their higher needs become frustrated and regress back to the lower level needs. Furthermore, Growth or personal growth, according to ERG theory is analogous to Maslow’s need for self-actualization (Griffin & Moorhead, 2013). Growth needs specifically refer to the need to develop one’s full potential in an individual’s current environment and present circumstances (Bernstein, 2010).


According to Maslow (1943), as cited by Compton (2013), there are 15 personality traits of Self-actualizing people which are classified into openness to experience, autonomy, positive relationships with others, and strong ethical standards. Under openness to experience, people in their fullest potentials have more efficient perception of reality and more comfortable relations with it; are able to accept their selves and the people around them; have a continued sense of appreciation; are spontaneous and simple; creative; and are able to have moments of intense joy, accompanied by heightened awareness. Autonomy is shown when these people possess independence of culture and environment; enjoy solitude and privacy; and they have resistance to enculturation. These people also have positive relationships with others characterized by social interest; interpersonal relations; philosophical sense of humor; and problem-centering which benefits other people. Lastly, self-actualized people have strong ethical standards through having democratic character structure and they are able to differentiate between the right and wrong.

Mental health problems in prison

Scott and Codd (2010) discussed the different mental health problems in prison. According to them, it should be recognized that some sufferers may have broken the law as means of getting their basic human necessities. In this sense, offending may be considered as a desperate cry for help from someone in need of care and support. Although for some offenders, prison acts as a ‘stabilizer’, the mental wellbeing of the majority of prisoners deteriorates and the prison presents a serious danger to the mental health of those confined. Some of the damaging aspects of daily prison regime are: crowding, frustrations, lack of mental or physical stimulation, negative relationships, exploitation, and inadequate care, but alongside all these sit the structured pains of confinement. This literature states that mostly, incarceration has a negative effect on the mental health of those imprisoned.

In another article by Roguski and Chauvel (2009), prisoners in New Zealand were evaluated. Participants reported that mental health services were underprovided. As an outcome, severe distress and negative mental health were experienced by participants whose medications were discontinued. Many prisoners’ mental health deteriorated due to the lack of mental health services. As a result of the prison environment, participants developed violent tendencies, insomnia, anger, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Prison as a place of hope

Inderbitzin (2012) saw prison as a place of hope and transformative learning. According to her, prisons may seem designed to strip inhabitants of their humanity, but some individuals discover new hope and strength during their incarceration. Some manage to find the freedom and will to become who they aspire to be while serving time being incarcerated. Education acts as one important lifeline for individuals spending years of their lives in prison. Those inmate students struggle through readings, homework and difficult concepts, and, in doing so, they become role models for their children and their fellow prisoners. They may never be able to erase their past transgressions, but they work to build new skills and hope to leave a legacy other than pain and loss.

Inmates’ coping strategies

Picken (2012) provided an overview of the coping strategies, adjustment and well-being of male inmates in the prison environment; and also determined if coping strategies affect the adaptation of the inmates and whether institutional changes can improve inmate adjustments and coping. One coping strategy is to master, reduce, or tolerate the demands created by stress.

In addition, Eytan (2011) reviewed empirical data on religion, spirituality and mental health or illness in places of detention. Results showed that RS or Religion and Spirituality, improves coping mechanism for facing stressful life. It also reduces depressive symptoms or self-harm. Also, it has an impact on the inmate’s behavior by reducing arguments, violence and disciplinary actions inside the penal institution. According to the review, the strongest indication of RS is reduction of incidents and disciplinary actions inside the prison.

Successful Ex-Offender

Hanniel Choong Wai Kok has spent time in-and-out of the prison for a period of almost 20 years. He went to prison for the first time for drug-related charges. When he was behind the bars, he learned about the word of God through the programs of the volunteered organization, The Helping Hand. Hanniel attended weekly counseling sessions and went to chapel services and with the help of Pastor Arthur Phua as well as the staff; they help him understand the word of God. It taught him the real meaning of life and change for the better.

Going back to the society was a tough one. He said that it makes it difficult to apply for a job because of his drug addiction background. Rebuilding the trust of his family members is not an easy task also. He mentioned that it took him years to get back their trust and confidence.

