Psychological Effects of Wrongful Imprisonment, Dwayne Custer


A friend of mine, Dwayne Custer, is in college and studying some serious psychology courses.  He wrote a paper for one of his courses that  I liked  so well that I asked him if I could post it to my blog.  He agreed that I could.

Psychological Effects of Wrongful Imprisonment
Dwayne Custer

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” –  Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

“A man who is not afraid is not aggressive, a man who has no sense of fear of any kind is really a free, a peaceful man.” – J. Krishnamurti

Before: It Could Happen To You


It is one of the very first things to pop into one’s mind when considering how one would react to being wrongfully accused of a crime and subsequently incarcerated. Fear of losing one’s identity. Fear of losing one’s family. Fear of losing time and opportunity. It is at the core of all humans and one of the most motivating emotions of any kind. Fear is not the opposite of courage. Fear stands on its own. It cannot be turned into courage by will. Fear can only be overcome by going into it, understanding it, and eventually assimilating it. From this understanding many psychological doors open for an individual.

Imagine sitting down to dinner with your family or plopping comfortably into your recliner to watch a television show, and the doorbell rings. “Who could that be at this hour?” you say to yourself. Being the cautious person that you are, you look through the peep hole to see who could be needing your attention. To your surprise it is the police. Nervously you open the door and the officer in charge begins the conversation by asking if your name is “such and such”. You freely confirm their question and ask them how you can help. They respond by saying you’re under arrest as a suspect in a local murder. Immediately fear roils through your body. Your hands begin to sweat and your heart pounds heavily. “What?!” you ask. But the officer is beyond further conversation with you as he pulls out a set of handcuffs, begins to read you your rights, and asks you to turn around. “This is ridiculous” is the only repeating thought in your mind. Your neighbors are looking out of their window as you are led to a police car and shuffled away. Your family is left standing in the door way and your youngest child is crying.


An overwhelming number of people have experienced this kind of scenario in their lives. They have been wrongfully accused of crimes they didn’t commit and yet are not exonerated by our justice system. Instead they are declared guilty and sentenced to long terms in prison. This paper attempts to address some of the psychological effects of wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

It is easy to place yourself in the shoes of another person in order to try and understand what it must be like to be arrested and thrown in jail for something you didn’t do. Fear, anxiety, worry, nervousness, confusion, mistrust and suspicion cloud your mind as you fight to find answers to how this happened.

Put yourself in the shoes of Ronald Cotton. In his words, he describes the surreal experiences of being sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit.

“On January 18, 1985, I was sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years. I stood there as the judge read my sentence. He called me one of the most dangerous men he had ever met; the district attorney said I was a ‘menace to society’. I could scarcely look at anyone, but I caught a glimpse of my mom and some of my sisters like someone had just slapped them. I pinched my right arm as hard as I could. The crescent indent marks on my skin appeared just as the court officers moved in to take me away: This was a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from (Thompson-Cannino, 2009).”

During: Coping on the Inside

You have given up all hope of being set free and your innocence proven. You’ve seen the circus they call the criminal justice system for what it is. In light of all the evidence, a single determinant placed you behind bars; an eyewitness. But this eyewitness supposedly saw you in the middle of the night running down a dimly lit alley. How could anyone possibly identify you as the criminal when they couldn’t even see five feet in front of themselves? Nevertheless, the jury found you guilty of first degree murder and the judge sentenced you to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Your first day of incarceration brings you to your knees. You feel that either you are going to die here or through some miracle might be able to get through one day at a time. The thought of ever being free again slowly fades day after day as you are psychologically beaten down to conform to prison life. Yet, there is still a small glimmer of knowledge in your heart that you are innocent giving you hope and courage to continue on each day.

According to the authors of The Burden of Innocence: Coping with a Wrongful Imprisonment published in the Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice in January 2004, many prisoners find out quickly if they are going to be able to adapt to this new life or not.

“The deleterious effects of long-term imprisonment have been well documented in literature. The special stresses that affect prisoners include relationship difficulties, such as loss of existing relationships and problems in developing new relationships inside prison; concerns with physical and psychological deterioration; the indeterminate nature of sentences; and the prison environment itself. Research on prisoners’ coping strategies has revealed that prisoners often adopt a fatalistic perspective that established the release date as a time boundary, focusing on the ‘here-and-now’ and using prison time to acquire education and training skills. However, since most long-term prisoners have poor coping abilities to begin with, they tend to fare poorly. …Several…coping strategies (have been identified), including cooperation or colonization, withdrawal, and rebellion or resistance. These strategies are a reaction to the experience of imprisonment and are influenced by the social and cultural backgrounds of individual prisoners (Campbell, 2004).”

