The Epidemic of Violence Inside Prisons

There are several million Americans housed in correctional facilities around the country in the modern criminal justice system. One of the biggest issues in the contemporary corrections system is that of prison violence. The American criminal justice system has extremely high rates of prison violence, which includes not only prisoner-prisoner violence, but prisoner-guard violence as well. Prison violence is the most prevalent example of an area of the criminal justice system that needs to be improved, especially in the male prisons, where rates of violence are significantly higher than in the female facilities. This paper is going to analyze some of the potential causes of the high rates of prison violence in male facilities, and how changes can be made to potentially reduce these rates of violence.

One of the most prevalent examples of prison violence within the male facilities is that of sexual assault. Sexual assault occurs for a number of reasons in prison, and under a variety of circumstances. According to an entry published in the Journal of Urban Health, the rates of “sexual victimization in prison may be as high as 41% or as low as less than 1%” (Wolff et al. 836). As with other forms of violence within prisons, the rates of sexual assault in prison are currently unknown, partly because men are extraordinarily unlikely to report a sexual assault, especially in prison. One of the only concepts that is generally agreed upon is that “sexual victimization has an interracial bias, with victims most likely being White and sexual aggressors most likely being black” (Wolff et al. 836) The lack of an agreed upon rate of sexual violence does not mean that sexual assault does not occur in male prisons, however, as Wolff has reported that the rate could be as high as two out of every five men have been sexually assaulted. While sexual violence is clearly a major issue within the male prison population of America, it is not the only form of violence.

Data regarding the rate of physical violence within prisons can be difficult to obtain, given that the definition of physical violence changes in different jurisdictions. In an article published in Crime and Justice titled “Interpersonal Violence and Social Order in Prisons”, Anthony Bottoms defines physical victimization as “the unjustified use of, and threats of, actual physical force in prison” (Bottoms 214). Bottoms analyzes statistical data from the United Kingdom to analyze rates or prison violence because that is the most complete set of data available. The data used was from a study done by Kathleen McDermott and Roy King which reported “that 12.5 percent of their sample said they had been assaulted at some time while in their current prisons; 6.8 percent if respondents claimed to have been sexually attacked; and 33 percent said they had been threatened with violence” (Bottoms 217). In the National Prison Survey which was conducted in England and Wales, “one question was asked on prison assaults… ‘Have you been physically assaulted in any way by another inmate in the last six months’? Overall, 9 percent of prisoners responded affirmatively to this question” (Bottoms 216). While 9% overall claimed to have been assaulted, the rates are very skewed by age group, with 15% of inmates under 21 claiming to have been assaulted, compared to only 4 percent of prisoners over 50.

While this data is from the United Kingdom, the same general patterns of violence according to age groups have been reported in the United States. Young inmates are much more likely to be the victims of physical violence in prisons. The Bureau of Justice conducted a study in 1994, in which it was reported that “Young people age 18-24 consistently have the highest violent crime rates” (US Department of Justice). Young people are more likely to be charged with a crime, after which they are more likely to be the victim of physical violence in prison. Inmates are not the only perpetrators of physical violence within prisons, however.

In the now infamous “Stanford Prison Experiment”, researcher Philip Zimbardo discovered the danger that prison guards present to the prisoners. Normal college students were randomly selected to play the roles of guards and prisoners in a model prison. While the first day passed without incident, the same can’t be said about the second day. The researchers were “surprised and totally unprepared for the rebellion that broke out on the morning of the second day” (Zimbardo et al. 6). Some of the prisoners ripped off their uniform and barricaded their cells. The guards responded with extreme force, using a fire extinguisher to force the prisoners away from the doors. After the doors were cleared of prisoners, the guards “broke into each cell, stripped the prisoners naked, took the beds out, forced the prisoners who were the ringleaders into solitary confinement and generally began to harass and intimidate the prisoners” (Zimbardo et al. 7).

