What is it about?

Due to shifts in parole policy, people who have life sentences (e.g., 25 to life) are starting to be paroled and come home to their communities in significant numbers. These individual are referred to as “former lifers.” It is important to consider the well-being of people leaving prison and reentering society. Something that may affect their well-being is exposure to events that can cause moral injury. Moral injury exposure occurs when people perpetrate, fail to prevent, or bear witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. An example of moral injury is if a solider killed a child during combat deployment and then feels a strong sense of guilt and shame when he returns home. We conducted an exploratory study where we asked 41 former lifers about their exposure to moral injury over the course of their life, including questions about guilt, shame, rumination, and their current well-being. We found that our participants reported a very high level of moral injury exposure (97.6%), and common sources of those moral injury exposures were the person’s life sentence crime, events that happened before they went to prison, and events that happened during prison. We also found that higher levels of shame (i.e., negative beliefs about oneself) related to moral injury exposure was associated with lower levels of well-being for these men. This suggests that the shame former lifers feel about past events could be significantly affecting their current well-being. Interestingly, guilt (i.e., remorse or responsibility for past actions) was not associated with well-being; this may be because guilt is a more helpful response to moral transgressions. It is important to consider the well-being of those returning to our communities after long-term incarceration because well-being has an effect on their success in reentry and likelihood of reoffending. Our findings suggest that while it is rational to strongly condemn crimes like murder (and encourage guilt for these acts), it is counterproductive and potentially harmful to both the individual and society to continually shame people for past actions.

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Why is it important?

This study is the first to explore the concept of moral injury within a currently or formerly incarcerated population. People who have experienced long-term incarceration could greatly benefit from social services and community support designed to improve or maintain their well-being when they reenter society. One area people who provide services or support may want to consider is this group’s exposure to moral injury. To reduce stigma, language such as “offender,” “inmate,” “sexual predator,” and “convict” could be replaced with “incarcerated person” or “formerly incarcerated person,” which makes no judgement on their guilt or innocence and does not replicate the language used to dehumanize them in prison.


It is important to understand that people can make horrible mistakes, and that we need to help them find pathways to healing and forgiveness, instead of a life of struggling with a deep sense of shame. Helping them with this will make our communities stronger and help keep people from returning to prison.

Joanne DeCaro
University of California Irvine

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Sentenced to shame: Moral injury exposure in former lifers., Psychological Trauma Theory Research Practice and Policy, October 2022, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/tra0001400.
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