After his release in 1996, he joined the Adam Road Presbyterian Center (ARPC) as a member. In 1998, he joined The Helping Hand as a full time staff and by helping the organization raise funds for its causes by moving services and painting works. In the same year, ARPC sent him to The House of Hope in Cebu, Philippines and worked and helped rehabilitate drug addicts for three years.

At the end of his mission in the Philippines, he applied as a Maintenance Officer at ARPC. He was accepted and still works there full-time. Hanniel has a passion for running and helped raised $10,000 for the Yellow Ribbon Project by being part of the team who competed at the Aviva Ironman 70.3 Singapore Triathlon in 2009.

His advice to those who will face the burden of going back to the society is to never give up and take difficulties as a challenge. For, it is only through their determination that will help them change people’s mindset about the ex-offenders (Yellow Ribbon Project, 2008).

Personal Growth after Trauma

Greenberg (2013) stated that aside from emotional devastation, there is another side to stressful life experiences. She stated that after experiencing stressful events, many people had positive psychological changes and psychological growth. The growth they experienced did not remove the negative effects, but it existed with them, or may have been resulted from therapeutic work.

Related Studies

This section discusses the different investigations related to the present study concerning to its topic, the impact of incarceration in attaining personal growth.

Foreign Studies

A pre-test and post-test designed study by Frana (2013) measured the self-actualization levels of prisoners participating in a cognitive-behavioral program. In this study, 14 participants both completed the pre-test and post-test. Results showed that participants in freedom-101, a cognitive behavioral program, do increase measures of self-actualization. It shows that out of 14 participants, 11 showed increase in self-actualization, only one had diminished score and two remained the same and showed no effect. It indicates that the participation in Freedom-101 does increase self-actualization. It can be concluded that cognitive behavioral programs that focuses on rehabilitation through remodeling of thinking patterns are effective in lessening deviant behavior, which contributes to criminal acts.

Gummerum and Hanoch (2012) conducted a study where they examined the altruistic behavior of the inmates to partially compensate for their past criminal behavior. 50 inmates and 50 age-matched non-inmates were subjected to test their altruism. The results showed that the inmates displayed more altruistic behavior and higher empathy compared to the non-inmates. In addition, inmates’ altruistic behavior was positively predicted by their belief in a just world and perspective taking, whereas in non-inmates, altruistic behavior was positively predicted by empathy. This could be related to the present study since being helpful to others is one of the characteristics of an individual attaining personal growth.

Another study by Merten, et al., (2012) examined the valuation of life, loneliness and depression between the age, race and health of the prisoners. The researchers conducted a study to 261 male prisoners, ages 45-80, from 8 Oklahoma correctional facilities. The results of the conducted survey showed that the African American prisoners were likely to have less health condition than White prisoners. These African American prisoners were found to have a significant value of life, they are less lonely, and they have certainly the case of lower depressed mood rather than White prisoners. Also, it has been stated in this study that older prisoners have more reported health conditions than younger prisoners. It can be concluded that valuation of life, depression, and loneliness vary from different ages, races, and health of the prisoners. Results also suggested that improving inmates’ internal states will reduce incidence of illness and diseases among older male offenders.

Contrary to the above studies, Durak and Gencoz (2010) examined the factors associated with the symptoms of depression and anxiety given the 179 male Turkish prisoners. The use of different methods and scales showed that through the effect of prison-life stress, external locus of control increased the level of depression and anxiety symptoms of the prisoners. Because of the effect of prison-life stress, these prisoners had higher symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In addition, McMurran and Christopher (2009) found out that Negative Problem Orientation (NPO) would be the strongest predictor of anxiety and depression among inmates. The researchers have collected adult prisoners from three different prisons from South Wales. They have used SPSI – R which is a 25-item self-report questionnaire. Results showed that feelings of nervousness, threat, and fear could be some of the responses to problems that the prisoners encountered inside the prison setting. Social problem-solving interventions may, therefore, have a big role in assisting distressed prisoners to cope up with imprisonment and benefit from rehabilitation efforts.

