‘Plague’ of Prison Violence Ignored by Authorities, Study Charges 

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Illustration by AK Rockefeller via Flickr.

Corrections authorities should address the “alarmingly high” rates of physical and sexual violence inside prison that increase trauma and affect the mental health of individuals long after they are released, says the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

While figures of violence in prison are far from comprehensive, available data suggest that an estimated 35 percent of incarcerated men and 24 percent of incarcerated women experienced some form of physical victimization, either by other inmates or correctional staff, the PPI reported in a policy brief released this week.

Similarly, an estimated 10 percent of male inmates and 25 percent of female inmates were sexually abused.

“Given the vast number of violent interactions occurring behind bars, as well as the close quarters and scarce privacy in correctional facilities, it is likely that most or all incarcerated people witness some kind of violence,” wrote Emily Widra, author of the policy brief and a research analyst at PPI.

The PPI, a nonprofit group conducting research and advocacy aimed at reducing mass incarceration, compiled data from Bureau of Justice Statistics reports and other studies to estimate the prevalence of various forms of violence in federal, state and local facilities over a period ranging from 2005 to 2016.

For example, there were 26,396 “inmate-on-inmate” assaults reported in state and federal prisons in 2005, the last year for which such statistics are available, and 16,940 incidents of sexual victimization perpetrated either by staff or other incarcerees in state facilities alone during 2015.

More recent data on prison violence is expected in the forthcoming Bureau of Justice Statistics Survey of Prison Inmates in 2016.

Although incidents of extreme violence such as the killing of five people in Mississippi’s Parchman state prisons during a prison riot earlier this year have attracted media attention, “the plague of violence behind bars is often overlooked and ignored,” the PPI said.

“And when it does receive public attention, a discussion of the effects on those forced to witness this violence is almost always absent. Most people in prison want to return home to their families without incident, and without adding time to their sentences by participating in further violence.

“But during their incarceration, many people become unwilling witnesses to horrific and traumatizing violence.”

The policy brief cited one of the first comprehensive studies on prison violence, released in February by Professors Meghan Novisky and Robert Peralta.

Based on interviews with recently released inmates, the study concluded that exposure to extreme violence behind bars undermines returning citizens’ ability to adjust to civilian society, with serious long-term effects on their mental health.

Just witnessing violence generates a post-conflict traumatic effects that resemble the experiences suffered by survivors of war, the study suggested.

Interviewees reported anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, and impulses towards suicide.

“I’m trying to change my life and my thinking. But [the violence] always pops up,” one former incarceree told the researchers. “In a split second you can be cool, and then the next thing you know, there’s people getting stabbed or a fight breaks out over nothin’.”

The PPI brief said more research was needed to explore the link between exposure to prison violence and continued victimization of inmates after release.

“Research has found that formerly incarcerated Black adults are more likely than those with no history of incarceration to be beaten, mugged, raped…or to witness another person being seriously injured,” said the PPI, citing a 2016 study published in the Criminal Behavior and Mental Health Journal.

Compounding the problem, a disproportionately large percentage of inmates enter prison with pre-existing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders.

While better trauma-informed training for correctional staff, and better-designed environments to minimize conflict can help reduce the “plague” of prison violence, the “only way to truly minimize the harm is to limit exposure to the violent prison environment,” said the PPI.

“We need to reduce lengthy sentences and divert more people from incarceration to more supportive interventions.”

Download the full policy brief here.

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