This study examines the influence of place management on victimization within jail and prison settings. The author conducts content and thematic analysis of narratives deriving from 87 individuals who were formerly incarcerated in Newark, New Jersey, and Cleveland, Ohio. Qualitative findings illustrate that place management may set the stage for victimization by exposing persons in custody to coercive interactions, inadequately surveilled places, deplorable physical conditions, and limited access to quality health services. Such treatment fosters poor relationships among occupants within the correctional setting. I conclude that mismanaged prisons and jails influence the perpetuation of violent victimization. Correctional administrations may foster positive relationships between persons in custody and other occupants as well as minimize the occurrence of violent victimization by ensuring that persons in custody: (a) receive access to quality health services; (b) are exposed to physical and sensory conditions that do not corrode an individual’s sense of humanity; (c) live in facilities where drug distribution is properly managed; and (d) live in facilities where blind spots are limited.
Keywords: Routine Activity Approach; Prison; Jail; Victimization; Place Management
Globally, incarceration is a method of punishment for persons who violate a set of rules or laws, and the United States retains the highest incarceration rate in the world1 (Felson, 2010; Walmsey, 2003). Consequently, the total count of persons held in U.S. jails and prisons is an ongoing problem in the U.S. that has grown over the last four decades (St. John & Lewis, 2020), with estimates showing that the incarceration rate in the U.S. is 738 persons per 100,000 people – four times greater than the world’s average of 166 persons per 100,000 (Hartney, 2006). Overall, 1.8 million adults are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails (Kang-Brown, 2021). In a one-on-one comparison, the number of individuals in U.S. jails and prisons eclipses the population of entire states such as Idaho, West Virginia, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming (WorldAtlas, 2022).
High incarceration rates are further problematic when one considers that individuals with lived experiences in jail and prison (Mansoor et al., 2015; Ross & Richards, 2003; Rotter et al., 2005), correctional staff (Griffin et al., 2010; Venters, 2019), and researchers consistently provide descriptions of deplorable conditions inside U.S. correctional facilities. Their narratives often describe an environment of strict regimentation (Craig, 2004; Osgood et al., 1985; Wright et al., 1997), “inmate-on-inmate” violence (Wolff et al., 2007; Lahm, 2008; Lahm, 2017; Steiner, 2009), “inmate-and-officer” violence (Kauffman, 1986; Konda et al., 2013), abuse of persons in correctional custody (Arnold, Liebling, & Tait, 2007), dehumanization of persons in custody (McCorkle et al., 1995; Sykes, 1958; Vick & McRay, 2018), confinement in close quarters and overcrowded facilities (Bartos & Kubrin, 2018; Finney et al., 2013; van Ginneken et al., 2017), unclean and poor environmental upkeep within the correctional building (Sloan, 2012; St. John et al., 2019), lack of social support while confined (Arriola et al., 2015; Goffman, 1961; Jiang & Winfree Jr.,2006; Yang & Perkins, 2018), and high levels of employee stress (Byrd et al., 2000; Cullen et al., 1985; Lambert & Hogan, 2018). As a result, the risk of victimization within such conditions is ever present (Hogan et al., 2017), and strategies to prevent victimization become essential for the well-being of all occupants (Castle & Martin, 2006). In response, jails and prisons have policies in place to mitigate the harmful attributes of the penal environment, including mandates that require access to mental health and medical services, visitation rights, restrictive housing regulations, and other minimum standard provisions (Deitch 2012; Jacobson, 2017). Although strategies are in place to reduce a person’s exposure to harmful conditions in jail and prison, violent victimization and safety remain an issue for all occupants (Blitz et al., 2008; Kubiak et al., 2018).
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS, 2019) defines a victim as a person harmed due to a criminal act spanning an array of crimes. BJS specifies that all types of assault (e.g., sexual assault or simple assault) are forms of violent victimization (Oudekerk & Truman, 2017), which corresponds with definitions present in correctional victimization research (Ellison, 2017). This study borrows from previous research investigations and limits the definition of violent victimization to reflect several experiences that include physical assault (i.e., physically hit); sexual assault (i.e., unwanted sexual contact); harassment (i.e., unwanted or unwelcomed conduct); verbal assault (i.e., the threat of physical harm); and poly-victimization (i.e., the experience of multiple forms of victimization).
Although national statistics on violent victimization across U.S. jails and prisons are limited, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and BJS provide insight into the prevalence of these events. The BOP reports that in the first calendar quarter of 2019, a rate of 13 serious assaults and 273 less serious assaults on a person in custody occurred for every 5,000 persons in custody held in a federal facility (BOP, 2019). A BJS survey of U.S. jails also shows that upon admission into jail, 7% of reported injuries are due to a physical fight (Maruschak, 2006). Arguably, these are conservative estimates given that cases of violent victimization go unaccounted for because persons in custody report incidents under the guise of other reasons, like an accident, or never report their victimization at all (Venters, 2019). This is also problematic because the occurrence of victimization during incarceration increases the difficulty for a person to reenter society (Listwan, Hanley, & Colvin. 2012). The direct experience of violent victimization while incarcerated increases the likelihood that a victim will engage in violent criminal behavior and substance use post-release (Zweig et al., 2015); and increases aggression, emotional distress, and antisocial behavior post-release (Boxer, Middlemass, & Delorenzo, 2009). In a similar vein, simply witnessing victimization while incarcerated has deleterious ramifications for other persons in custody. Research uncovers that witnessing the victimization of another person while incarcerated increases the witnesses’ odds of arrest post-release or them violating conditions of parole (Daquin, Daigle, & Listwan, 2016). Being both a witness and victim of violence while incarcerated is associated with the highest odds of committing violence in the community post-release (Zweig et al., 2015). Coupled with additional barriers to reentry – limited access to housing, employment, and education; lack of social support; and the stigma associated with carceral experiences (Evans, Szkola, & St. John, 2019; Travis, 2005; St. John & Blount-Hill, 2019; Williams et al., 2021) – a person in custody who is victimized or witnessed victimization faces additional hurdles to return home that may compromise the safety of others in the community (Boxer, Middlemass, & Delorenzo, 2009; Daquin, Daigle, & Listwan, 2016) and themselves (Engstrom, Wimberly, & Franke, 2017; Listwan, Hanley, & Colvin, 2012; Zweig et al., 2015).
Correctional institutions are physical symbols of social control because they represent the state-sanctioned deprivation of a person's freedom in physical form (St. John & Blount-Hill, 2018). Where there are physical restrictions to the freedom of large groups of people, whether justified or not, accounts of violent victimization are often abreast. For instance, there is a litany of facility-level characteristics associated with violent victimization in the correctional setting. Research has long shown that larger correctional facilities have higher rates of “inmate-on-inmate” assaults, “inmate-on-staff” assaults, and riots (McCorkle, 1947). The number of persons incarcerated is a marginally significant predictor of instances of fights or assaults within the prison (Glazener & Nakamura, 2018). Using physically restrictive conditions within a facility, such as spending 23 hours inside a cell, is predictive of injuries while in prison (Toman, 2019). The security level of a facility (Steiner & Wooldredge, 2009) and an institution’s composition of persons in custody (e.g., the aggregated sex, race, or the criminal offenses of persons in custody) also impact the odds of victimization (Teasdale et al., 2016).
