Choosing When Choices Are Limited: The Role of Perceived Afforded Choice and Autonomy in Prisoners’ Well-Being

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Although prison life is generally characterized by little choice and autonomy, there exists considerable variation in the number and type of choices offered to different prisoners. Based on self-determination theory, which maintains that perceived afforded choice and autonomy are of crucial importance for individuals’ psychological functioning, we investigated the relation between choice, autonomy satisfaction, and subjective quality of life among prisoners. We drew on quantitative cross-sectional data gathered among 156 Belgian prisoners (Mage = 38.60, 88.5% men). Participants filled out questionnaires measuring perceived afforded choice, autonomy satisfaction, and quality of life. The main hypotheses were tested using structural equation modeling. Results showed that perceived afforded choice related to higher subjective quality of life within prison. This relation was partially accounted for by elevated levels of autonomy satisfaction. Supplementary analyses revealed that the benefit of choice emerged regardless of participants’ valuation of choice, and that perceived afforded choice with regard to daytime activities (i.e., leisure activities, work, and education) yielded the strongest effect. Collectively, results suggest that enhancing perceived afforded choice and autonomy satisfaction may provide important avenues for promoting prisoner quality of life. These findings are discussed in light of the growing focus on strength-based approaches and psychological well-being within the prison context.

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