Violent Victimization among State Prison Inmates

By Wooldredge, John; Steiner, Benjamin | Violence and Victims, June 1, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Violent Victimization among State Prison Inmates

Wooldredge, John, Steiner, Benjamin, Violence and Victims

Violent victimization in prison may enhance inmates' cynicism toward legal authority and the risk of subsequent criminality. Both micro- and macro-level effects on the prevalence and incidence of inmate-on-inmate physical assault during a 6-month period were examined for random samples of inmates (n^sub 1^ = 5,640) from all state prisons in Ohio and Kentucky (n^sub 2^ = 46). Findings revealed that nonprovoked assaults were more common among inmates with lifestyles that might have increased their vulnerability to victimization (less time spent in structured activities, committed violent acts themselves, etc.), and in prisons with larger populations and officers who practice lax rule enforcement. A supplementary analysis of violent offending also revealed that inmate offenders and victims may look less like each other compared to offenders and victims in the general population. Policies focused on increasing inmates' involvement in structured prison activities, enhancing professionalism among officers, and lowering prison populations may be most effective for minimizing the risk of violent victimization.

Keywords: inmate victimization; inmate violence; prisons; violent victimization

Reducing violence between inmates is one of the toughest challenges faced by wardens (Catalano, 2005; Wolff, Shi, & Siegel, 2009). Prisons exist, in part, to protect society from criminals, but administrators are also responsible for protecting the confined population (Park, 2000). Violent victimization among inmates also has implications for the risk of subsequent criminality after release (Listwan, Sullivan, Agnew, Cullen, & Colvin, 2011), as violent experiences may feed inmates' disrespect and cynicism toward legal authority because the state has failed to protect them from harm. Despite this problem, extant studies of violent inmate victimization are rare and have focused primarily on relatively small samples, with the exception of a recent study by Wolff, Blitz, Shi, Siegelm, and Bachman (2007).

It is important to distinguish this research from that of violent offending by inmates because of different policy implications. An understanding of offending is more useful for proactive approaches to prevent increases in precipitators to crime, whereas an understanding of victimization is more useful to reduce opportunities for motivated offenders (Clarke, 1995). The small body of research on inmate victimization has provided insight into inmate background effects on risk during incarceration, but there is a need for more studies in different facilities and different states. More importantly, there is a need for research regarding the influence of an inmate's prison routines and experiences on risk of violent victimization (cf. Wooldredge, 1998) in addition to between-prison differences in victimization rates and possible macro-level influences on those differences. This study addresses these gaps by analyzing comprehensive models of inmate victimization ( including inmate sociodemographics, activities during confinement, perceptions of officers, facility characteristics, and officer perceptions of rule enforcement) for inmates sampled from the largest number of prisons to date.


Extant findings on the sources of inmate victimization are mixed, possibly because of the limited number of related studies with different sample sizes, prison security levels, and statistical models. Most studies also included relatively small inmate samples from one to a handful of prisons (see Wolffet al., 2007, for a review). Wolffand colleagues (2007) offered the most rigorous and comprehensive analyses of inmate victimization to date with data on more than 8,000 inmates from 14 prisons in a single state. Findings from Wolff's analyses might therefore be considered more reliable compared to other extant studies based on the larger samples of inmates and prisons. Our sample of 5,640 inmates is not as large as Wolff's inmate sample.

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