Predicting Violent Behavior among Inmates: Washington Correctional Institute's Development of a Risk Protection Tool

By Wagoner, Larry | Corrections Today, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Predicting Violent Behavior among Inmates: Washington Correctional Institute's Development of a Risk Protection Tool


Wagoner, Larry, Corrections Today


Violence is an ever-growing concern for both public safety officials and the general population. The American Medical Association has termed violence a major public health hazard in the United States. Many experts in the corrections and criminal justice fields note that while overall violence seems to be decreasing, individual cases of violence are becoming more extreme. If violence in the community at large is a concern, than the concern in the prison community is even greater, as staff are dealing with a population that is predisposed to violence.

The prediction of violent behavior among inmate populations is of obvious value not only for prison officials, but also for those who will supervise offenders once they are released into the community. It is corrections officials' primary duty to provide public safety, as well as a safe environment for inmates and staff inside correctional facilities. In order to succeed in this important mission, correctional staff need ways to determine the prior history of inmates and predict the likelihood of future violent and criminal behaviors. Researchers Paul Gendreau, Claire Goggin and Thomas Little (1) noted that efficient management of prisons is contingent on knowledge about the predictors of criminal behavior.

The development of risk prediction tools for specialized populations recently has become an area of intensive study, with tools being developed for various populations including adults, children, sex offenders, the mentally ill, the mentally retarded and those who have suicidal ideation. In August 2002, permission was requested from and granted by the administration of the Washington Correctional Institute (WCI) and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections to conduct a research study that would help develop a violence risk prediction tool to use with the inmate population.

The proposed research project involved only a record search on a randomly selected group of inmates. Research data were intended only to develop the tool. There was no identified danger, harm or risk to inmates from participation in the study. WCI is a medium-security state prison in southeast Louisiana housing adult male inmates. As the state prison closest to New Orleans, and with a largely urban inmate population, the facility's population is representative of the incarcerated population in Louisiana as a whole.

A risk prediction tool for the adult incarcerated population has been developed from the above mentioned study by the author of this article and has been remarkably accurate in predicting which inmates will have disciplinary problems. It is useful for prison administrators, classification staff and others who make important decisions about housing and work assignments, and which inmates will be made trustees.

The tool determines if inmates have a low, medium or high risk of behavioral issues. A study at WCI of more than a year revealed that high-risk inmates received more than 86 percent of rule violation reports, while low-risk and medium-risk inmates received 4 percent and 9 percent of rule violation reports respectively.

RISK PREDICTION HISTORY

Although the field of risk prediction is new, it is quickly evolving. The history of risk prediction is fraught with errors and misconceptions about what factors make one person more likely to be at risk for violence. Early efforts toward risk prediction relied solely on clinical judgment of professional treatment staff. However, this approach has been largely discredited, as clinical judgment alone has proved to have an accuracy rate of less than 50 percent. The problem seemed to be based on misunderstanding the motivations of committing acts of violence and violence itself. Clinicians were forced to rely almost entirely on information that was self-reported by an offender--an approach almost doomed to fail among a population with a vested interest in appearing as low risk. …

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