Criminal Victimization in Male Federal Prisons

Article excerpt


Although a considerable amount of victimization research has been conducted at the national and local levels, most of this research has taken the form of social surveys of the general population. Scant attention has been paid to institutional victimization, i.e., victimization in schools, psychiatric facilities, and prisons. The majority of violence research in prison has been concerned with prisoners as victimizers rather than victims, with the goal of uncovering the relationship between violence in prison and variables such as population density (Megargee 1976; Nacci, Teitelbaum, and Prather 1977; Farrington and Nuttal 1980; Ekland-Olsen 1986), prisoner transiency (Ellis 1984; Gaes and McGuire 1985; Porporino 1986), age (Bonta and Nancekivell 1980; Anno 1985; Flanagan 1983), or the relationship between violent offenders and violence in prison (Myers and Levy 1978; Gaes and McGuire 1985; Porporino 1986).

Researchers who have examined prison victimization have limited their analyses to one or two types of victimization, usually the most serious forms such as homicide (Porporino, Doherty and Sawastky 1987), suicide (Anno 1985; DeHeer and Schweitzer 1985; Winfree 1987), or sexual assault (Scacco 1975; Lockwood 1980). When lesser forms of victimization are considered, the common methodology is to examine official records of prisoner-prisoner assault, a technique which has obvious limitations. Finally, Bowker (1980: 205) noted that another tendency in the prison violence literature is for researchers to utilize a case-study approach. Thus, there is little research specifically directed at determining estimates for a broad range of victimization incidents across prisons under controlled conditions.

One result of the absence of research designed to determine estimates for a broad range of victimization incidents within prison is a corresponding lack of theoretical knowledge regarding the dynamics of victimization in these settings. Fattah (1991) argued that "institutional victimization" may be qualitatively different from victimization in the community, especially in terms of the relationships between victims and aggressors. On the other hand, Walklate (1989) suggested that victim-offender relationships in the community and in institutions may be similar in terms of power and exploitation, but these relationships may be rendered more visible by examining victimizations within institutions. Without a detailed empirical examination of a full range of institutional victimizations, Fattah's and Walklate' s hypotheses remain speculative.

One of the reasons for the neglect of victimization research in prison is that prisoners are the antithesis of the "ideal victim" (Christie 1986). Fattah (1991: 100) referred to prisoners as "disposable/expendable" victims because they are viewed by non-criminals with hostility and antagonism:

Whatever victimization they suffer, especially while they are behind bars, causes no uproar or even concern among the general public, who couldn't care less what happens to them.

Sparks (1982: 28) also suggested that the paucity of systematic accounts of victimization within prison is due to a lack of public concern for the welfare of prisoners. Prisoners are not perceived as vulnerable targets of victimization; on the contrary, prisoners are perceived as predators. As a result of these stereotypes:

too little is known about the extent to which victimization - not only sexual attacks and assaults but also robbery, theft, and extortion - is a fact of life in prison and the extent to which the threat of victimization structures social relations among prisoners and staff.

Sparks goes on to suggest that given the low levels of public concern for prisoners, there is a danger that |criminal victimization' will refer exclusively to crimes committed in free society.

The goal of this paper is not to develop a theoretical understanding of victimization within prisons; but rather to provide estimates for a range of victimization incidents occurring in five Canadian federal prisons. …