Violence directed towards offenders in prison

DC Public Safety Radio

See the main site at http://media.csosa.gov.

See the radio program at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2015/05/offenders-impacted-by-violence-effects-on-reentry-urban-institute/

Leonard: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leanard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, a very interesting and important show: Violence directed towards offenders, how it affects their behavior. We have Janine Zweig. She is a Senior Fellow with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where her work addresses issues related to violent victimization, primarily intimate partner and sexual violence.

I’m going to read briefly from a new study that Janine is responsible for. It indicates that adult men and women who are physically assaulted or threatened with assault while in prison have negative emotional reactions to such experiences, which can increase the likelihood of negative behaviors after release and have a detrimental consequence for their long-term mental health and well-being, specifically in prison victimization leads to hostility once prisoners are released to the community, and this hostility in part leads to further criminal behavior, including violent behavior and mental health problems.

Janine, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Janine: Thank you for having me.

Leonard: Janine, this is an important piece of research, because a lot of us don’t understand all of the implications of victimization while in prison. The violence that is directed, the violence that is witnessed regarding inmates while incarcerated does have an impact upon their behavior upon release, correct?

Janine: Correct, it does. These consequences make their reentry transition a little bit different for those who may not have experienced those kinds of victimization incidents when they were inside.

Leonard: Now, give me a sense of your studies. There’s a couple studies here that are in play. One is taking a look at violence at prison. One is taking a look at violence before prison.

Janine: The other, it was looking at violence for a population on community supervision, so those who were diverted from incarceration, so both cases.

Leonard: Let’s go back in terms of the folks who were in prison and how it affected their behavior. Give me a sense as to the study and the results.

Janine: Okay, great. This was a sub-study of the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative, which was a major evaluation of reentry programming funded by the Department of Justice. We looked at a sample who completed surveys 30 days before their release from the facility, 3 months after their release, 9 months after their release, and again 15 months after their release. We have 4 different time points that we spoke with these individuals. We found that among that population about 53% reported that they had experienced either a physical assault while they were inside or the threat of a physical assault.

These numbers are a little bit higher than what has been found in other studies. For example, Wolff and colleagues did a study of 14 prisons and found that about 20% of females and 25% of males reported physical assaults by another inmate. There’s also around about 30% of males and just under 10% of females reported assaults that were staff-on-inmate assaults. Our studies found a little bit higher prevalence rates, likely because we also included the threat of physical assault in our measure.

Leonard: Give me a sense as to what that means. If your study indicated higher rates of assault or threats of assault, other studies just looked at assaults. When you include threats, what you’re saying is that according to your research it was twice as high.

Janine: That’s right, because threats are more common, and then the Wolff study was looking at individual, actual violent experiences toward the individual.

Leonard: The serious violent offender research was done several years ago, correct?

Janine: Yes. We conducted that study. Interviews that were still while the person was incarcerated were conducted between July of 2004 through November of 2005, and then the followup interviews came after that, as I said.

Leonard: You went back and re-interviewed the individuals involved?

Janine: That’s right. These were individuals across various programs in 12 different states. First of all they were incarcerated and interviewed then 30 days before their release from prison, and then a series of followup interviews conducted at 3, 9, and 15 months post their release. We’re really able to look at preexisting in-prison experiences and then their reentry experiences at 3 different time points.

Leonard: Recidivism rates were rather high. Am I correct on that? The 5-year point when they went back and took another look, there were some reductions for some groups, but all in all the rates of recidivism, if memory serves me correctly, for this particular population were rather high.

Janine: Correct. That is true across many who are incarcerated, that two-thirds recidivate within a number of years. In this particular sample, we were looking specifically at the role of victimization in other consequences and how that relates to the recidivism behavior as well as their substance use relapse. We looked at both types of outcomes related to their reentry back into the community.

Leonard: You went back and took a look, interviewed these individuals, and talked to them about their in-prison experiences, and from that you found out that when you include the threat of assault, it’s high, that violence seems to be an integral part of prison life …

Janine: Correct.

