We Are Less Likely To Dehumanise Prisoners Who Are Approaching The End Of Their Sentence

By Emma Young

Criminals are often characterised in the popular press as “animals” or “cold-blooded”. Such adjectives effectively dehumanise them, and there’s no end of research finding that if we deny fully human emotional and thinking capacities to other people, we are less likely to treat them in a humane way. But how long does prisoner dehumanisation last? Is it a life sentence? Or, wondered the authors of a new paper, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, does it depend on how long a prisoner has left to serve?

Jason C. Deska at Ryerson University in Canada and his colleagues ran a series of seven studies to investigate this. In each, participants viewed a series of 20 mugshots of White men imprisoned in Florida. Though the mugshots were of real prisoners, the team manipulated the accompanying information, so that each man’s sentence was stated as being around 1,460 days (four years), and they had either served around one month or had only about one month left in prison.

The first two studies, on 148 students and then 155 adults recruited online, revealed that the participants ascribed greater mental sophistication to the prisoners who were about to be released than to those who had only just started their sentences. These prisoners were credited with having greater emotional and cognitive faculties as well as greater agency — an ability to act according to their own individual intentions. They were, in other words, subject to less dehumanisation.

In the next five studies, the researchers further explored what they called the “time-to-serve effect”. They investigated the potential role of the participants’ beliefs about the four primary functions of incarceration, as identified by laypeople as well as experts in criminal justice. These are: rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence (from committing another crime) and incapacitation (removing criminals from society, to prevent them from harming anyone else). In each study, fresh batches of online participants viewed the same 20 mugshots, along with sentencing information. But as well as completing the Mind Attribution Scale, which measured any dehumanisation, participants also rated the extent to which they felt that the prisoner had either been rehabilitated, punished, deterred or incapacitated. (Each study included just one of these mini-scales.)

Soon-to-be-released prisoners were seen as being more rehabilitated, more adequately punished, and more likely to have been deterred from committing future crimes. These perceptions in turn led people to view the prisoners approaching the end of their sentence as more “human”. The researchers stress that they are not arguing that prison is an effective deterrent, or that punishment causes prisoners to gain mental sophistication — rather, that beliefs about how well the functions of prison have been met seem to affect levels of dehumanisation of prisoners.

In the final study, participants completed all three of these scales, rather than just one. This time, only beliefs relating to levels of rehabilitation and deterrence — and not retribution — emerged as being important for driving the “time to serve” effect.

As the team notes, deterrence and retribution both involve the infliction of pain on the individual, but only deterrence seeks to change that person. Effective rehabilitation and deterrence both entail changes in the prisoner’s mental state, and, it seems, either less dehumanisation by others, or a restoration of ascriptions of typical human capacities.

“Prisoners are a chronically dehumanized social group,” the team notes. Given work finding that dehumanisation of prisoners “both impedes successful rehabilitation and facilitates inhumane treatment”, it’s clearly important to understand the circumstances and beliefs that can affect these kinds of views.

“Although our data cannot speak to how effective incarceration is for actual rehabilitation and deterrence, they do suggest that emphasising these functions of incarceration may be especially important for interventions designed at integrating ex-convicts back into society,” the team concludes. Well, they do if that society comprises mostly White Americans, and if the prisoners are all White males, as was the case here. As the researchers themselves note, “Future work would do well to examine how diverse participants in non-WEIRD cultures dehumanize prisoners across the course of their prison term.” Different cultural attitudes, and also the nature of a prisoner’s crime (in these studies, the crimes were deliberately not identified) could clearly affect prisoner dehumanisation, too. But these are interesting first steps to a deeper understanding of which beliefs lead us to dehumanise prisoners, and how they might be modified.

Dehumanizing Prisoners: Remaining Sentence Duration Predicts the Ascription of Mind to Prisoners

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest