Victimization in Prison


A large number of inmates convicted of various offenses encounter victimization in prisons or jails. Victimization in prison is a common occurrence across most of the prisons in the United States, with devastating consequences upon the victims. Victimization involves treating individuals in an unfair and unjustified way. The prison environment creates the perfect environment for individuals with antisocial behavior to pick on others as a way of easing their frustrations. Overcrowding in prisons is one of the major factors that contribute to victimization. Social exclusion and material deprivation that inmates experience contribute to antisocial behavior such as victimization. In extreme cases, victimization in prison has resulted in death of inmates. Victimization in prison mainly occurs through physical assault and sexual assault. Physical assault is the most common form of victimization in prison. Individuals with mental illnesses are more likely to experience physical assault, while the transgender are likely to experience sexual assault.

Victimization leads to painful experiences among the victims. It is often a contributing factor towards negative behavior among inmates leaving prison. Victimization can lead to a magnification of the unfavorable life experiences that an individual encounters. Inmates susceptible to victimization have little options to relieve the stress and trauma that results. As such, most of the inmates develop emotional problems. The traumatic experience resulting from victimization in prison may lead to development of permanent scars among the victims, which may be difficult to heal. Inmates who particularly lack adequate coping skills to deal with victimization may develop psychological problems while in prison. This may lead to further victimization while in prison. It may be difficult to obtain the actual figures of prison victimization owing to the nature of prisons. In addition, inmates may prefer not to talk about it. This article examines the extent of victimization in prisons and looks at the possible solutions to this problem.

Prison life

Most prison inmates experience hopelessness and despair while in prison. Fear and mistrust dominate the prison environment, leading to feelings of anger, homosexuality, and other forms of victimization. Animosity is rife in majority of prisons across the United States. This contributes to incidences of inmate-on-inmate violence and victimization. The prison staff is also partly responsible for animosity perpetrated against the inmates. According to Stoher, Walsh, & Hemmens (2013), mentally ill inmates, sex offenders, snitches, and non-violent offenders are at an increased risk of victimization in prison. Prison officials have a legal responsibility to reduce the risk of assault or victimization upon inmates. In “Farmer v. Brennan”, the court ruled that the prison officials had a legal responsibility to prevent inmate-on-inmate victimization. The case involves Farmer, the plaintiff, who was put in a male prison despite being a transgender. After a brief stint at the facility, Farmer experienced sexual assault after which he filed a lawsuit and won.

Related: Collaboration of Human Services and Criminal Justice System

Sexual Victimization

Sexual victimization is common in prisons and jails. According to Beck & Berzofsky (2013), there were about 4.5 percent reported cases of sexual victimization across the country’s prisons and jails in 2007. In the years 2011 and 2012, there were there were 4 percent cases of sexual victimization in U.S. prisons and jails. Incidences of sexual victimization in jails are slightly lower comparing to victimization in prisons. The victimization rates experienced by inmates in the 2011/2012 survey are consistent with other rates reported in past surveys. Sexual victimization cases were higher among females compared to males. The rates were also higher among whites compared to blacks. Inmates convicted of sexual offenses had higher reported incidences of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization (Beck & Berzofsky, 2013). This group had high rates of up to 3.7 percent cases in prisons. Among juvenile inmates, there were low cases of sexual victimization reported at 1.8 percent.

Inmates suffering from various psychological issues reported higher incidences of sexual victimization at 6.3 percent (Beck & Berzofsky, 2013). The sexual victimization cases reported involved inmate-on-inmate sexual assault. On the other hand, inmates with no cases of psychological distress had a 0.7 percent rate of sexual victimization. Among prison inmates, 14.7 percent experienced psychological distress. Inmates suffering from psychological distress reported more cases of sexual victimization compared to those suffering from mental health problems. Inmates having unusual sexual orientation such as lesbian, gay or bisexual also reported significantly higher rates of sexual victimization. About 12.2 percent of non-heterosexual inmates reported sexual victimization by other inmates, and 5.4 percent by staff (Beck & Berzofsky, 2013). Non-heterosexual inmates with serious psychological issues reported the highest incidences of sexual victimization with 21 percent.

There exist large differences in sexual victimization rates between heterosexual and non-heterosexual inmates. Majority of non-heterosexual inmates experience inmate-on-inmate victimization. Surprisingly, 5.4 percent of non-heterosexual victimization involves the prison staff as perpetrators (Beck & Berzofsky, 2013). The rates of sexual victimization also vary depending on the length of stay of an inmate in a particular facility. Inmates with long sentences in prisons are more likely to experience sexual victimization from staff. The rate of sexual misconduct among staff increases in line with the length of time served a particular prison facility. The report indicates that young adult females in the age bracket 18 to 24 are likely to receive sexual victimization from other inmates (Beck & Berzofsky, 2013). On the other hand, young males in the same age bracket experience much of sexual victimization from prison staff. It is clear that inmates with psychological or mental health problems experience the highest rates of sexual victimization in prisons.

Mental illness and physical victimization in prison

A strong link exists between mental illness and physical victimization. Inmates with mental problems are at a higher risk of sexual victimization and other forms of abuse. A study conducted by Blitz, Wolff, & Shi (2008) using a total of 7,528 participants above 18 years indicates that physical victimization is higher among inmates suffering from mental disorders. About 20 percent of the participants reported having undergone prior treatment for mental conditions such as bipolar disorder, PTSD, depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorder. The study found that male inmates with mental health issues were 1.6 times more likely to suffer one or more forms of physical victimization from other inmates and 1.2 times more likely to suffer the same and perpetrated by prison officials compared to those with no history of mental health issues. On the other hand, female inmates suffering mental health issues were 1.7 times more likely to experience one or more forms of physical victimization compared to those with no history of mental health issues.

Over the recent past, cases of mental health issues have tremendously increased. Blitz, Wolff & Shi (2008) observes that the rise in cases of mental health issues among the general population is also reflective of the situation in prisons. The findings echo Beck & Berzofsky (2013) study on physical victimization based on color. White inmates are more likely to experience victimization in prison compared to African American inmates. Surprisingly, the population of Blacks in prison is slightly higher comparing to that of White inmates. The findings clearly indicate that physical victimization is highest among inmates suffering from mental health issues. As such, there is need for prison systems to implement victim protection programs aimed at inmates suffering from mental health disorders. The prison system should ensure that all inmates are screened, and those with mental health issues closely monitored to ensure that they are not victimized and they receive treatment.

An inmates lifestyle can predict the likelihood of victimization occurring. The ability of the prison staff to control inmates is one of the greatest determinants of the level of victimization in such facilities. Prison staff should keep in check criminal acts such as taking of personal property in prisons as well as physical assault. The lifestyle theory provides a possible explanation concerning the possibility of victimization in prison occurring. The theory purports that the likelihood of victimization in prisons is directly correlates to the lifestyle patterns or the daily activities present in prison facilities (Vito, 2006). As inmates engage in various leisure as well as vocational activities, they increase their interactions or contact with the potential offenders. This may either increase or decrease one’s risk of one or more forms of physical victimization. Lifestyle theory is in particular applicable owing to some distinct factors. First, there exist particular situations in prison that increase some of the inmates’ risk of victimization. Second, the daily routines in prison facilities vary and such impact the nature of inmates’ interactions.

Perpetrators of victimization

Victimization in prison especially inmate-on-inmate is perpetrated by particular individuals usually against the most vulnerable. Some studies attempt to establish the motivating factor as to why some individuals continually assault other during prison. Kerley, Hochstetler, & Copes (2009) explore the concept of self-control in relation to perpetrators of violence in prison. Most incidences of assault have an element of poor planning and are risky in nature. The main aim is to inflict physical pain upon the victims, but in the process, the victim ends up acquiring psychological and mental scars. Offenders lack the aspect of self-control. It is worth noting that individuals who lack adequate self-control are more likely to engage in risky behavior such as sexual promiscuity, binge drinking, smoking, gambling, and other negative behaviors (Kerley, Hochstetler, & Copes, 2009). Lack of self-control among individuals is likely the result of poor parenting or socialization during early childhood. For instance, young ones who lack teaching on how to delay gratification may be at a higher risk of lacking self-control in adulthood.