To be fair, research outlines information on elements that help foster a well-managed correctional environment where violent victimization does not have to be the norm. A well-managed correctional facility is one where various factors are present, such as health and mental health resources for persons in custody (Grosholz & Semenza, 2021; St. John et al., 2022; Pont et al., 2015); staff wellness is prioritized (Ellison & Caudill, 2020; Isenhardt & Hostettler, 2020; Lerman et al., 2022); the use of restrictive housing is limited and vulnerable populations are properly housed (Steiner & Cain, 2016); adequate correctional staff are present (Ellison & Gainey, 2020); healthy relationships between security staff and persons in custody are encouraged (Liebling & Arnold, 2004); access to visitations (Turanovic & Tasca, 2019) and programs supportive of rehabilitation are afforded to persons in custody (Craig, 2004); and the physical setting is conducive for effective programs and services offered, such as ensuring persons in custody are in a sanitary and uncrowded environment (Sloan, 2012; St. John et al., 2019), preferably with access to green and blue spaces (Moran, 2019; Jewkes et al., 2020).
The physical design of correctional facilities often symbolizes the ideological beliefs of correctional administrators, and as a result, shapes how persons within these facilities are treated. Michel Foucault’s concept of the panopticon tethers the beliefs surrounding the purpose of correctional institutions to the physical design of the institution, as well as the treatment of persons who are confined within (Foucault, 2012). For example. Foucault (2012) describes the panopticon as a correctional design where cells are arranged in a circular pattern around a central tower to manipulate the behaviors of persons in custody. The central tower allows a single guard to observe all the cells simultaneously, while the persons in custody cannot see when a guard is at the post. The design of the panopticon creates a sense of constant surveillance, even when the guard is not present. Foucault argues that the panopticon represents a new form of power, one that is not based on physical force but on the manipulation of knowledge and information. He contends that the panopticon creates a disciplinary society in which individuals are self-policing, internalizing the state's power, and becoming docile and obedient. In other words, correctional institutions can be a self-sustaining source of power over the knowledge, perceptions, and behaviors of incarcerated persons when designed in a certain manner – here, facility design is linked to managing behavior.2
Central to this study is the outcome of violent victimization in corrections. Within the context of correctional places, research shows that facility architectural design is related to increased victimization and also outlines what a well-managed facility should entail (Dilulio, 1987; Useem & Piehl, 2006; Morris & Worral, 2014; McDonnell, Brookes, & Lurigio, 2014).
“Correctional officials are in uniform agreement that architecture matters a great deal, and some believe that it “makes or breaks” the operation” – Dilulio (1987: 86)
Dilulio (1987) conceptualizes the quality of prison conditions across three dimensions – amenities, order, and services. Amenities captured salient features such as the cleanliness of the physical setting, an element observed in similar studies on the correctional setting (Sloan, 2012). Dilulio (1987) introduces the dimension of services, which includes basic services afforded to persons in custody, like access to education or healthcare. Similar investigations on governance demonstrate that the management of prisons accounts for variations in the quality of prison conditions (Useem & Piehl, 2006). Arguably, the design and condition of the correctional place are indicators of how well an institution will be, and is, managed. In particular, researchers have explored the link between the correctional place and victimization, with mixed results. Useem and Goldstone (2002) do so in a study on the New York City Department of Correction and find no relationship between correctional design and victimization; Bidna (1975) examines efforts in the California Department of Correction and finds reductions of inmate-on-inmate assaults; and Morris & Worral (2014) find that the layout of the correctional institution is associated with rates of violence in Texas facilities, among other outcomes. The relationship between place and behaviors within corrections also expands geographical boundaries and types of social interactions (Moran et al., 2022). In one study, Beijersbergan and colleagues (2013) find that Dutch prison layouts are associated with positive correctional officer-prisoner relationships – a factor related to victimization in prisons and jails that can be manipulated through changes in correctional architecture (e.g., see Applegate & Paoline, 2007; Applegate et al., 1999 on new generation facility designs). The physical setting of jails and prisons are also examined through various ideological thoughts on the role of corrections (e.g., St. John et al. 2019 on rehabilitation), as well as elements that are indicative of a well-managed facility like access to quality healthcare (McDonnel et al., 2014; St. John, 2020; St. John et al., 2022); and in relation to appropriate sensory conditions. For instance, poor lighting, noise, temperature, and air quality within the correctional setting can negatively impact persons in custody by creating the potential for violent victimization to occur and deleterious health outcomes (Morris et al., 2021; Colucci et al., 2021). Together, physical conditions and how a place is governed overlap with one another. That is, the condition of the place will overlap directly with the management of the place. As Useem & Piehl (2006) argue, the physical and operational conditions of prison are elements of correctional management. This study will use the physical conditions of jails and prisons, as well as access to healthcare, as indicators of place management3 (more details in “Research Design and Methods”).
As investigations into strategies that curb violent victimization within the correctional setting continue, the identified factors that heighten the chance for violent victimization in the correctional setting and the elements that are necessary for a well-managed place require continuous exploration and contextualization within criminological understandings of the place and violent victimization. This investigation of violent victimization in correctional facilities will rest within the theoretical framework of the Routine Activity Approach, guided by a core question – how and why is the place influential in relation to the violent victimization of people in custody? To be clear, this is not another examination of whether a well-managed place impacts victimization, given that research overwhelmingly supports this proposition, but an inquiry into how and why place management influences the perpetuation of violent victimization.
“Rather than emphasizing the characteristics of offenders, with this approach we concentrate upon the circumstances in which they carry out predatory criminal act. Most criminal acts require convergence in space and time of likely offenders, suitable target, and the absence of capable guardians against crime.” (Cohen and Felson, 1979, p.1)
In 1979, Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson published their Routine Activity Approach in the American Sociological Review, explaining the U.S. crime rates of 1947-1974 through their framework. In it, they posited that a likely offender, a suitable target, and the absence of a capable guardian are three components necessary for a crime event to occur. They repeatedly reinforced the position that temporal organization, as outlined in Hawley (1950), and space – the actual place where persons overlap, are the ecological components to direct contact predatory crime. Simply put, the convergence of persons in space and time is a necessary condition for social interaction between people to take place, including harmful interactions such as victimization (Felson, 1981).
Felson goes on to argue that urbanization and globalization facilitate changes in social interactions, such as the presence of restaurants, apartments, malls, or the placement of streets. Often, such places displace the order of routines within a given area, causing an increase in the convergence of offenders and targets. Through their theoretical lens, this becomes problematic when the “owners” of a specific place and property cannot guarantee safety over the areas outside of their businesses where a significant amount of people crossing paths occur (Felson, 1987). Eck (1994) expands the theoretical understanding of the owner, the place, and safety by arguing that there is another component to understanding the crime event – the place manager. The place manager surveys the place at which persons converge. It is at this place that the owner or owner’s representative ensures a smooth operation of the place, a tenet that promotes the logic that a well-surveilled place should have fewer occurrences of crime compared to places without surveillance. Here, the Routine Activity Approach supports that violent victimization does not occur in a vacuum and that victimization is inseparable from where such acts occur. In jail and prison, and through this theoretical lens, these places are the micro-areas within the correctional facility that lack Cohen and Felson’s guardians and/or Eck’s managers. To curb victimization, the place requires managers – the owners who maintain the smooth functioning of the place and who supervise the facility (Sampson et al., 2010).
In the correctional setting, the correctional officer holds many roles, including the place manager, because they are the primary point of contact for persons in custody regarding the conditions of jail or prison. Their various roles also speak to the fluidity of the actors in the crime event through the Routine Activities Approach. For example, an officer can be a suitable target in one crime event, a motivated offender in another, the formal guardian, a place manager, and even a handler (St. John, 2021). This study will focus on their role as Place Manager.
In assessing the influence of the Routine Activity Approach’s place management and how it relates to violent victimization, one must consider how researchers have examined violent victimization in jail and prison through this lens thus far. To date, researchers have put the theory to the test of explaining carceral victimization (McNeeley, 2022; Ellison, 2017; Listwan et al., 2014; O'Donnell & Edgar, 1988; Steiner, Ellison, Butler, & Cain, 2017; Teasdale et al., 2016; Wooldredge & Steiner, 2013; Wooldredge, 1994). For example, Teasdale et al. (2016) surveyed persons in custody to investigate the characteristics that make a person a suitable target while in prison and find several contextual variables that predict victimization, such as the proportion of offenders with a violent criminal conviction. The researchers also find individual-level risk factors such as a person having a work assignment while incarcerated.
In other examples, Steiner et al. (2017) conduct a systematic review of violent victimization studies between 1980 to 2014 and linked specific routines to the increased likelihood of violent victimization, such as persons who live in the general population becoming victims more frequently. Listwan et al. (2014) unearth the predictors of poly-victimization in prison and find a link between environmental factors, target vulnerability/importation, protective/lifestyle factors, and increased odds of poly victimization. Wooldredge & Steiner (2013) identify the impact of “target vulnerability” and “inmate activities” on the prevalence of victimization in prison. Ellison (2017) evaluates the approach and finds that routines, target suitability, and guardianship were all linked to the victimization of persons in custody and correctional officers within the jail setting.
Gaps in research on the applicability of the Routine Activity Approach in the correctional setting remain, such as studies: (1) being purely quantitative and focusing primarily on experiences in either the jail or prison setting (methodological gaps) and (2) studies not examining the role of the place manager (a theoretical gap). This begets an absence of understanding of how violent victimization through the Routine Activity Approach may vary across common carceral settings – that are distinct in purpose and function – because studies lean toward either jail, prison, or an aggregation of the two. Additionally, relying primarily on quantitative understandings of these relationships limit the variation in research methods necessary to generate new insights and limit skewed findings. A qualitative approach will provide an understanding of why and how victimization occurs by applying the lens of the Routine Activity Approach, particularly examining an aspect of the approach that is overlooked within these settings – place management. The current study begins to fill in the research gap with an investigation using qualitative data that examines the question: how and why does place management influence the perpetuation of violent victimization within jail and prison settings.
The decision to explore U.S. jails and prisons is guided by the gap in literature exploring experience in both settings because they serve different purposes and have different characteristics. Krisberg and colleagues (2018) delineate the key differences between these institutions. Jails are typically run by county or city governments and are used to hold individuals who are awaiting trial or who have been sentenced to serve a short term of incarceration, usually less than one year. Jails are also used to hold individuals who have been arrested for minor offenses and are awaiting release on bail or who have been sentenced to serve time for less serious crimes. Prisons, on the other hand, are typically run by state or federal governments and are used to hold individuals who have been convicted of more serious crimes and have been sentenced to serve longer terms of incarceration, usually more than one year. Prisons are also used to hold individuals who have been transferred from jails after conviction and sentencing. Jails are generally smaller and more crowded than prisons and have fewer resources and programs available to inmates. Prisons tend to have more space, more specialized facilities and programs, and more resources available to inmates. Jails usually have more restrictions concerning the movement and activities of the inmates, while prisons tend to have more freedom of movement and more programs and activities available to the inmates. Jails are for short-term, pre-trial, and minor offenses, while prisons are for long-term, post-conviction, and serious offenses. One may reasonably expect the place management experiences for persons held within these settings to vary in some way given these circumstances.
In 2016, the New York City Center for Court Innovation (CCI) launched a cross-sectional research study to understand the experiences of persons involved with the criminal justice system (Swaner et al., 2018). This current study employs a secondary data analysis of the data derived from the original CCI study. The original purpose of CCI’s study was to better understand the experiences and perceptions of procedural justice within the court, jail, prison, and community correction systems in Newark, New Jersey, and Cleveland, Ohio, from the perspective of persons who were involved with the criminal justice system. The study yielded textual accounts of people’s experiences in jail and prison, which is the foundation for this study. All study aspects (e.g., informed consent forms and interview guides) were IRB approved.
CCI used a mix of convenience and purposive sampling to gather interview data. Researchers recruited participants based on their access to the target population and intentionally approached persons from various racial and age demographics. The inclusion criteria for the study were that persons had prior criminal involvement that led to processing within Newark or Cleveland's criminal courts or that persons returned from time in jail or prison in the past two years. The selection of Newark and Cleveland was based on the CCI team’s access to violence prevention partners within these communities, who helped CCI in their data collection efforts. Recruitment of participants occurred outside of the criminal courts, at youth reentry offices, local churches, and community centers. Collectively, CCI researchers conducted 102 intensive interviews – or interviews lasting 60 minutes or more (Hochschild, 2009), with respondents about their experiences. Researchers held the interviews at various locations in the community, with most interviews held at local churches one-on-one.
Interviews from a sample of 87 respondents served as the primary data for this study. Additionally, several cases from the original CCI sample of 102 are excluded because respondents did not spend time in a jail or the prison setting, exercised their right to cut the interview short, or the interviewer did not reach the section on correctional experiences in the interview protocol. The correctional institutions that participants provided their experiences about primarily included state prisons in Ohio and New Jersey, as well as county jails within these states. For anonymity, the names of these facilities are not revealed. However, the facilities span all security levels and populations (e.g., maximum security facilities or all women facilities).
In this study, the theoretical concept of “place management” is surveilling the actual place where persons converge (Eck, 1994; Sampson et al., 2010) – the jail and prison. The earlier review of literature ground the constructs that represent the concept of place management and borrow from the underlying logic that a well-managed place is one where there is upkeep to the physical conditions and necessary resources to facilitate safety (e.g., access to healthcare) are present (because it is under the gaze of a facilities’ place manager). The two constructs that will serve as indicators of place management are: (1) physical conditions of the place; and (2) access to healthcare – a logic applied in past correction-based studies (Sloan, 2012; McDonnell, Brookes, & Lurigio, 2014; St. John et al., 2019). The two constructs are operationalized using the narratives of respondents describing the physical conditions of the place and their access to healthcare – through deductive and inductive coding, which the study’s conceptual and template analysis section will describe. Similarly, the outcomes of violent victimization are operationalized using the interview descriptions of experiencing and witnessing a sexual assault, harassment, physical assault, and verbal assault while in custody.
