Background: Prison can be characterized as an impoverished environment encouraging a sedentary lifestyle with limited autonomy and social interaction, which may negatively affect self-control and executive function. Here, we aim to study the effects of imprisonment on self-control and executive functions, and we report the change in neuropsychological outcome after 3 months of imprisonment.

Materials and Methods: Participants were 37 male inmates in a remand prison in Amsterdam, Netherlands, who completed six tests of a computerized neuropsychological test battery (the Cambridge Automated Neuropsychological Test Battery) in the first week of arrival. Participants were retested after 3 months of imprisonment. Change in performance was tested using the Wilcoxon Signed-Rank test.

Results: After 3 months of imprisonment, risk taking significantly increased (measured as an increase in the proportion of available points used for betting) and attention significantly deteriorated (measured as increased variability in reaction times on a sustained attention task), with large to medium effect sizes. In contrast, planning significantly improved (measured with a task analog to the Tower of London) with a medium effect size.

Discussion: Our study suggests that 3 months of imprisonment in an impoverished environment may lead to reduced self-control, measured as increased risk taking and reduced attentional performance. This is a significant and societally relevant finding, as released prisoners may be less capable of living a lawful life than they were prior to their imprisonment, and may be more prone to impulsive risk-taking behavior. In other words, the impoverished environment may contribute to an enhanced risk of reoffending.

Jesse Meijers, Joke M. Harte, Gerben Meynen, Pim Cuijpers and Erik J. A. Scherder
Frontiers in Psychology, 01 February 2018