Low self-control precludes offenders from realizing the full magnitude of their actions. In addition, lack of self-control creates zeal among offenders to engage in dangerous activities or actions that result in harm. Inmates with low self-control act through their impulses and are often unable to delay gratification (Schreck, Stewart, & Fisher, 2006). As such, they rarely examine the overall long-term impacts for their actions. These individuals experience challenges in establishing and maintaining positive social relationships. They are less likely to walk away from verbal altercations or other forms of physical provocation. They are driven by physical stimulants as opposed to things that require mental involvement. These individuals are unable to cope with stressing or frustrating situations, and instead opt to relay their anger to others. Drawing on above, there seems to be a significant relationship between low self-control and engaging in assaults.

Offenders are more likely to flout established rules in prison facilities. Rule violations pose a significant risk to both inmates as well as prison staff. It is important to identify the exact factors associated with rule violations among inmates. Flouting of rules by inmates is associated with the socially depriving conditions of the prison environment. Poor adjustment to the prison environment is a significant contributor to rule violations by inmates. According to Steiner & Wooldredge (2009), there are a number of background variables attributable to rule violations by prison inmates. Common variables include criminal history, offense that led to incarceration, drug abuse, age and ethnicity. The length of an inmate’s sentence is an important predictor to rule flouting among inmates. Some studies relate longer sentence periods to increased risk of misdemeanors while in prison. Situational factors in prison facilities impacts inmates behavior. Presence of educative and counseling programs significantly reduces the risk of rule violations among inmates.

Various factors determine the possibility of conducting various offences such as assault in prison. An inmate’s race is an important predictor of the likelihood of engaging in an offense and the possibility of victimization. The type of offense leading to an inmate’s incarceration for is a significant predictor of behavior. Inmates incarcerated for violent acts are more likely to assault others physically while in prison facilities. However, the type of offense incarcerated for has limited impact on particular behaviors such as drug and substance abuse. Inmate deviance is also an important consideration in evaluating rule violations and assault in prison facilities. Some inmates engage in assault purely as a way of showing deviance to authorities. There is need for further research in this area in order to provide conclusive evidence on inmate deviance.

Impact of victimization in prison: Victimization in prison has significant detrimental effects to inmates, which is more than the mere psychological scars or trauma afflicted upon them during their prison tenor. According to Zweig et al. (2015), victimization in prison may lead to later incidences of substance abuse and criminal behavior following an inmate’s release from prison. Inmates who encounter various forms of victimization while in prison often develop negative emotions that go unchecked. The negative emotions lead to depression. These may later manifest later on when the inmates leave prison, increasing the chances of substance abuse and engaging in criminal behavior. Zweig et al. (2015) identifies victimization in prison as of the major causes of recidivism among inmates on leaving prison. Physical victimization on males below 18 years contributes to delinquency, which later evolves into criminal acts after some time. Vast literature also suggests that victimization contributes to delinquency among girls.

A number of studies suggest that the current data available regarding victimization grossly underrepresents the actual victimization statistics around the country. Threats and/or incidences of physical violence are more likely to go unreported in prison facilities (Wolff & Shi, 2009; Zweig et al., 2015). There is also lack of proper documentation about the impacts of physical victimization outside the prison life. The Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities estimate that about 35,000 assaults occur every year involving inmate-on-inmate (as cited in Zweig et al., 2015). This number of assaults affects about 5 percent of the total inmates. Nonetheless, it is worth considering that this represents the total number of reported cases of victimization, while many cases go unreported. Studies relying on self-reporting of victimization experiences by inmates show high rates of inmate-on-inmate victimization and from prison staff. A case in point is Blitz, Wolff, & Shi (2008) study that show about 20 percent of prison inmates experience some form of violence.

