Use of Force in America's Prisons: An Overview of Current Research

By Henry, Patrick; Senese, Jeffrey D. et al. | Corrections Today, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Use of Force in America's Prisons: An Overview of Current Research


Henry, Patrick, Senese, Jeffrey D., Ingley, Gwyn Smith, Corrections Today


As the nation's burgeoning prison population approaches 1 million, wardens face an ever-increasing challenge to maintain safe and secure facilities. Incidents in which correctional officers have to use physical, mechanical or chemical force against inmates exemplify this challenge. This article describes current research on use-of-force incidents in prisons.

Research on the causes of institutional disruption has focused mainly on inmate demographics such as age, custody classification and length of sentence, and institutional variables such as crowding and the ratio of officers to inmates. While these studies have made important contributions to our understanding of inmate misconduct and institutional response, only a few studies have been done on the use of force as a method to control prison disturbances. Our research, conducted as part of an ACA grant project funded by the National Institute of Justice, is the first attempt to examine systemwide data that represent use-of-force incidents throughout a state correctional department as well as across the nation.

Called "Field Evaluation: Prison Settings Project," the study was begun by ACA in 1993. The purpose of the project is to combine research on the nature of use-of-force incidents in prisons with assessments of less-than-lethal technologies for responding to those incidents. The Florida Department of Corrections was chosen to provide demonstration sites for testing new less-than-lethal technologies. As the project directors, we and others on our research staff began an intensive examination of use of force in Florida prisons.

Use of Force in Florida

The research team interviewed more than 400 correctional officers and inmates in nine Florida prisons to gain an indepth understanding of use-of-force incidents from the perspectives of participants. In addition, the team selected 424 incident reports from 27 prisons in every region of the state. The team also surveyed 327 prisons nationwide to collect use-of-force data. Results from the latter two projects are presented in this article.

Use of force generally means reasonable force necessary to compel inmates to act or refrain from acting in a particular way, but there is no uniform definition or procedure for responding to such incidents. Florida's policy is one of the most inclusive, requiring that any physical touching of inmates by staff be reported as a use of force.

Incident reports provide a detailed account of the event, including the reason for staff intervention, the location and time of the incident, the number of staff and inmates involved, and the nature of staff action and inmate response. These reports provided a broad and detailed database of situational factors that characterize use-of-force incidents in Florida prisons.

A review of the reports indicated that most incidents were responses to fights between inmates (36 percent) or inmate disobedience (35 percent). The types of force most commonly used were hands-on (50 percent) and equipment (28 percent), which included handcuffs, black-boxes and chains. Forty-four percent of inmates complied with staff orders once force was used. But a nearly equal number (42 percent) physically resisted use of force.

The highest rate of incidents occurred in housing/cell areas (44 percent). The majority of these were not actually cell-based incidents, but fights that took place in housing units. The relatively low percentages of incidents recorded in confinement (8 percent) and medical areas (14 percent) may contradict expectations that inmates in such situations are more aggressive or violent.

Use of Force and Social Control

One of the authors of this article--Jeffrey Senese--explains use-of-force incidents using social control theory. The explanation developed by Senese holds that inmates are less likely to accept social control than are persons in the non-institutional population but that there is a value system in prisons that dictates whether social control--in this case use of force--is accepted or rejected. …

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