This study uses a content analysis or a technique for making inferences by systematically and objectively identifying special characteristics of messages, inclusive of a conceptual analysis that uses the occurrence of specific terms to examine the presence of a given construct (Columbia Public Health, 2021). For instance, where respondents reported being “beaten,” “hit,” or “stabbed,” these narratives were classified as “experiencing physical assault.” The review of literature helped with developing groupings which were used to organize the transcribed interview responses – a method understood as deductive coding (Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006). Similarly, a template analysis – a type of thematic analysis - follows an identical approach, but with the end goal of the analyses being to extract and interpret the themes in relation to each other (Brooks & colleagues, 2015; Vaismoradi & colleagues, 2013), as opposed to quantifying their prevalence. In total, the transcripts from the interview spanned 17 to 71 pages each and the level of analysis for the coding was at the sentence level. That is, sentences from respondents were all categorized under the study’s concepts of interest (e.g., place management) and associated constructs (i.e., access to healthcare services and perceptions of the physical place). Several conceptual groupings were used for deductive coding: (a) place management which includes two separate groupings for physical place and access to healthcare services; and (b) violent victimization, which includes the concepts of physical assault, sexual assault, harassment, and verbal assault. All forms of violent victimization are further aggregated into subcategories of experiencing or witnessing these events (e.g., experiencing physical assault is separated from witnessing a sexual assault). Additionally, the verbatim descriptions of the violent victimization generated descriptions that varied in length. For some interviews, this meant coding one sentence versus six sentences about a given event based on how well a respondent recollected the event and their comfort level in providing descriptions.
Moreover, a crosswalk of the Routine Activity Theory-informed codes and violent victimization codes against a preliminary analysis of fifteen narratives allowed for adding new subthemes. Therefore, the analyses also relied on inductive coding (or the creation of additional categories that emerge from the text) to better improve the organization of the narratives that emerged during the analyses. Intercoder reliability across these concepts was incorporated with the support of a supervising researcher to ensure agreement in the categorization of narratives by using a subsample of fifteen interviews randomly selected with Excel’s randomization function. The categorization of the narratives into the outlined conceptual categories was aligned across both researchers, but there were instances where one came across newer child nodes or subthemes, such as dehumanizing treatment – descriptions of being treated as an animal, object, or anything other than human. Together, this became the overall coding frame for quantifying the text data and interpreting the prevalent themes in relation to each other.
Place management is an unexplored element of the Routine Activity Approach that should influence the occurrence of violent victimization in jail and prison, with the underlying logic being that crime will occur less in managed places. Respondents described the management of jails and prisons by illustrating their access to health services and the physical conditions of the facilities. This section will begin with a description of the respondents and their experiences based on the analyses of their interview responses. Subsequently, findings about respondents’ experiences are organized by themes that emerged across place management measures (i.e., healthcare access and physical conditions) within both correctional settings (i.e., jail and prison). Finally, the results explain the link between healthcare access, physical conditions, and violent victimization.4
The analyses yield that of the 87 respondents, a total of 68% of persons were Black, 11% were White, and three percent were two or more races. Six percent reported ethnicity of Hispanic or Latinx. Seventy-eight percent were male, and 18% were female. Furthermore, 20% disclosed a history of substance misuse, 28% disclosed a history of mental unwellness, and 47% reported arrests for a violent crime. The most serious offenses reported included violent crimes such as aggravated assault, aggravated robbery, murder, domestic battery, and gun possession, as well as nonviolent crimes inclusive of child pornography possession, petty theft, drug possession, burglary, conspiracy, drug trafficking, public urination, menacing, and trespassing. The average number of times individuals reported going to jail was four, and the average number of times in prison was one. On average, respondents witnessed and experienced at least one type of victimization while incarcerated in jail and prison.
The prevalence of experiences of victimization in jail and prison varied by setting and victimization type, with 29% of respondents reporting an experience of verbal assault in jail and 9% in prison; 22% of respondents reporting an experience of physical assault in jail and 12% in prison; no respondents reporting an experience of sexual assault in jail and less than 1% in prison; and 16% of respondents reporting an experience of harassment in jail and less than 1% in prison. Occurrences where respondents report witnessing these forms of victimization also varied, with results showing that 26% of respondents baring witness to verbal assault in jail and less than 1% in prison; 41% of respondents being a witness to physical assault in jail and 23% in prison; less than 1% of respondents being a witness to sexual assault in jail or prison; and 1% of respondents being a witness to harassment in jail and less than 1% in prison. Tables I, II, and III illustrate these statistics and additional characteristics such as education, age, employment, and gang affiliation.
Table 1: Sample Characteristics
Two or More
Hispanic or Latinx
Non-Hispanic or Latinx
18 - 25
26 - 33
34 - 41
42 - 49
50 - 57
58 - 65
Less than HS
History of Substance Misuse
History of Mental Health
Most Serious Charge
Note. Interviewers did not ask about a history of substance misuse, mental health issues, gang affiliation, and most serious charges. Respondents revealed these items (unprompted) at some point throughout the interview. Therefore, the number represented is a conservative estimate that may be under-representative of these categories.
Table 2: Number of Incarceration Instances and Victimization Experiences
Jail and Prison Experience
Number of Times in Jail
Number of Times in Prison
Number of Distinct Forms of Victimization in Jail
Witnessed and Experienced
Number of Distinct Forms of Victimization in Prison
Witnessed and Experienced
Note. There are four types of victimization that an individual may have witnessed or experienced in jail and prison, allowing for 16 distinct opportunities of exposure to victimization. For example, witnessing physical assault in jail and in prison count as two distinct forms of victimization witnessed in jail and prison. N=87.
Table 3: Violent Victimization Experiences by Facility Type
Jail # Descr.
Prison # Descr.
Experience Verbal Assault
Descriptions of someone threatening to physically harm the respondent.
Respondent: A little verbal violence, yeah, but that's just how they talk and you talk to them back like that. They cuss at you and stuff when you get up in there. It just depends. Sometimes you just do it just to pass time. Like see how long I can get them to argue with me today.
Respondent: Guards is way more disrespectful. They quick to tell you, "You want a helicopter ride?" The hospital helicopter got to come get you to take you to the hospital. When I was down there before, they was beating guys so bad.
Experience Physical Assault
Descriptions of someone physically hitting the respondent.
Respondent: I mean, I didn't fight, but yeah, I was about to fight. I got punched though.
Respondent: I got into a couple of fights. It's basically like I said I'm from ### Avenue and there's a lot of beefing going on in our area. At the time I was arrested it was a lot of other people arrested that we didn't really like. They'd say certain thing. I'd start with them. They'd start with me. We wound up fighting and both getting on lock down.
Experience Sexual Assault
Descriptions of someone making unwanted sexual contact with the respondent.