Prisoners must adapt to the physical and psychological environment of incarceration or they are chewed up and spit out by the other inmates. Ronald Cotton maintained an edge over others in the system by shaping his body and mind. “In prison, working out and staying strong is a form of surviving. Not only did you need to be able to throw someone down, but you also needed to exhaust yourself or else you might never sleep (Thompson-Cannino, 2009).”


Once you’ve overcome the fear and cultural shock of entering prison, survival is paramount. Violence is an every day occurrence and a reality that the weak cannot overcome with conversation or dialogue. One of the interviewees from The Burden of Innocence: Coping with a Wrongful Imprisonment named Jason describes every day life in prison. “You’ve got armed groups, armed different factions, freely walking around, high-medium and maximum-security institutions. Armed, concealing, chemical weapons, fire weapons, bludgeoning weapons, slicing weapons. [Did you ever fear for your life?] (Campbell, 2004)”

Strategies used to survive also include cooperation and belonging. These adaptive measures insure the safety and survival of inmates who are unable or unwilling to participate in violence. Additionally, while some individuals may survive using adaptive measures like violence, cooperation and belonging, others may turn to other coping mechanisms such as withdrawal leading to isolation and suicide ideation (Campbell, 2004).

Once again, imagine you are the person that has been incarcerated wrongfully. Your entire psychological makeup would inexorably be altered to adapt to the social and culture environment of prison life. Everything you once held as truth and rational would be dissolved in a matter of weeks. The life you had would end in abortion and a new life would impregnate your spirit. It might be likened to a death and resurrection of sorts. Believing there is no hope for salvation, you turn to your only resources for survival; adaptation, coping and overcoming.

After: Forever Altered


The word rings through your mind every day for years as you adapt to life in prison. An intangible carrot dangling just outside of your reach. It is the hope upon which you place your entire life and one that seems will never happen. Time slips away and everyone and everything you knew changes forever. The outside world has evolved. Imagine going into prison not knowing what a computer was and coming out to find that the entire world was using them. And that’s just one area of change. The evolutionary process is overwhelming for those that finally leave prison.

After 12 years of incarceration, your appeals have finally been heard. The DNA evidence that proved your innocence never existed a decade ago. You laugh to yourself as the judge “apologizes” for the injustice that has been served. He hopes you find forgiveness in your heart and a hopeful new life in the outside world. “How dare he” you say to yourself. “How dare he sit there high and mighty pretending to understand what I just went through. I hate him and I hate our system. I want revenge but that would only put me back in the prison I just came from.”

Anger, uncertainty, frustration, and hopelessness follow many people out the door of a prison and into the streets of a “free” world. The problems that many released individuals experience are in direct correlation to the the blind eye that the criminal justice system used to incarcerate you in the first place. They refuse to compensate you for your psychological and physical abuse, or for the theft of the life you once had. They refuse to admit their failings in serving justice and they admonish you to pick up the pieces and move on.

“How dare they.”

A study of 18 men referred for systematic psychiatric assessment after wrongful incarceration and release from prison show without a doubt that the trauma they incurred is sinister form of cruel and unusual punishment. A long list of psychological and emotional disorders is presented in the paper Psychological Consequences of Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment.

“The assessments revealed evidence of substantial psychiatric morbidity. Fourteen men met ICD-10 diagnostic criteria for ‘enduring personality change following catastrophic experience’, twelve met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, and most reported additional mood and anxiety disorders. There were major problems of psychological and social adjustment, particularly within families. The difficulties were similar to those described in the clinical literature on war veterans. …Specific traumatic features of miscarriage of justice and long-term imprisonment both appear to contribute to the post-release psychological problems (Grounds, 2004).”