This was not the only example of excessive physical force being used to control the prisoners. It became common for the guards to force the prisoners to strip as a punishment. This experiment shows that while much of the prison violence comes from the inmates themselves, the guards are just as capable of participating in acts of violence. While it is easy to see that prison violence is a common occurence, what remains unclear is why it happens at such high rates. There are many theories that attempt to explain the high rates of prison violence, which blame everything from overcrowding in prison to group tensions (such as racial tensions as Wolff mentioned earlier). One of the lesser known possibilities is that of mental illness. A study found in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry found that in a random sample of 7221 male inmates, 1609 had a form of mental health issue (Blitz et al.). That is higher than 1 in every 7 inmates. This study found that “rates of physical victimization were significantly higher for male inmates with mental disorders compared to male inmates without mental disorders” (Blitz et al.).

In a separate survey in The British Journal of Psychiatry, 1740 patients in a high security mental institution were studied for the rate of violence in the patient population. The researchers found that 58% of the patients had functional psychosis. Furthermore, “Direct personal violence was more common among men,” and “More than 75% of those with a psychosis were recorded as being driven to offend by their delusions” (Taylor et al.). These two studies reveal a pattern in prison violence in regards to mental illness: the mentally ill are more likely to be victimized, but they are also more likely to victimize others. Prison violence is not limited to inmate-inmate incidents, however, as inmate-guard incidents also occur. These are rather easy to explain thanks to the Stanford prison experiment. It is very possible for guards to abuse their power in response to any perceived threat to their authority over the prisoners. When the “prisoners” rebelled during Zimbardo’s experiment, the guards used extreme force to quell the insurrection. If the guards believe that their authority is being threatened by the prisoners, they will likely react with extreme force to maintain control. A solution is sorely needed for this terrible situation.

The solution, however, needs to respond to all of the problems that have been discussed, or it is unlikely to be effective. The solution to the high rates of prison violence is a several-pronged solution. First, the prisoners should be given a cell for themselves. This is not to say solitary confinement, as they will be able to communicate with each other, and there are no restrictions on their liberties. The prisoners will simply have a cell to themselves, which will help to reduce the opportunities for physical violence between prisoners. This will require more prisons to be built to house the prisoners, but it will be necessary to reduce the rates of violence within prisons.

Second, more guards are needed to maintain order in the facilities. One of the major reasons extreme force was used in the Stanford prison experiment was the ratio of guards to prisoners. The experiment had a ratio of one guard for every three prisoners. As such, when their authority was challenged, the guards used extreme measures to quell the rebellion because the rebels outnumbered the guards. If more guards are on duty, it reduces the necessity to use extreme force.

Third, to reduce the rate of violence between guards and prisoners, cameras should be placed in every part of the prison, and an independent agency should be formed to watch the footage for misbehavior of both the guards and the inmates. These cameras should not be handled by any inmate or staff member, as they should be under the jurisdiction of this new agency. This will help to prevent violent behavior by the guards, who will be supervised at all times. Finally, programs to help prisoners with mental health issues should be set up within the prisons, and those prisoners with mental health issues should be segregated from the rest of the prison population. Mental illness has been linked to higher rates of violence, so to reduce the rate of violence, those with mental illness should be given adequate help. Aid programs, however, will not be enough. The segregation of mentally ill prisoners should be done for their own benefit, as it will help to reduce the rates of violence for the mentally ill. If these four steps are taken, the rate of violence within the American prison system will be reduced, which will bring a variety of benefits to the criminal justice system.

Works Cite

MLA Blitz, Cynthia, et al. “Physical victimization in prison: The role of mental illness.” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. vol. 31, no. 5, 2008, pp. 385-393, Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.

Bottoms, Anthony. “Interpersonal Violence and Social Order in Prisons.” Crime and Justice. vol. 26, 1999, pp. 205-281 Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.

“Bureau of Justice Statistics: Violent Crime.” US Department of Justice. April 1994. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.

Taylor, Pamela, et al. “Mental disorder and violence: A special (high security) hospital study.” The British Journal of Psychiatry. vol. 172, no. 3, March 1998, pp. 218-226, Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.

Wolff, Nancy, et al. “Sexual Violence Inside Prisons: Rates of Victimization.” Journal of Urban Health. vol. 83, no. 5, September 2006, pp. 835-848, Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.

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