Respondent: The male COs are definitely screwing the female inmates. I've heard both [non-consenusal and consensual sexual relationships with officers]. The likelihood, I believe it's consensual. All the ones that I personally saw, my experience, were consensual.
Descriptions of unwanted or unwelcomed conduct toward the respondent.
Respondent: He [the correction officer] printed up my case document and put it in the bathroom, like where the trustee pot is set up, it's like toilet, toilet, toilet. It's like these two white walls, and there's a white wall down here. Then there's the sinks right behind them, then the showers over here. He put one on the wall in the shower, and he put one over the middle toilet, so people would like, going back there read my whole case. Then he was walking around like, "Dang, I didn't know Ware was a child molester.
Respondent: Listen, I was the type of person that you wouldn't want to mess with me. You know what I'm saying, because they say the quiet ones, you stay away from. One girl I did have a fight with, in the prison, and my cousin looked out for me, downstairs in the kitchen. I told you I worked in the kitchen. She kept bothering me, I don't like women, all right. I mean, you're a friend, that's it. Stay away, but they was liking me another way, and I didn't like that.
Witness Verbal Assault
Descriptions of seeing or hearing someone threaten to physically harm another person.
Respondent: Correctional officers talk worse than people in the streets. I've seen it so many times. It's just you're walking ... look at this. Just because you look small, because you look skinny or you look some type of way. "Oh, look at this fa*g*t."
Respondent: [reporting on conflict witnessed]. Verbal fights, oppressing, stabbing, throwing water, hot water on the person, punch them in the face.
Witness Physical Assault
Descriptions of witnessing someone physically hit another person.
Respondent: He stabbed him up 27 times. Left him right, laying right there on the floor. We watched him stab him up, we were playing basketball, you know?
Respondent: I've seen this one guy get stabbed, this Muslim guy. He was on a Crip hit. They stabbed him up so bad and see, I ain't never seen nothing like this. The way the blood was coming out like he had a waterfall on his head, like it was shooting up. I've never seen that. I thought that only happened in movies.
Witness Sexual Assault
Descriptions of seeing or hearing someone making unwanted sexual contact with another person.
Respondent: You can hear them at night, "Ma". Ma can't help you now. As they was raped.
Respondent: This is no lie, no exaggeration. Just about every week somebody got raped, somebody got jumped, somebody got stabbed up. They get extorted for they food.
Descriptions of seeing or hearing unwanted or unwelcomed conduct toward another person.
Rspondent: [reporting on witnessed harassment or sexual advances] Probably from a couple women, but there wasn't no ... There were probably some staff ladies or something.
Respondent: They [new admits] get taken advantage of immediately. Young guys get turned out immediately. Braiding other inmates hair, washing their underwears, being their girlfriend or whatever you want to call it. They just get turned out, automatically, especially the lifers that's doing life. They [persons with life sentences] don't care...I see them extort young guys all the time.
Note. Each description is reflective of the collective experiences of one unique individual. N = 87 respondents.
Table IV illustrates that 56% of respondents provided descriptions of their experiences accessing healthcare in jail; 21% provided descriptions of accessing healthcare in prison; 72% provided descriptions of the physical conditions of the jail setting; and 34% offered descriptions of the physical conditions of the prison setting. A closer examination of these experiences and narratives that emerged are detailed in this section.
Table 4: Place Management Experiences by Facility Type
Jail # Descr.
Prison # Descr.
Access to Healthcare
Descriptions of respondents experiences receiving healthcare services while incarcerated, including narratives on the distribution of medication and its' use.
Respondent: The condition is like medical is a joke. Don't get sick. Then you've got to pay $50 in they jail. When you go to the jail, you have to have someone come in and pay them $50. Or what they'll do is they going to tag it onto you. Let's say you didn't pay the $50 like I didn't pay the $50 but I got a job in there. That's one good thing they got, you make $21 a week if you are working. Out of my $21, I only got $10.50 because they had to pay towards my $50. All the medical things that I owed. You've got to pay for all of that.
Respondent: I did sign up to take two courses, PTSD which was worthwhile because I think anybody who's gone to prison has been subject to stress, post traumatic stress. If you had FBI putting guns in your face and it didn't, you've got another problem. I took a non residential drug treatment program while not really having a drug problem anymore. It was worthwhile, it was funny, the guys who were smoking an ounce of pot a day swearing they have no problem. There were some mental health opportunity but what was really offered if you didn't really go out of your way to get something was very little, it comes back to the same old, you going to hurt yourself? You're not going to hurt yourself, don't bother.
Physical Conditions of the Place
Descriptions of what respondents saw with their eyes (visual descriptions); felt (tactile or somato-sensory descriptions); heard (auditory descriptions); smelt (olfactory experiences); and tasted (gustatory experiences) while in jail and prison.
Respondent: Cleveland city jail is like the dog pound. It's a bunch of cages and they feed and you stuff, but it's dirty. They pack you in there on top of each other. I've been in a cell before where it was like ... It was only one bed in there, and you've got one guy on the bed, you've got one guy on the floor, and then they'll cram another guy in there sideways. One guy will be up under the toilet and the other one will be by the bars somewhere. I've had as much as four guys in a one-man cell before. It's nuts.
Respondent: Phew. My room man, this room cut into a sectional floor and the room was about as big as one of those sections. You got some cottages, they with dorms and some cottages, with the cells. Then you got some cells that have bunkies and some cells you didn't. I had a single cell.
Perceptions of Inhumane Treatment
Descriptions of respondents explicitly describing being treated as an animal, object, or anything other than the treatment of a human being.
Respondent: Again, our food is horrible. We starve. If it wasn't for commissary, we would starve. Truly starve. We only get clean clothes twice a week. They treat us literally like dogs.
Respondent: You get up in the morning, you’re let in and out of the dorm, fed garbage that dogs wouldn’t eat.
When describing access to health services in jail, respondents expressed that they received services, albeit six persons said “no.” In instances where respondents detailed the service provision received, they varied, with access to healthcare services being partially dependent on an individual’s financial stability or ability to pay for services. Individuals added that the severity of their health ailments influenced the responsiveness of healthcare providers. However, respondents also outlined moments where staff overlooked severe ailments and staff being unresponsive to the needs of persons in custody, particularly with correctional officers who would serve as a liaison between healthcare staff and incarcerated persons in some instances. Nicole gives a detailed account of neglect during her cancer recovery while incarcerated in jail, echoing statements of neglect and lackadaisical responses to healthcare needs at the hands of healthcare providers, as well as sentiments that correctional officers did not bring people in jail to healthcare providers in a timely fashion. She also explains how poor healthcare services within the context of correctional officers as liaisons are one of many barriers and compares her experience of accessing healthcare to other forms of dehumanization – “below being a human,” in her words– by the actions or inactions of correctional officers that emerge in later themes.
Nicole: Say if you need assistance with anything or to go see the doctor or anything else, you don't go down right away. Your needs, your medical needs and everything are not attended to like it should be. If you feel sick or there's something and you're in pain and there's something hurting you, sometimes you're waiting two, three days to go down and see the nurse which I'm sorry something could happen by that time. There has been people that died in there because of something not attended to right away.
I had to go get a bandage changed so every day that I was down in that medical, I told them every single day, "Look, I need to see a doctor. I need to see a doctor. I need to see it. Never seen the doctor. Ever. It's like they tell you one thing and they're supposed to do something. They don't do it. Where's your proof? It doesn't matter. It's like you have no voice in there. You're an inmate. You have of course no control but even certain things like your medical and certain things like that. Even if you do what they say they could still send you to the hole just because how they feel. You were disrespecting. You go to the hole. You're in punishment, you're locked up the rest of the day because you gave me attitude and you could give no attitude. Just the CO just doesn't like you. They treat you below being a human period.
In the prison setting, experiences with accessing healthcare services were seldom neutral or a simple “yes” and “no” response but were accompanied by more richly detailed experiences surrounding a respondent’s contentment with the healthcare services or extreme discontent. Relative to jail, respondents expressed that prison healthcare services were better because of better staffing ratios and responsiveness to health concerns. In conjunction with there being more vivid experiences recalled with prison healthcare services, there were also narratives that painted a picture of what may go wrong when the distribution of medication is mismanaged – a theme that was more prevalent in prison narratives. Individuals explained that the psychological screening for persons in custody was a straightforward process whereby screeners asked persons in custody whether they would hurt themselves or not. Karen recalled an issue with medication management, recollecting a suicide-related event.
Karen: The [correctional officers] wouldn't let us out. They kept us locked down. I don't know who she was, but she hung herself because of something that she [pause] somebody took something from her, but she was a little off anyway. They didn't give her medicine, you know how some people that go crazy, when they supposed to have they medicine to calm them down, they wouldn't give it to her. The next day... [pause] she hung herself, she was hanging. She was hanging, she was swinging. Yeah, I couldn't believe it, but ...
Mismanagement of medication for persons who need it for their mental wellness was one challenge identified, but another centered on drug misuse and easy access to medication in prison. While important and responsive to the needs of persons with medical or mental health concerns, occurrences of substance misuse among persons in custody were present.
Regarding the management of the physical place, respondents’ narratives elicited vivid somatosensory and visual experiences (i.e., descriptions of what they felt and saw) that illustrated unpleasant conditions. The accounts provided by respondents capture memories of sleeping on poor bedding, use of moldy showers, sleeping on hard floors, enduring cold temperatures, having skin outbreaks, lack of light or excessive light, the observations of fecal matter and urine on floors or walls, and more. Persons, when in custody, internalized the unpleasant somatosensory experiences as being punitive and deserving. As Felicia explains, only “cold killers” deserve exposure to cold facility temperatures. In other examples, respondents allude to an expectation that such sensory punishments (e.g., sleeping without proper bedding) are for persons who are guilty instead of those who are not guilty, and other respondents argue that jails are not meant to be “comfortable.” Felcia, Lewis, Darla, and Edward clarify this while sharing their experiences.
Felicia- Yeah, she [the correction officer] was like, "I can't be running this every minute like that." The way they talk. They treat you like I said, like a cold killer. You know like I was really, it was freezing in there. I had like 3 blankets. It still wasn't enough.
Lewis: That jail was like the worst thing. You shouldn't treat a person like that unless they've murdered or raped somebody. It's dirty, they got one man cells with two people sleeping in them. You get, what they call, red zoned. It's where like an employee, a CO, don't show up to work and then they lock you down. I was locked down for like seven days straight with no shower. The food is ... If you don't have people sending you money, you will starve. I was there for like 45 days and I lost 30 pounds…you starve.
Darla: In county, it’s dirty as fu**. They have bedbugs. It smells like sh**. There’s blood everywhere in the place, dried-up blood on the walls and shit. It is real fu**ing dirty, like I’ve just got to say it again, it is very dirty. It’s real dirty. I came home, and my legs looked like a fucking hosiery, with the pantyhose, because my legs got all bit up by bedbugs, I had a fu**ing infection on my skin, it was a big-a* rash breaking out on my back. It was just looking nasty. I know a couple people, and they got, what’s that sh** that eats up your arm, MRSA, I think?
Edward: You got food stuck on walls because it's up to that person sitting in that jail cell to clean it. Now, dude [another person in custody] takes a sh**, smears it all over the walls…then it's not occupied for three, four months. Who's gonna clean it? They're [corrections officer] not gonna clean it. They don't care.
Narratives of physical conditions also capture descriptions of crowding and issues with managing capacity within a facility as well as the cramped physical conditions of solitary confinement. Persons who gauge their experience in relation to what they imagined incarceration to be before incarceration add nuance to the understanding that uncomfortable conditions are the norm. Despite the larger narrative of unpleasantries that individuals expressed that they saw or felt in the place, there were outliers who contend that the place was “not that bad.”
Cole: It's very small, it's like a 4 by 8 room. It's a metal bed and they give you, basically, it's like an air mattress with cotton in it. 2 people to a room, sometimes they're so overpopulated in the County jail, I'm telling you the County jail could get overpopulated, they have boats. It looked like a boat, and they give you a mat and you sleep on that, and you have to sleep outside in the day room.
Bob: I mean ... Me I try to keep it clean. We clean our rooms. They not dirty or nothing. The floors probably dirty and we got slippers.
Bob: I heard stories about it. But for me to actually go in there and see it. I was like well this is how it is I'm gonna deal with it. Cause I heard many of stories. Oh you gonna be in jail oh one day you gonna see how it is. I said no I'm not, they judge me wrong. When I ended up going I'm like damn, I see the place I hear all theses stories and I'm like, it's not as bad as everybody say it is. You know? People act like it's a horror movie you know? It's not that bad.
Taken together, descriptions of inhumane physical conditions accompany the jail experience. Respondents interpret such conditions as a reflection of how correction administration and personnel view persons in custody, with some respondents internalizing the subpar conditions of jail as normative.
In the prison setting, there were few differences in themes compared to jail. First, narratives of the physical conditions came forward in descriptions of solitary confinement. In one case, Jake described what they perceived as a “nasty” place and how the use of the cell toilet became a source of conversation between him and his cellmate while in solitary. In Jake’s response, the nasty toilet that he sat on or hovered over was also a symbol of power dynamics and relationship building between him, his cellmate, and the place manager. He references the correctional officer who provided cleaning materials to use the bathroom as “cool” and himself as “lucked up” to receive such care. Again, here we observe that the physical conditions – one of the study’s constructs of place management – are a source of messaging between persons in custody and the correctional administration.
Jake: It was about a week or so [in solitary confinement]. It was very uncomfortable. They [correctional officers] weren't very accommodating. The facility was nasty, and it didn't look very clean. The shower had rust in it, and the toilet didn't have a seat. I was trying to figure out how was I supposed to use it, and I've never used a toilet without a seat before, so I was like was I supposed to just hover. I didn't know what to do. I was like I'm not about to sit on that. Everything falls on that. Me and my bunkie were playing a game of hold it, who can hold it the longest.
