What's it called when someone who's been incarcerated for so long that when they're released they aren't able to function well because they're more comfortable in jail.

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    Yes! This is what I was looking for! "Institutionalized" It was driving me crazy trying to remember this term! Thank you! Nov 19, 2015 at 1:07
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    I gotta believe that there is a less ambiguous slang term than "institutionalized".
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 19, 2015 at 1:26
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    In my mind, prior to reading this question and its answers, the term "institutionalized" unambiguously meant "admitted to a mental hospital or related facility." I had never heard it used in connection to prison.
    – cobaltduck
    Nov 19, 2015 at 16:06
  • @cobaltduck, I disagree. I've heard 'institutionalized' used in a broader context, such as an employee who's worked so long in a comfortable job that when made redundant, they struggle to work in any other environment. Nov 19, 2015 at 17:03

6 Answers 6


The term institutionalized is often used

(Of a person, especially a long-term patient or prisoner) made apathetic and dependent after a long period in an institution.

Oxford Dictionaries Online

Note that the term is used for people who have been in other types of institutions, such as mental hospitals.

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    Of course, the problem with that word is it also means simply "having been placed in an institution" (usually implying you're a nut case).
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 19, 2015 at 1:02
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    @HotLicks So true. Context is needed to see which meaning fits. She was behaving so erratically she had to be institutionalized or She was locked up so long, she was institutionalized and couldn't function in the straight world.
    – bib
    Nov 19, 2015 at 1:12
  • @HotLicks As I think about it, the meaning relating to placement is a true verb form (often passive tense), but the meaning relating to state of mind is almost always adjectival, using a past participle.
    – bib
    Nov 19, 2015 at 11:56
  • @HotLicks The word 'institutionalized' could refer to a psych hospital, but you would need to clarify that point, otherwise the listener/reader will assume you are referring to a prison. "Johnny spent half his life in the psych ward, so he is probably institutionalized by now."
    – NickNo
    Nov 19, 2015 at 15:33
  • @NickNo - Well, the example you give is totally ambiguous -- does it mean "he's probably in an institution", or "he's probably got the 'institutional' mindset"?
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 19, 2015 at 19:09

In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Red tells Andy that Brooks has been in Shawshank for so long he was "institutionalized."



I have also heard "habituated" used to describe this condition, by a former inmate. He said that this was common usage among inmates, and that they would shorten it to " 'bitched " in informal settings. :-)


A "recidivist" is a criminal who continues committing crimes after being released from jail. Many recidivists are trying to get caught, so they can go back to jail for the "three hots and a cot".

Some of these recidivists know they want to go back to jail; and some are subconsciously trying to get back to jail. On the other hand, some recidivists do not want to go back to jail -- but have bad habits, or are not willing to make all the sacrifices needed to follow the law.

  • This was the first word that came to my mind, but I'm not sure it's really appropriate for the question. Having difficulty living outside prison does not necessarily mean they return to crime. They might instead become depressed, alcoholic, etc.
    – Barmar
    Nov 23, 2015 at 19:53

"Institutionalized" is the word I think you're looking for. Urban Dictionary mentions it in connection to a soldier that's re-enlisted too many times. Unfortunately it seems there is a bit of a parallel between prison and the military.


Institutionalized is the right term, but I'd like to mention a related term:


Stockholm syndrome refers to positive feelings towards captors, but applies to those who are injustly held (hostages, POW's, concentration camp inmates.)


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