« "Colorado Department of Corrections to Pilot Telemedicine for Prisoners" | Main | Jodi Arias now pleading for a life sentence before sentencing jury »

May 21, 2013

Guest post on DOJ Report: Victimization of Mentally Ill Prison and Jail Inmates

Hello, all. I'm Lea Johnston, and I'd like to thank Doug Berman for inviting me to guest-blog about the new Department of Justice report released last week on sexual victimization in prisons and jails. I write in the area of mental disorder and sentencing, so I will focus on the mental health aspects of the data.

The DOJ report is based on inmate surveys conducted in over 600 state and federal prisons, local jails, and special correctional facilities between February 2011 and May 2012, and it includes the first national estimates of the sexual victimization of inmates with mental health problems.

The report found that inmates with serious psychological distress — elevated levels of nervousness, hopelessness, restlessness, depression, fatigue, or feelings of worthlessness — reported high rates of sexual victimization by staff and other inmates in 2011-12. In the words of the report:

The report also found that inmates with a history of mental health problems had higher rates of victimization than other inmates. The report ascertained that these characteristics were correlated with significantly elevated rates of sexual victimization:

These findings are significant because they demonstrate that mental disorder serves as a potent risk factor for victimization in correctional facilities. The report reinforces what academics — particularly Professor Nancy Wolff and her colleagues in important articles such as this one — have shown in recent years, but it goes further in detailing the current and historical offender characteristics that may signal risk of victimization.

There are three points related to this report that I think are worth making:

1)      Victimization rates may vary among facilities due to operational differences. The DOJ report shows that victimization rates vary widely among facilities for inmate populations as a whole. I suspect that victimization rates are especially likely to vary for mentally disordered prisoners, given differences in facilities’ housing policies for inmates with mental illnesses. Many facilities house offenders with serious mental illnesses (including clinical syndromes like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression) with the general prison population until they reach a state of crisis — a potentially dangerous arrangement for a vulnerable inmate.  Some prisons, however, house disordered, vulnerable inmates in special facilities, wings, or units.  These arrangements may be temporary (designed to equip the offender, for instance, with coping mechanisms) or last for the entirety of the inmate’s confinement. Segregated housing may protect disordered inmates from abusive prisoners in the general population and yield lower rates of victimization.

2)      Victimization rates may improve under national standards released by the DOJ in May 2012 under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.  The PREA standards are aimed at detecting and preventing sexual abuse in correctional facilities and impose new screening, monitoring, reporting, and investigating requirements on prisons and jails.  Beginning in August, audits of facilities will take place every three years.

3)      Sexual victimization is not the only source of serious harm that mentally ill offenders face when incarcerated. They are prone to physical victimization due to their inability to assess danger sufficiently and to modify their behavior to ward off attacks. Cognitive and behavioral limitations can render strict conformance with prison rules difficult, and thus offenders with mental illnesses have elevated rates of disciplinary infractions. Consequently, disordered inmates are disproportionately punished in isolation, where they are especially susceptible to decompensation, psychotic breaks, and suicide ideation.  (I have explored this body of research in several articles, including one article on vulnerability and just desert.) 

As the aforementioned correlation between offenders’ history of mental disorder and sexual victimization suggests — and as the federal government has recognized in the PREA standards — it is possible to identify individuals at a heightened risk of sexual victimization at intake. This information is also available to judges at sentencing. 

My next guest blog will explore whether — and how — vulnerability to serious harm might inform the sentencing of offenders with mental illnesses.

May 21, 2013 at 11:59 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Guest post on DOJ Report: Victimization of Mentally Ill Prison and Jail Inmates:


My guess is that sexual victimization has less to do with the mental and emotional characteristics of targeted prisoners and more to do with physical ones, to wit, the victims will be disproportionately younger and smaller in stature.

This would hardly be surprising, of course. Inside prison and outside, criminals prey principally on those smaller, weaker and more naïve than they are.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 21, 2013 1:47:18 PM

Bill. Table 16. Page 103.

You are correct. Also young, therefore sexually attractive, and white, also more sexually attractive.

Because the prison has full control of the body, all rapes are from the negligence of the prison. In the case of suicide, in response to litigation, guidelines were issued that reduced suicide by 90%, and murder as well.

End all obstacles to tort liability.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 21, 2013 2:56:38 PM

Bill - inmates with mental illness will be seen as less credible if they try to report a victimization, so perpetrators feel less accountable for raping and sexually assaulting them. It fits with the younger/smaller analysis.

Posted by: Paul | May 21, 2013 9:17:38 PM

In addition to mental illness, other risk factors for sexual victimization in prisons and jails include physical or developmental disability; youth; diminutive stature; first incarceration; nonviolent history; sexual offender status; whether the inmate is likely to be perceived as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or gender nonconforming; previous sexual victimization; and the inmate’s own perception of vulnerability.

Paul is right - prisoners seem to believe that mentally ill inmates will be less credible if they report a rape. In addition, mentally ill inmates may have difficulty building supportive social networks that could shield them from abuse, and psychotropic medications often carry side effects (such as slowed reactions and uncontrolled movements) that increase vulnerability to assault.

Posted by: Lea Johnston | May 22, 2013 9:05:28 AM

Prof. Johnston --

Which factors count the most? I would think youth, physical stature, and non-violent history/first offender.

You studied this, so you would know. But I'm always concerned about the tendency of researchers to overplay psychological factors at the expense of physical (and thus readily observable) ones. If I'm a tough-guy inmate on the prowl, what I'm basically looking for is easy pickin's, and that means a smaller, younger guy who doesn't know how things work in the slammer. If I think I can take him without much of a fight, or fear of revenge, that's the one I'm going for. His psychological view of himself will count for less.

I also think one effective means of tamping down on prison rape would be to tamp up on its punishment. The prison should adopt a no-tolerance policy towards forcible rape: If you do it, what happens is not that you get administrative punishment (although that too), you get prosecuted.

If the authorities are serious and consistent in taking this stand, word will spread in the population, and predator inmates will be given an incentive to think twice.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 22, 2013 10:13:53 AM

Bill - to date, most studies have found that non-heterosexual orientation is the most potent risk factor for sexual victimization. Many researchers also consider youth to be a robust risk factor, but the latest DOJ report did not find statistically significant differences in the abuse reported by juveniles as compared to adults (advocates have questioned these results - they may be explained by facility housing policies).

I agree with you on the importance of adopting a no-tolerance policy towards sexual victimization. To do this, we must *dramatically* improve substantiation and prosecution rates. The national substantiation rate of inmate allegations of sexual victimization is just 17% (around 55% of allegations are unsubstantiated, meaning that investigators could not determine whether or not abuse occurred; around 30% of allegations are determined to be unfounded). According to DOJ data collected in 2006, correctional authorities only referred 33% of substantiated cases of sexual abuse by inmates, and 45% of substantiated cases involving staff, for prosecution. No national data exist on the rate of prosecution of referred cases.

The new PREA standards may improve prosecution rates. The standards encourage inmate reporting and mandate the investigation of every allegation of sexual victimization (including those made anonymously and by third parties). Further, investigations will be required to follow a uniform evidence protocol to maximize the potential for securing usable physical evidence for administrative proceedings and prosecutions.

Posted by: Lea Johnston | May 22, 2013 2:23:28 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB