Friday, June 12, 2009

Understanding Violent Behavior By Prison Inmates

By: Erica Hutton

The following discussion examines the causal factors related to inmate perpetrated violence within a correctional facility. The correlation between reactive and proactive aggression is identified in addition to discussing how these behaviors influence inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence. I will note which inmates in particular are more likely to commit violent acts during the incarceration period and outline a strategy to reduce this sort of behavior within correctional facilities. In conclusion, I will explain the structural aspects pertaining to the correctional system that may perpetuate violent behavior.

According to Cunningham (n.d.) in the identification of possible causal factors associated to inmate perpetrated violence within correctional facilities, one must consider the inmates level of education, age, prior incarcerated experiences, history of criminal activity, gang affiliation or membership, and how many years currently served (as cited by DeLisi & Conis, 2008). Reactive and proactive aggressions are similar due to their link associated to aggression and the theory of criminal predation (Walters, n.d.); however, these two concepts are quite different in relation to their interpretation and guided behavioral, affective, and cognitive perspectives of one’s actions (as cited by DeLisi & Conis, 2008). According to Walters (2007), proactive aggression is correlated with instrumental aggression in relation to positive outcomes and expectations in violence situations. With that being said, reactive aggression is typically associated with hostile and attribution biases (Walters, 2007).

Bottoms (1999) purports a sociological perspective into the interpersonal violence within the prison system, suggesting that incarceration may be perceived as a method of control in which acts of violence is minimal due to the restricted environment. However, he further asserts that one’s perception of incarceration may be perceived as a social context that dissuades an inmate’s legitimacy, therefore increasing the likelihood of violent retaliation against other inmates and staff members (Bottoms, 1999). When an inmate chooses to participate in violent acts towards a staff member, this may be due to the “friction points” prevalent throughout the social context and role within the prison system administration.

Furthermore, it is important to consider a prisoner’s social routine in relation to inmate-on-inmate relationships and inmate-on-staff relationship when examining the preservation of social order (Bottoms, 1999). It is my opinion that both reactive and proactive aggression is related to inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff member offenses. This is due the fact that at times a prisoner may be planning and premeditating an attack on both an inmate and a staff member which is proactive aggression. However, it is also probable that violent acts occurring within the prison system can be reactive in nature due to an impulsive reaction by the prisoner towards another prisoner or when one may be unable to control their reactions when staff members are employed to monitor, safeguard, and implement rules and regulations at all times.

According to DeLisi and Conis (2008) in ascertaining which type of inmate would best be associated to committing acts of violence in correctional facilities, most would expect one’s level of dangerousness to be associated with either the level of severity pertaining to the crime committed or the sentence received. However, research states that this is false and should not be relied upon to substantiate evidence of such activity. In fact, the majority of inmates who participated in acts of violence discontinue their involvement upon incarceration. Cunningham (n.d.) asserts that there is no correlation between those who commit homicide to the level of assaults that occur within correctional facilities (as cited by DeLisi & Conis, 2008).

Although prisons are precarious by nature, it is possible to integrate strategic methods in addressing and reducing the aggression prevalent throughout these organizations. According to Specter (2005) prisons are violent institutions due to the result of the prison conditions and the method of operation among the state prisons. Operations that can be implemented in improving the occurrence of violence within the prison system include: 1) Controlling violence through management and supervision, 2) Providing adequate services throughout the prison, 3) Ensure that the prison is serving its primary purpose of incarceration, 4) Providing segregated housing units for gangs or gang members or forcing integration of gangs and gang members (both could be effective actually), 5) Creating housing units that are smaller than the current systems, 6) Providing counseling services to prisoners that specialize in developing relationships in addition to managing anger and violence and those who complete the counseling program receive a personal incentive (Specter, 2005).

In regards to the structural aspects that may perpetuate violent behavior within correction facilities, overcrowding prisons and social interpretations of violence among inmates contribute to such actions (Ekland-Olson, 1986). Cox et al., (1984) purports that violence is a consequence of psychological tensions grounded in authoritarian, economic, sexual, and racial order within the prison system (as cited by Ekland-Olson, 1986).

Another characteristic associated to violence within the prison system is related to the lack of concern for appropriate surveillance (Ekland-Olson, 1986). This may be due to being short staffed, fighting a losing battle, or from not caring about safeguarding the cellblocks at all times. I personally have noticed while researching for this discussion, that many researchers claim that overcrowding prison systems is one of the most problematic aspects pertaining to violent assaults within the prison system. I must admit that it appears that researchers may utilize this reasoning as a scapegoat to other methods that may be employed in addressing violence and may dismiss attending to the issues at hand due to so many prisoners within the system to begin with.


Bottoms, A.E. (1999). Interpersonal violence and social order in prisons. Crime and Justice, 26, 205-281. The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved June 4, 2009, from

DeLisi, M., & Conis, P.J. (2008). Violent offenders: Theory, research, public policy, and practice. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

Ekland-Olson, S. (1986). Crowding, social control, and prison violence: Evidence from the post-Ruiz years in Texas. Law & Society Review, 20(3), 389-421. Retrieved June 4, 2009, from

Specter, D. (2005). Making prisons safe: Strategies for reducing violence. Journal of Law & Policy, 22(125), 126-134. Retrieved June 4, 2009, from

Walters, G.D. (2007). Measuring proactive and reactive criminal thinking with the PICTS: Correlations with outcome expectancies and hostile attribution biases. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22(4), 371-385. Retrieved June 4, 2009, from