Patterns of Victimization among Male and Female Inmates: Evidence of an Enduring Legacy

By Wolff, Nancy; Shi, Jing et al. | Violence and Victims, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Patterns of Victimization among Male and Female Inmates: Evidence of an Enduring Legacy


Wolff, Nancy, Shi, Jing, Siegel, Jane A., Violence and Victims


People inside prison have above-average rates of childhood and adult victimization. Little is known, however, about the relationship between types of victimization inside prison and that experienced in childhood. This article estimates rates of victimization for male and female inmates by type of perpetrator and form of victimization (sexual, physical, either, or both) and their association with types of childhood victimization (sexual or physical). Data for these estimates are based on a random sample of approximately 7,500 inmates housed in 12 adult male prisons and one adult female prison in a single state. The significance of the findings for practice are discussed along with recommendations to improve the health and welfare of people inside prison.

Keywords: childhood victimization; sexual assault; physical assault; male and female prisoners

People inside prison are different in many ways from people without criminal histories. One difference, health disparities, has received increasing attention over the past dozen years (Baillargeon, Black, Pulvino, & Dunn, 2000; Freudenberg, 2002; Goff, Rose, Rose, & Purves, 2007; Hammet, Harmon, & Rhodes, 2002; Hammet, Roberts, & Kennedy, 2001; Teplin, Abram, & McClellan, 1996). According to this research, incarcerated people have higher rates of particular chronic and infectious diseases (e.g., HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, heart disease) and behavioral disorders (e.g., substance abuse disorders, depression, schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder). Another disparity receiving less but growing attention is their elevated rates of victimization both before and during incarceration.

Both men and women in prison have histories of interpersonal violence. Extant estimates suggest that at least half of incarcerated women have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime (Browne, Miller, & Maguin, 1999; Sacks, 2004). Rates reported by men are lower by comparison but significant nonetheless (McClellan, Farabee, & Crouch, 1997). Childhood abuse is reported by 25% to 50% of incarcerated women (Bloom, Owen, & Covington, 2003; Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999; Fletcher, Shaver, & Moon, 1993; Greenfeld & Snell, 1999) and by 6% to 24% of their male counterparts (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999; McClellan et al., 1997). Prior to age 18, physical abuse is more likely than sexual abuse for males, but the two forms of maltreatment occur at equal rates for females. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999; McClellan et al., 1997). Abuse in childhood is strongly correlated with adult victimization, substance abuse, and criminality (Browne et al. 1999; Chesney-Lind, 1997; Dutton & Hart, 1992; Goodman et al., 2001; Ireland & Widom, 1994; McClellan et al., 1997; Siegel & Williams, 2003a, 2003b; Smith & Thornberry, 1995; Widom, 1989a).

Victimization continues inside prison for many of these individuals. Correctional settings are known for their violence between inmates and between inmates and staff. The research evidence here also shows that rates of victimization are higher in prison settings than in the general community. Violent victimization rates, inclusive of robbery and sexual and physical assault, are estimated at approximately 21 per 1,000 in the community (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006). Rates of victimization for an incarcerated population are considerably higher. Using a sample of 581 male inmates drawn from three Ohio prisons, Wooldredge (1998) found that approximately one of every 10 inmates reported being physically assaulted in the previous 6 months, while one of every five inmates reported being a victim of theft during that same time frame. Aggregating all crimes, one of every two inmates surveyed reported being a victim of crime in the previous 6 months. More recently, Wolff, Blitz, Shi, Siegel, and Bachman (2007), based on a sample of more than 7,000 inmates, reported 6-month inmate-on-inmate physical victimization rates at 21% for both female and male inmates-a rate 10 times higher than the overall victimization rate in the community. …

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