We lucked up and finally got a cool corrections officer to give us some cleaning products…at least I knew I had cleaned it before we attempted any type of anything. But it was weird using the toilet bowl with no top. I had never had that before. They break you down in there.
Collectively, narratives on place management as it overlaps with descriptions of violent victimization in jails and prisons primarily encompassed items related to access to health services. Physical conditions and access to health services were collectively less prominent in narratives about victimization within the jail setting compared to prison. Access to health services did not emerge as a theme that directly influences victimization, but closely related provisions like access to food and other mandated resources emerged as reasons for why a person in custody became susceptible to victimization, sexual coercion, for example.
Mariah: I know for a fact, like this girl was having sex with [a Correctional Officer], I've seen it.
Interviewer: Was it consensual? Did they both agree to it?5
Mariah: Mm-hmm (affirmative), they agreed to it because, you know what they want, cigarettes.
Mariah: Cigarettes, bring in food, they could bring [inaudible], they could bring, anything that you need, they could bring it in.
Interviewer: It was like a sexual arrangement based on the fact that I'll give you something if you ...?
Mariah: It may be like a touch, it may be a feel or they could have full-fledged sex, it depends…
Narratives of sexual assault and harassment were the least occurring forms of victimization. In such instances and other occurrences of victimization, place managers were nonresponsive to screams (e.g., not surveying the area where persons shouted out loudly), and persons in custody took advantage of the lack of surveillance over the place. In two examples, Tim gives insight into jail and Kevin explains a prison experience:
Tim: You can hear them at night calling for "Ma" [calling for their mother]. Ma can't help you now.
Interviewer: Saying ma as they ...
Tim: As they was raped.
Interviewer: That was happening frequently?
Kevin: The n* [referring to himself and other persons in custody] heard him screaming, so we knew what was up. If you hear a n* [referring to another person in custody] screaming at 3 o’clock in the morning, you know what’s up. You hear a n* screaming at 3 in the morning, but when the CO falls asleep, what’s he going to do?
Interviewer: He [the correctional officer] slept through it [the sexual assault of a person in custody]?
Kevin: Yeah. I don’t believe that he was asleep, but the n* [referring to the CO] claiming that he was asleep.
Interviewer: Stuff like that didn’t happen often, though?
Kevin: No, not often, but when some shit did go down, the n* [Co] didn’t know nothing about it. They didn’t give a fu**. If they see something then they’re on it like, “Oh yeah, we seen this happen. We know what happened.” If they’re able to catch it on camera. If they didn’t catch it on camera, if they didn’t see it, or they wasn’t around, they didn’t give a fu**. You just got your sh** wrung. If you get your as* all whipped, the cameras in a blind spot, or they catch you in the dugout somewhere, that’s a blind spot. They catch a n*, take you out somewhere, fu** your as* up on the staircase real quick, or rape you in the mother fu**ing bathroom, or catch your as*, like I said, in the blind spot and do some nasty sh** to you, they don’t give a fu**, because they didn’t see it.
Within the prison setting, access to healthcare services contributed to violent victimization. Respondents note that the prison offered drugs more frequently than jail and outlined an existing issue with either easy access or misuse of drugs. In turn, this mismanagement of drugs also appeared alongside depictions of individuals turning to buy drugs within the facility. Respondents described persons who misuse drugs as those who people in custody physically assault for not being able to repay whoever provided the drugs.
Marlon: Yeah. You really had to do something, like, you had to be doing stuff to be getting beat up in prison. People probably saying what you told on this person, told on that person. They got the people where they trying to find whoever's on drugs not paying they debt on drugs.
In addition, prison narratives also highlight that engagement in health services may tip off correctional officers when victimization occurred. Therefore, while the health services offered and the quality of services speak to place management, low engagement in health services may indicate persons attempting to avoid the attention of recent victimization. Tipping correctional officers off about violent victimization is one way of becoming a target of violent victimization. Kevin continues:
Kevin: They [COs] try to do what they can do, because a lot of times a n* gets poked up in a blind spot. A lot of situations, they can’t see.
Interviewer: The COs won’t do anything.
Kevin: Because they can’t.
Interviewer: They don’t have any evidence, or no one will talk to them?
Kevin: Hell, no. Ain’t nobody talking to the n* in there. The only conversation you’re going to get out of a n* in there is, “What’s going on, man? How you feeling, bro?” “Taking it day by day,” sh** like that or, “How your court case coming?” “Sh** looking heavy, but hey man, I’m going down, so that’s what happens,” sh** like that. You’re going to get some kind of conversations, but you’re not going to get no kind of conversation. Like, yeah, you’ve got the n* that just wants to run his mouth and kiss as*, so you’re going to have those, but those are the n* that get stabbed up. Those n* get their ass whipped, because that’s enough. When they say the wrong sh**, they get stabbed up. It’s a bunch of bullsh** going on in there, man. With this legal system, it’s nothing but bullsh**.
Respondents understood that reporting victimization, whether unintentionally (e.g., by seeking healthcare) or intentionally (e.g., filing grievances), would lead to them becoming a target by other persons in custody, and this understanding also applied to becoming a victim by the hands of correctional officers as well. Jeremy’s statement sums the collective narratives up succinctly:
Interviewer: Were people able to complain about what's going on in prison? Especially if it's the CO's.
Jeremy: They ain't no complaints. If you complain then you're outcast. If you complain about the cops [Correctional Officers], they going to beat you worse and then they're going to put you in a helicopter to the medical center [assault you to the point you need to be transferred to an outside medical institution equipped to handle your injuries].
This study explored the relationship between place management and violent victimization in jails and prisons. Narratives support that there is better management within the prison environment as it relates to providing healthcare services compared to the jail setting, but the ramifications for the mishandling of healthcare services also carried profound consequences, such as drug misuse and self-harm. The physical conditions within the jail and prison environments were often deplorable, capturing narratives of moldy showers, inadequate access to light, hard bedding, crowding, and more. Relative to jail, experiences in prison yielded descriptions of the place that were more positive, with some respondents explicitly stating that the conditions were better than expected. Moreover, perceptions of place management often paired with how persons in custody interacted with others and viewed themselves. For instance, the physical condition of a facility communicated a message, with respondents internalizing inhumane treatment as part of the punishment and humane treatment as a reward rather than a basic right. This aligns with one argument from St. John (2020b), which postulates that people confined in correctional places that are antithetical to the rehabilitative purpose of corrections will be less likely to perceive the governing correctional administration (place managers) as legitimate sources of authority. This mismanagement communicates that the administration has lost sight of their humanity which makes it easier to reciprocate this disregard for all others.
Additional narratives emerge that set the tone for the perpetuation of violent victimization. First, the inability to access quality healthcare services pointed to other instances where basic facility resources were inaccessible, such as food which in turn can foster an environment of coercion among deprived persons. Secondly, the mismanagement in the distribution of medication to those who require it and who do not support a drug dealing economy where persons who are already financially strapped find themselves in positions of violent victimization for not paying for the drugs they received from other persons in custody, Lastly, persons in custody exposed to inadequately managed places can have negative outlooks about the sense of their human worth (being “cold killers” or “dogs”), other persons incarcerated, and correctional officers – a recipe for justifying and normalizing widespread victimization among other deleterious outcomes.
