Editor’s note: This is the tenth in a collaborative series with the R Street Institute exploring conservative approaches to criminal justice reform.
Reminiscent of a vengeful plot from The Godfather, South Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger was murdered last month shortly after being transferred to U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton. While Bulger is far from the typical prisoner, his death at the hands of other inmates is a particularly gruesome example of a widespread problem in American prisons.
Nicknamed “Misery Mountain” by inmates, Hazelton had a reputation of violence long before Bulger was transferred there. The prison has too few correctional officers and too many prisoners, which has drawn complaints from both inmates and union officials representing those who work in the facility. This under-staffing and overcrowding has contributed significantly to Hazelton’s dangerous climate. In fact, members of Congress have written to the Justice Department to express their concerns over the frequency of violence and deaths that occur there.
Yet it seems that no serious action has been taken to address the ongoing violence. Why not? A quick scroll through the comments on any news article related to prisons provides a possible answer: many in our nation think the lives of prisoners are less worthy of protection than the lives of others. Some assume prisons to be violent places and the people within them to be inherently dangerous and incorrigible.
Others see pain and harsh conditions behind bars as part of a prisoner’s due punishment. This sentiment is perhaps best expressed with the oft-quoted remark “Do the crime, do the time,” which suggests that being behind bars also means forfeiting personal safety.
However, if one of the goals of the criminal justice system is to teach lawless individuals how to become law-abiding citizens, how can we tolerate and excuse lawlessness inside jails and prisons?
An estimated 95 percent of individuals incarcerated in state prisons will return to society at some point. That means it is to the benefit of all that we replace the destructive, violent culture often found in prisons with a constructive one that helps inmates return to their communities as productive members of society.
Accurate statistics on prison violence are difficult to find. However, one study that included sampled data from 14 prisons within a single state reported that 35 percent of imprisoned males experienced physical violence over a six-month period. While physical assaults are lower for women—who made up only 7 percent of the total prison population in 2016—data suggests that women endure 22 percent of all reported inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults.
These numbers likely understate the true magnitude of the problem, as many physical and sexual assaults—even those against guards—remain unreported. Shame, stigma, and fear of retaliation pose large disincentives for inmates and others to report incidents to authorities. The perception among inmates that guards are unable to properly protect victims further breeds animosity towards, and a perceived need to protect oneself from, ineffective authority.
Yet even these numbers fail to truly capture the psychological and emotional turmoil endured by those facing constant threats to their physical safety. Even when not inflicted directly on individuals, the near-omnipresent risk of violence persists in the minds of many inmates, who must always be vigilant of potential attacks. Simply being a witness to violence can negatively impact an individual’s future behavior.
Indeed, research suggests that witnessing violence in prison increases the likelihood that an individual will commit an act of violence in prison, as well as abuse drugs and alcohol. Violence, mistrust, and fear are known to exacerbate inmates’ existing mental illnesses and anti-social behavior. Within this system of controlled lawlessness—every man or woman for him or herself—prisoners are united not just in their confinement, but in their mutual fear of potential danger.
This can erode positive relationships, as victims of violence in prison are more prone to isolate themselves. On the other side of the coin, victims of sexual assault are significantly more likely to join gangs than victims of physical assault. Incarcerated individuals are rarely equipped with the skill set needed to deal with this kind of violence in a productive manner.
Additionally, the expectation of violence comes with a high fiscal cost. Taxpayers bear the physical and mental health care costs for inmates—and correctional staff—who are injured or otherwise impacted by violence.
So what causes violence behind bars, and who are the targets? While we tend to think of sexual offenders or violent offenders as likely to become victims themselves, the majority of violence in prisons is actually aimed at individuals outside of these groups. Research suggests that a prisoner’s marital status, education level, and the crime for which they are incarcerated may influence their likelihood of becoming a victim of a crime while behind bars. Moreover, a National Institute of Health study found that rates of physical victimization for both men and women with mental disorders were more than 1.5 times higher than for those with no mental disorders. Younger inmates also faced significantly higher risks yet were themselves more likely to harm prisoners over the age of 50. Then there is the proliferating gang violence in prisons that are ill-equipped to handle it.
All this speaks to the institutional factors that promote violence behind bars. Research suggests that understaffed areas, poorly designed facilities with limited space for rehabilitative programming, and overcrowding can encourage violence and other forms of misconduct. As one participant in a 2015 study noted, “You could give someone all the meds in the world, but if you put them in a hostile part of the cell block, it won’t work.”
Moreover, tension-filled relationships between staff and management, as well as inadequate training for correctional officers, promote a dangerous prison culture. A 2016 report on Logan Correctional Center in Illinois, a facility that had previously housed only males before adding females, found that some staff reinforced negative perceptions of incarcerated women as “worthless” and “crazy,” and failed to support practices that recognized the impact of previous trauma. The report concluded, “IDOC disciplinary practices are having the unintended consequence of increasing women’s length of stay and taxpayer costs—all without achieving the intended goal of improving safety and security.”
So how can we break this unwritten code and change the culture behind bars?
The first step we can take is to ensure that both security and rehabilitative priorities are reflected in the construction of our facilities. For example, purposeful changes in the architectural design of a prison can create safer environments for both correctional staff and inmates by reducing overcrowding. Our facilities should have adequate room for inmates to live as well as opportunities for them to build skills that will help them transition back into society. Trying to cram more and more people into a small space sets individuals up for failure both behind bars and on the outside.
Second, we can promote positive individual transformation through rehabilitative programming. This gives inmates productive goals to work toward while preparing them for re-entry into their communities. Research suggests that postsecondary education programming is associated with fewer rule violations and less misconduct behind bars. A study by the Urban Institute found that it improved inmates’ self-perceptions, giving them more positive outlooks on themselves and their futures. Postsecondary education programming was also associated with increased public safety when inmates returned to society.
Finally, we can implement training and policies that better equip corrections personnel to interact with unique populations in order to prevent and reduce violent behavior. For example, women are often victims of trauma, and many struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues. It’s important that correctional officers and facility administrators understand the role these factors play in promoting misconduct and violence, and that they encourage healing from trauma as well as rehabilitation.
Incarceration should serve two purposes. First, it should dispense justice. Second, it should prepare inmates to live transformed lives outside of prison. By ignoring or even encouraging violence behind bars as an inherent part of punishment, we fail to accomplish either goal.
SteVon Felton (@FeltonStevon) and Emily Mooney (@emilymmooney) are policy associates on the R Street Institute’s Justice team.