Hope and health behind bars…

Prison winter

“without hope, a man in prison is nothing.”

Those were the words declared and despaired by Clarence Norris while serving a life sentence in an Alabama jail. Clarence had a long and torturous ordeal. He was arrested in Alabama in 1931, sentenced to the electric chair three times, had his sentence commuted once, released on parole twice, broke his parole the same number of times — the final time he managed to remain free until his death from Alzheimer’s in 1989.

The trials and tribulations of Clarence Norris, the last of the nine Scottsboro defendants, serves as an example to the fact that the eternal optimist not only lasts longer in prison, but survives prison.

In contrast to the growing regard for the psychological construct of hope in medical and psychological arenas, hope has not yet found a place in the field of criminology or in relation to the general health of imprisoned populations.

Not only is hope an essential requirement in prison, it is ambiguously important in prison for health. As prison populations increase, so does the associated medical care… and in countries like the US, that imprisons more and more of its citizens, that cost becomes substantial. So it makes sense to attack the problem at the root of the cause.

Inmates usually have a wide variety of health problems ranging from arthritis, asthma, and backaches, to more serious diseases such as hepatitis, HIV, and tuberculosis. Not to mention the cases of infection that break out as a direct result of incarcerated populations. This is as a result of the lifestyle of inmates as much as anything else (prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse, and associated health problems, is high among offenders). And sometimes, unfortunately, getting ill in prison can be a death sentence.

In a sample of 501 jail inmates, physical health concerns were evaluated in their relation to optimism. Examining if physical health concerns increased or decreased over the period of incarceration, and whether optimism was associated with physical health. The results, obviously with something like this, were inconclusive. To tease apart optimism in itself is a hard task.

Generalities in associating the eternal optimist with employing more effective and adaptive coping strategies, and being able to distinguish controllable situations from those that are uncontrollable and thus are more likely to demonstrate acceptance in the face of events that they cannot control, largely have no merit based on the data observed.

One fact is certain; that the realisation of policy makers and those charged with running correctional communities of the full extent of health problems within prisons pose a clear public health opportunity… and a unique opportunity to confront it.


Heigel, C., Stuewig, J., & Tangney, J. (2010). Self-Reported Physical Health of Inmates: Impact of Incarceration and Relation to Optimism Journal of Correctional Health Care, 16 (2), 106-116 DOI: 10.1177/1078345809356523

Wilper AP, Woolhandler S, Boyd JW, Lasser KE, McCormick D, Bor DH, & Himmelstein DU (2009). The health and health care of US prisoners: results of a nationwide survey. American journal of public health, 99 (4), 666-72 PMID: 19150898


4 Responses to “Hope and health behind bars…”

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