Prison Violence by Inmates


Inmate violence has been conceptualized as comprising two general categories: collective violence and interpersonal violence. Collective violence is directed toward a major disruption in the regular order within the institution. Riots are a type of collective violence. Collective violence is often related to race relations, gang warfare, or mutual frustration over prison conditions.

The second category of inmate violence is interpersonal violence, which includes violence that occurs within the everyday framework of the prison’s social order. Interpersonal violence can be targeted at other inmates or corrections staff. Most inmate assaults do not involve weapons, but many do. Inmates can be quite inventive in getting weapons smuggled in and at fashioning weapons out of any raw material.

The Census of State and Federal Corrections Facilities reported that over 34,000 inmate-against-inmate assaults in U.S. prisons occurred during the 2000 reporting year, a 32% increase from 1995. Inmate assaults on staff rose 27% since 1995, up to 18,000 in 2000.

Prison violence bears negative consequences in many areas. The mental health and physical harm to inmates and staff are substantial and long term, often involving depression and substance abuse. Because of the dangers posed by violence in prison, administrators face difficulty in hiring and keeping prison employees, further undermining efforts to maintain security and control.

Explanations for the widespread violence in prisons include environmental, sociological, and individual personality factors. Prisons are, by nature, stressful places for inmates facing forced confinement, overcrowded conditions, and low staff-to-inmate ratios. The socialization of prisoners is often based on a strict hierarchical structure where aggressiveness is necessary to attain and maintain one’s status. Experts indicate that gender role expectations reinforce masculine behaviors, including aggressive conduct. Much violence in prison is also connected to gang affiliations, with demands of loyalty and mutual protection. Personal traits also are important in understanding prison violence. Inmates are people who already have shown a willingness to deviate from social norms. In addition, drug use, mental illness, and prior incarceration time, all linked to prisoners, are each related to predicting violent tendencies.

Prison systems have reacted to the frequent violence in large part through sophisticated classification systems that attempt to place more violent offenders in more secure facilities, such as supermax prisons where inmate interactions with other offenders and with prison staff are subject to greater restriction. In addition, prison officials often use disciplinary sanctions for inmate assault, which can result in the loss of privileges, lost good-time credits (early release time), or segregation. A number of prisons are experimenting with cognitive therapies, such as conflict resolution and stress management techniques, to combat violent behaviors

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