In the Routine Activity Approach, the place manager’s surveillance of the physical place reduces the chances that crime will occur. This study supports preexisting research arguing that the relationship between place management and victimization may derive from a manager not surveying a place (Sampson et al., 2010). Findings also highlight that the unmanaged place communicates a message to and about the people who occupy the place. The narratives among persons who were in jail and prison show that the mismanagement of healthcare services within the place and the physical conditions of the place influence instances of coercion, the misuse of drugs, and violent victimization. Furthermore, narratives support that blind spots with no cameras or officers present also influence violent victimization within the correctional setting. The theoretical proposition that a place without a manager is one where the crime event is likely to thrive was present in the narratives of violent victimization witnessed and experienced in jails and prisons.
The management of the place also influences how persons in custody view themselves and others, inclusive of how they think correctional staff perceives people in custody (e.g., as being “cold killers,” “a dog,” or “below being human”). The perception that one is “less than human” due to the management of the place can foster strained relationships within the self and with others. This interpretation of how one is being treated based on access to healthcare and facility physical and sensory conditions (management) is a key finding of this study that is also central to wider research on place, space, and corrections. For example, in a systematic review of the prison physical environment and well-being, Engstrom & Esther (2022) find that the key mechanism linking prison design features and the well-being of building users are: humane treatment; autonomy; and stimuli (negative and uncontrollable conditions, like noxious noises, as well as meaningful and positive stimuli like views of green spaces).
Correctional facilities should comply with common institutional mandates that require the provision of health services, among other rights, to people in custody. Building from the study’s findings, recommendations that can help ameliorate the mismanagement of correctional places are offered in this section. First, implement routine assessments of, and improvements to, the institutional directives for distributing controlled substances within the facility. Second, ensure persons have access to mental healthcare, including mental health screenings and treatment for individuals with mental health conditions, as well as regular health screenings to identify and treat chronic health conditions. Access should limit financial barriers, where possible, given the financial strain and extortion persons in custody may experience.6 Third, ensure that the physical conditions of facilities are sanitary, rid of foul smells, and incorporate appropriate sensory stimulation (e.g., reduction in excessive lights or the removal of blood-stained objects). Sullivan & Chang (2011) explain that poor lighting, inadequate temperatures, high levels of noise, and crowding, among other elements, increase stress, irritability, disrupt sleep, and cause discomfort – psychological and physical precursors to agitation, aggression, and violence. Noxious conditions negatively impact not only persons in custody but also staff members within the building (Lerman et al., 2022; Ghaddar et al., 2008; St. John et al., 2019).
Collectively, provide a better overall quality of living, including shelter, food, and any identified conditions that communicate to incarcerated persons that they are human. Apart of communicating to persons that they are human includes providing them with access to evidence-based programs and services that address underlying issues that contribute to violent behavior, such as substance abuse or mental health conditions. Fourth, surveil all facility blind spots so that managers can be responsive to incidents in real-time. Staff must be trained to recognize and respond to signs of potential violence, especially for at-risk persons in custody. Facilities should use evidence-based classification systems to ensure that persons are housed in appropriate units based on their risk level and to minimize the potential for violent interactions between persons. Research also supports that the use of the direct supervision system is effective at reducing assaults and serious injuries and lowering administrative costs (Wener, 2006). A central component of these designs is that they improve sightlines for correctional officers and encourage social relationships among correctional officers and the population in custody (Wener, 2006). Such a design should be coupled with other forms of surveillance and security to detect and prevent violence, such as cameras and metal detectors. Fifth, jails and prisons should have a clear incident management plan in place, including procedures for responding to and reporting incidents of violence and procedures for investigating and reviewing incidents to identify areas for improvement. This should include reporting systems and processes that are designed to curb instances of retaliation. Although it is common practice to have such reporting systems as grievance systems, all are not safeguarded from retaliatory actions (Robertson, 2008; Calavita & Jenness, 2013). Lastly, correctional facilities should foster communication and collaboration between staff, persons in custody, and outside organizations, community-based organizations, to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence and to provide in-house and transitional support for people in confinement. Together, this should improve the management of the place and alleviate the discord that harsh conditions of confinement influence, like violent victimization.
The transferability of the study findings is limited by the sampling strategy employed; however, this limitation is innate to the study’s design which intentionally focused on a convenient and purposive sampling of individuals who were involved with the criminal legal system in New Jersey and Ohio. That is, participant selection was not random and respondents were selected based on whoever was available to speak with the research team during the data collection period. Narratives examined in the study are also restricted by space and time, given that all accounts reflect experiences in Newark and Cleveland jails and prisons that occurred ~5 years ago. Building on the temporal component, participant recollection of time spent in jail or prison brought limitations found in retrospective studies, primarily concerns of recollection where persons may not tell the truth or remember accurate information from the past. This includes issues of temporal order or knowing whether the perceptions and beliefs identified in the narratives came before or after the experience described.
A second major limitation is that the perspectives collected for this study are solely from the voices of persons who were formerly incarcerated, limiting the understanding of the crime event in the correctional settings to self-reports and the perspective of individuals who were once incarcerated, and not factoring the perspectives of (a) correctional officers and staff; (b) persons who are currently incarcerated; or (c) program staff or visitors, nor incorporating official data to also examine accounts of victimization (e.g., administrative data on assaults). The perspectives were analyzed through select components within the Routine Activities Approach as well, limiting the understanding of the data that may have emerged through different theoretical perspectives (e.g., examining the data primarily through the lens of the motivated offender or formal guardian).
Together, the findings and limitations of the study offer a roadmap for future iterations of similar research. Investigations should consider employing research designs that capture the understanding of varying perspectives of persons involved in carceral victimization in a singular study. Understanding the experience of a singular event or phenomenon from multiple standpoints would yield greater nuance to the carceral crime event. Notably, such research should take into consideration the distinct roles that persons within the carceral setting can have and the unfixed nature of these roles (e.g., the correctional officer who is a victim in one event but a motivated offender in another or the person in custody who is a guardian in one event but a victim in another). Such investigations can further inform research, practice, and policy by examining these standpoints across key dimensions of a person’s identity, like age, gender, race, or the intersection of these spheres.
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Victor St. John is an Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. His research addresses the causes and predictors of mass criminalization as well as the associated harms and efforts to mitigate and end mass criminalization.
Thank you to the participants whose voices are centered in this study. In addition, this research would not have taken place without the original study spearheaded by the NYC Center for Court Innovation (CCI). Thank you to Dr. Rachel Swaner, Dr. Cassandra Ramdath, and Dr. Andrew Martinez, as well as to the partners of CCI who made it possible for the fieldwork that generated these narratives. Thank you Newark Municipal Court, Newark Community Solutions, New Hope Baptist Church, Bridges/St. John’s Church, Urban League of Essex County, Greater Abyssinian Baptist Church, Newark Reentry Services, Cleveland Municipal Court, Golden Ciphers, North Star, and Shaker Square.