It does not require a suspension of disbelief to know that these individuals end up suffering irreparable personality changes and disorders. Findings by Adrian Grounds in Psychological Consequences of Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment show that “families consistently said the men had changed – they were not the people they used to be; they were withdrawn, unable to relate properly. One mother said of her son, ‘He is like a stranger to you …He always used to be affectionate. Now he can’t express emotion, he can’t sit and talk. He jumps about, he is unsettled. Prison has changed him. His personality has changed.’ (Grounds, 2004)”

Additional information from Pam Cytrynbaum of Northwestern University, confirms that readjusting to life outside bars is not always easy, especially when someone has served many years or decades in prison. “ …Once they are exonerated, many remain incredibly panicked that they will be picked up again, wrongfully, and are incredibly fearful, even paranoid. But you know what they say about paranoia – you may be right. It’s such a deep level of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some can fight through it but some remain imprisoned. (Cytrynbaum, 2011).”

There are few studies done on the before, during and after life of people imprisoned on false accusations. There are even fewer programs and assistance available to those that are lucky enough to find exoneration and freedom. Besides the traumatic effects on the psychology of prisoners, many problems of adjustment haunt them through life. They initially lack the practical skills to find jobs, housing and means to adapt back into a foreign socio-cultural environment. They are plagued by a lack of purpose and are often harassed by the ignorant who still consider them guilty of a crime they didn’t commit. And, perhaps most importantly, they have lost time. Time to love, grow and experience the world change around them. Instead they are robbed of that time and told there is no compensation for it whatsoever (Grounds, 2004).

Cytrynbaum best describes the chasm between the release of rightfully accused and wrongfully accused prisoners.

“One of the cruelest ironies of wrongful conviction is this: If you are guilty and you do your time, when you are released, you’re on parole and you get access to a range of services. You get job training, some education, a parole officer, access to programs that help you adjust.. etc…. It’s not great, but it’s something. If you are found innocent and exonerated, even though you served 20 years in prison, you are not considered to be on parole so you do not have access to any services. You are released wearing the same clothes you were arrested in and maybe given bus fare if you’re lucky. It is yet another outrage and horror (Cytrynbaum, 2011).”

Conclusion: Small Glimmer of Hope

You have been handcuffed, accused, sentenced, imprisoned, traumatized, shocked, and literally tortured for something you didn’t do. You have had good and bad days with hope and distress intermingling with one another like dolphins and shark in the waters below you. Yet, there has been a ray of light in your ability to adapt and the knowledge that you are innocent.

You are as quickly thrown out of prison as you were put in it decades earlier and told “good luck.” You look around your feet and in place of the turbid waters you find thousands of pieces of a puzzle waiting for you to put them back together again. But how can you? How can you just pretend it was all a game?

You resolve to help organizations like Innocence Project hoping that by helping others you in turn can help yourself. You hope that you can find peace in a world that turned its back on you and labeled it “justice.”

According to the Innocence Project website there are tens of thousands of people (prime suspects) wrongfully accused of crimes but exonerated by DNA evidence (Innocence). But it doesn’t say how many may have fallen through the cracks or whose cases are too old to hope that DNA evidence will exonerate them. They are the hopeless and forgotten.

Innocence Project goes on to provide more statistics that represent human beings who are or have suffered a dysfunctional justice system.

• There have been 272 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.
• 17 of the 272 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row.
• The average length of time served by exonerees is 13 years. The total number of years served is approximately 3,521.
• The average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongful convictions was 27.
• Since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued—until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved that they were wrongly accused.
• About half of the people exonerated through DNA testing have been financially compensated. 27 states, the federal government, and the District of Columbia have passed laws to compensate people who were wrongfully incarcerated. Awards under these statutes vary from state to state. (Innocence)


Campbell, Kathryn, Myriam Denov, The Burden of Innocence: Coping with a Wrongful Imprisonment, Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, January 2004

Cytrynbaum, Pam, Personal Interview, July 2011

Grounds, Adrian, Psychological Consequences of Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment, Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, January 2004

Innocence Project, Facts on Post-Conviction DNA Exonerations,

Thompson-Cannino, Jennifer, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Toreno, Picking Cotton – Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, St. Martin’s Press, 2009


5 responses to “Psychological Effects of Wrongful Imprisonment, Dwayne Custer

  1. Thank you for publishing this article and many thanks to Dwayne for his research and writing of it.
    Do you know if Dwayne will be researching and writing any more articles of a like nature, eg, ‘Persons falsely accused and convicted, released on parole and the traumatic effects this can have on the thinking, behaviour and hopelessness of these persons after being released etc and after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.’

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