The study by Zweig et al. (2015) finds a statistically significant relationship between victimization in prison and development of negative emotions. The study shows that inmates (male and female) who experience any form of physical victimization are at a higher chance of developing negative behaviors. In addition, the inmates are at a higher risk of developing long-term mental health issues. Precisely, victimization in prison leads to development of hostile attitudes among the victims. The hostile attitude predisposes individuals to criminal acts and ultimately a return to prison. Victims develop depression, which predisposes them to drug abuse once out of prison. Victimization in prison is hence a major factor hindering the achievement of confinement outcomes. The major purpose of the modern prison is to rehabilitate offenders rather than punishing them, while removing them from society since they could pose a danger. Victimization in prison waters down the efforts to rehabilitate effectively the prisoners.

Possible solutions to victimization in prison: It is important that prison facilities implement measures to reduce cases of victimization. From this analysis, it is clear that victimization in prison results in not only psychological scars to the victims, but also significantly impacts inmates’ life once they leave prison. Prison facilities should implement assault prevention programs that ensure inmates’ protection from physical assault and other forms of victimization. The programs should specifically cater to inmates with mental health issues since they are the most susceptible to physical and sexual assault while in prison. Screening programs can help identify inmates suffering from mental health issues. Some studies indicate that developing counselling and education programs within prison facilities can significantly help reduce cases of physical and sexual assault in prison environment. Inmate-on-inmate victimization is the most rampant and thus prison systems must be geared towards first addressing this form of victimization.


Victimization in prison is a serious issue that affects about one quarter of the inmates. Research indicates that the actual figure of inmates experiencing victimization is not clear due to the nature of the issue. Majority of inmates suffer in silence and fail to reports cases of harassment. Such cases are not recorded thus making it difficult to obtain accurate figures. Studies utilizing self-reporting of victimization cases record higher cases of physical and sexual assault. Physical assault is the commonest form of victimization followed closely by sexual victimization. Another form of victimization involves verbal assault, although inmates rarely report this. The study indicates that inmates suffering from mental health issues are more likely to experience one or more forms of victimization in prison. As such, prison facilities should ensure protection of such vulnerable individuals. Lastly, victimization may lead to development of mental health issues, which increases the likelihood of recidivism.


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Beck, A. J., & Berzofsky, M. (2013). Sexual victimization in prisons and jails reported by            inmates, 2011-12. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from   

Blitz, C. L., Wolff, N., & Shi, J. (2008). Physical victimization in prison: The role of mental             illness. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry31(5), 385–393.   

Kerley, K. R., Hochstetler, A., & Copes, H. (2009). Self-control, prison victimization, and prison             infractions. Criminal Justice Review, 34(4): 553 – 570.

Schreck, C. J., Stewart, E. A., & Fisher, B. S. (2006). Self-control, victimization, and their           influence on risky lifestyles: A longitudinal analysis using panel data. Journal of            Quantitative Criminology, 22, 319-340.

Steiner, B., & Wooldredge, J. (2009). Implications of different outcome measures for an   understanding of inmate misconduct. Crime & Delinquency, 59(8):1234 – 1262.

Stoher, S., Walsh, A., & Hemmens, C. (2013). Corrections: A Text/Reader. Sage 2nd.  ISBN:             9781412997171

Vito, G. F. (2006). Criminology. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

Wolff, N., & Shi, J. (2009). Type, source, and patterns of physical victimization: A comparison   of male and female inmates. The Prison Journal, 89, 172-191.

Zweig, J. M., Yahner, J., Visher, C. A., & Lattimore, P. K. (2015). Using general strain theory to             explore the effects of prison victimization experiences on later offending and substance    use. The Prison Journal, 95(1): 84 – 113.


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