Local Studies

In the local setting, de Guzman (2010) used a descriptive phenomenological study to capture the lived experiences of selected geriatric Filipino inmates focusing on the effects of Traditional Filipino Arts (TFA) on their self-esteem. The six participants were selected through the use of the snowballing technique. Five of the participants were from the special care pavilion of the medium security unit in New Bilibid Prison, Muntinlupa City, Philippines. All of the participants’ ages range from 54 to 70. Doodling, elicitation, and in-depth interview were done before and after the application of the intervention. This study successfully captured the essence of the inmates’ transition of their self-esteem through the intervention of Puni-making.

Car (2007) determined the psycho-social attributes and moral-spiritual orientation of the inmates at the Ilocos Sur Provincial Jail. The study used the descriptive method of research with the questionnaire as the main measure in data collection. Results showed that the inmates have “high” level of psycho-social attributes which include trust, initiative and willingness to change, intimacy and social relations, and industry and capability to work. In addition, they have “very high” level of religious belief, “high” moral-spiritual values, and “high” in influence of religion.

Lastly, Ormita and Perez (2012) utilized a multiple case study to determine the psychological profile of incarcerated women. The results indicated that the respondents have symptoms of paranoia and schizophrenia, which may be precipitated or reinforced by their incarceration. They also manifested troubled relationships within the family, hold negative views of the opposite sex, have regrets about their past, and put up with their feelings of insecurity and poor self-concept. Further, it was found out that they utilize negative coping mechanisms, and are likely to use avoidance, passivity, regression, and react emotionally in response to stress.

Synthesis of the study

The cited related literatures and studies, which were published from 2007 to 2013, are significant in explaining and supporting the present study. Each study sheds light on the possibility of attaining personal growth while inside the prison system.

Generally, some of the related literatures and studies support the idea that the inmates, achieving a state of fullest potential, personal growth, or self-actualization, even while inside the prison system, is possible. As stated by Griffin & Moorhead (2013), Alderfer explained in his ERG theory that needs do not have to be satisfied following an order, thus, a person may jump from one need to another. In the present study, though prisoners may have been deprived of the existence and relatedness needs, they may still achieve the higher level, growth need.

Growth need or personal growth is analogous to self-actualization (Griffin & Moorhead, 2013). Thus, foreign and some local studies and literatures showed that prisoners already possess some of the characteristics of a self-actualized individual and that some institutions already have few rehabilitative programs that will help prisoners attain personal growth. An example is the Freedom-101 which is a cognitive behavioral program which increases self-actualization (Frana, 2013). For the local setting, Traditional Filipino Arts was proven as an effective therapy in enhancing the self-esteem of Filipino inmates (de Guzman, 2010).

Gummerum and Hanoch (2012) showed that inmates already possess altruistic behaviors and these were positively predicted by their belief in a just world and that they do such to compensate for their past criminal behavior. Another study found out that because of having a significant value for life, prisoners tend to become less lonely and less depressed. And because of this, inmates reduced their incidence of physical illness (Merten, et al., 2012). Locally, it was found out that inmates have “high” level of psycho-social attributes which include trust, initiative and willingness to change, intimacy and social relations, and industry and capability to work. In addition, they have “very high” level of religious belief, “high” moral-spiritual values, and “high” in influence of religion (Car, 2007).

In contrary, Scott and Codd (2010) believed that the mental wellbeing of the majority of prisoners deteriorates and the prison presents a serious danger to the mental health of those confined. This was supported by Durak and Gencoz (2010) and they claimed that through the effect of prison-life stress, external locus of control increased the level of depression and anxiety symptoms of the prisoners. Because of the effect of prison-life stress, these prisoners had higher symptoms of depression and anxiety. In addition, the negative problem orientation of prisoners - such as nervousness, threat, and fear- made them even more anxious and depressed (McMurran & Christopher, 2009). Roguski and Chauvel (2009) also claimed that because of the inadequacies of mental support, the prisoners have developed violent tendencies, insomnia, anger, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

To address these mental health problems, some researchers provided suggestions on how prisoners would be able to adjust and cope up. Inderbitzin (2012) saw the importance of education in making prison as a place of hope and transformative learning. According to her, educational programs play an important role in building new skills and hope to prisoners. In addition to education, religion and spirituality were also proven to improve coping mechanism for facing stressful life (Eytan, 2011). Lastly, it is very important that the prisoners master, reduce, and tolerate the demands created by stress to help their selves adjust (Picken, 2012).

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