The topic of jails in general, and jail assaults in particular, is one of the more underdeveloped research topics in the field of criminal justice. Even those studies that purport to examine assaults in correctional settings typically use samples of prisoners (not jail inmates) and typically focus on either inmate-to-staff assault or sexual assault among inmates. As such, the research surrounding jail assaults is quite limited. For example, a detailed examination of the literature on jail assaults provides neither a solid estimate of the prevalence, incidence, or types of assaults that occur in jails. In other words, despite the widely accepted belief that assaults are common in jails (particularly inmate-to-inmate assaults), the scholarly literature offers no suggestions regarding what percentage of jails have assaults each year, what types of assaults occur in those jails that do have assaults, and how many of those assaults occur.
Most studies of inmate assaults in correctional settings have been limited to the study of assaults in prisons housing male inmates. Because research on assaults in jails is quite limited, studies of prison assaults in relation to crowding, population density, demographic variables, and the theoretical models that might help explain assault in the correctional setting are often examined instead.
Although some have suggested that increased institutional violence in jails or prisons may be related to the effects of increased population density in these settings, the evidence supporting this claim is inconclusive. Increased density in prisons has been linked both to increased assaults and to fewer assaults (see Sechrest 1989 for a review). Additionally, in the most recent study focusing specifically on assaults in jails, neither the size nor the design of the jail had a significant impact on assaults in Texas (Kellar and Wang 2005).
Both Sechrest (1991) and Kellar and Wang (2005) suggest that inmate-to-inmate assault rates in jails are better explained in terms of the types of inmates housed within the facility. Both suggest that assaults on other inmates tended to occur in the jails or on the floors of the jail that held the most troublesome inmates. Sechrest (1991) found that the highest staff assault rate occurred in the areas of the jails that held the highest number of misdemeanants; Keller and Wang (2005) determined that jails holding maximum security inmates had higher inmate-to-staff assault rates than jails holding less troublesome inmates.
While research regarding the impact of demographic characteristics of inmates on the amount of assaults in a correctional facility is primarily limited to prisons, this research suggests that males, African Americans, and younger inmates are more likely to engage in assault than their counterparts (see Kellar and Wang 2005 for a review). Nevertheless, given the dearth of research regarding assaults in jails, translating these findings to jail settings should be done with caution.
One of the most controversial debates surrounding behavior in correctional settings concerns the theoretical models used to explain inmate behavior in both prisons and jails. Kellar and Wang (2005) suggest that there are three models that could be used to explain assaultive behavior in correctional settings. These theoretical models include the deprivation model, the importation model, and the managerial model.
The deprivation model is based on Clemmer’s classic study (1958). According to this model, inmates adopt a wide variety of aspects of the prison culture over time and develop a set of unique norms to guide their behavior within the incarcerative setting. One of these norms includes a preference for violent behavior as a means of settling disputes. Being incarcerated produces a wide variety of negative emotions (anger, stress, frustration, and so on) and these negative emotions lead to assaultive behaviors.
The importation model was originated by Irwin and Cressey (1962). This model suggests that many inmate behaviors that occur inside a correctional facility are due to the environmental and cultural influences brought into the facility by the inmates themselves. According to this model, assaults are caused by factors external to the institution that trigger violence as a means of coping with the hostile environment of incarceration. The finding discussed earlier that an inmate’s race, gender, and age predict inmate-to-inmate assault supports the thesis of the importation model.
The third theoretical model used to understand assaults in jail and prison is labeled the managerial model (Dilulio 1987). DiIulio suggests that jail and prison management can either increase or decrease levels of inmate assault by the decisions that they make. Dilulio suggests that assaults are due to poor management; in other words, inappropriate security procedures, improper classification strategies, and poor training and professionalism of correctional staff all increase the amount of inmate assaults in the correctional setting. A number of studies support this model (see Kellar and Wang 2005 for a review).
Since the 1970s, jail managers have been experimenting with different types of supervision practices in order to control assaults and other disruptive behaviors. One of these newer types of supervision is called podular or direct supervision. These terms refer to the architectural design that has developed with these innovative practices, in which inmates are placed in pods with individualized sleeping quarters and have access to a large open area where they spend the vast majority of their waking hours. Officers are typically no longer separated from the inmates but are stationed inside the pod with them, with the hope that more direct interaction will decrease violence and increase communication between the inmates and the officers. Anecdotally, practitioners suggest that this design is a more effective form of inmate supervision. Nevertheless, despite the popularity of these designs, scant research has compared assault rates among inmates in different types of housing units.
The topic of jail assaults is one that has been widely ignored in the scholarly research. Future research efforts should attempt to not only estimate the prevalence of jail assaults, but also provide a better understanding of the causes and correlates of these assaults. Until these research efforts occur, the scientific evidence regarding jail assaults is questionable at best.