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Study finds previously abused inmates more likely to perpetrate violence in prison

A recent study found that incarcerated individuals were more likely to perpetrate violence if they were previously abused. – Photo by Umanoide / Unsplash

Prison inmates' likelihood to perpetuate violence while incarcerated is impacted by their history of abuse, according to a recent study.

Nancy Wolff, a distinguished professor and director of the Edward J. Bloustein Center for Survey Research, said that people in prisons are more likely to enact harm on fellow inmates due to previous abuse.

"Hurt people are more likely to hurt other people, and hurt people are more likely to be hurt again," Wolff, co-author of the study, said.

She said the data collected for the study was gathered via in-person surveys in Pennsylvania and New Jersey prisons, where she and her team interviewed inmates on their experiences with physical and sexual violence within the carceral system.

Wolff said she was grateful to be allowed to conduct her research inside the chosen prisons but the work could prove difficult.

She said challenges included having to obtain approval for entry into a prison and then having to become accustomed to each prison's unique environment.

Wolff also said the constantly rotating prison staff hindered the ease with which she and her team could conduct research.

"To do prison-based research, you have to be very patient and very understanding of the environment and that you're there as a guest," she said.

Despite the challenges, Wolff said she was able to obtain all of the information she needed during her visits, which was partially possible due to the funding she received from the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The methodology of the study included 24 articles and studied a total of 23,967 inmates’ experiences with physical and sexual victimization, according to the study.

The study ultimately found that 12.4 percent of incarcerated people were victims of sexual violence, and 18.8 percent of incarcerated individuals were victims of physical violence.

In terms of demographics, the rates at which inmates faced physical and sexual violence in prisons differed based on gender and age, according to the study.

The study found 15.3 percent of female incarcerated individuals faced sexual violence, whereas 9.7 percent of male incarcerated individuals faced sexual violence.

The study also found 20.3 percent of female inmates faced physical violence, and 18.1 percent of male inmates faced physical violence.

Younger female inmates were found to be vulnerable to higher rates of both sexual and physical violence compared to older female inmates. In addition, male inmates were victims of high rates of physical and sexual violence enacted by prison staff members, according to the study.

As for the outcomes of Wolff’s research, she said she hopes her study encourages readers to consider violence deterrence tactics in prisons to eliminate cyclical harm.

"We must be vigilant, critical thinkers in search of understanding by being open to the whole story, found in a whole series of life moments that led to that one moment when rationality gave way and emotions unchecked culminated in tragedy," Wolff said.

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