Leonard: That has detrimental consequences upon release.

Janine: That’s right. What we did was we felt there was a real gap in knowledge of what does it mean that these violent experiences are happening for people who are incarcerated? What does that mean for them once they’ve come back to the community? What we did was we relied on a theory called general strain theory, which really tries to identify the steps toward delinquency. The idea behind that is that there’s experiences that are considered noxious strains, or for a better term maybe harmful or unpleasant experiences, that happen to people that relate to feelings about those behaviors, which then in turn contribute to behavioral outcomes. The presence of a negative or noxious strain like victimization is predicted to create negative states of emotions.

Those are particularly negative experiences for a number of reasons. For example, victimization experiences are often seen as unjust, they have a large emotional impact, and individuals have less personal control in that situation. These are considered particularly noxious strains that people are exposed to. When you have a negative feeling and reaction to something, this can be either an externalized feeling, so for example anger, hostility, or frustration, or it can be an inner-directed feeling such as depression or anxiety. The idea behind this theory is that once you have those feelings, you have a behavioral reaction in relation to that feeling, so an externalized behavioral reaction related to the outer-directed negative feelings.

To put that more simply, if you are experiencing anger or hostility in reaction to an experience that you’ve had, you may commit violence or delinquency. If you are experiencing internal behavioral reaction to depression or anxiety, then you might turn to substance use or that kind of thing. That’s the idea behind this. We thought this theory might help explain some of the reaction to these in-prison victimization experiences.

Leonard: It talks about the detrimental impact of going to prison, what that means to individuals, what it means to their own mental states, what it means to their own emotional states. In essence, what you’re saying is that because of that exposure to violence, that sense that it’s happening in prison, that they’re having a harder time dealing with the realities of coming out. They’re having a harder time dealing with life on the outside because they’re bringing all of these pent up emotional feelings, this sense of hostility towards their own environment, that transfers out into the community.

Janine: That’s right. In both of these cases, looking at both criminal behavior, including violent re-offending, and then relapse to substance use, we found that the in-prison victimization experiences did play a role. It was a partial role, but it’s a role nonetheless, and it’s important to make those links. These physical assault experiences or the threat of physical assault led to feelings of anger and hostility. As you said, you bring those feelings of anger and hostility back into the community when you return. Those feelings what we call mediated the relationship to criminal behavior and violence. In other words, they contributed to their participation in criminal behavior and violent re-offending.

This is above and beyond the other kinds of things we think contribute to recidivism. For example, in these statistical models we included other kinds of things that contribute to recidivism behaviors. A person’s long-term criminal history is predictive of what they’re going to do upon reentry. Their ability to get employment, their family support, these kinds of other things all work together to contribute to someone’s likelihood that they’re going to recidivate.

What we did was we accounted for all those other things, and then looked at, okay, on top of all that, how does this prison victimization experience contribute to these feelings and then later to their behavior? We still found that, yes, indeed, these victimization experiences matter for their likelihood of recidivating and violent re-offenses.

Leonard: What about before prison? Because the practitioners are going to say that many of the individuals that they have interviewed, many of the individuals that they have focused on, say in parole and probation in the community setting, they talk about instances while in prison, but they also talk about instances while outside of prison. I’ve had a variety of female offenders before these microphones who routinely tell me that they were subject to sexual victimization before they even entered the criminal justice system. There’s that component of it as well, correct?

Janine: Absolutely. I will say that the victimization experiences and offender behaviors are deeply connected, and there’s lots of research that shows that, that people who commit criminal behaviors often have had damaging and traumatic experiences happen to them through their own victimization, and that’s very important to keep in mind. We did actually try to account for pre-prison victimization experiences as well. Now, we did not measure sexual victimization, to be clear on that, in this particular study. In the other study we did, but in this particular study we only measured physical assault.

That was one of the other things we accounted for in our models, to be able to say, “Okay, taking all of this into account, does the in-prison victimization experiences matter?” and, yes, we still found those relationships. I’m saying this in terms of the re-offending behavior, but in terms of relapse to substance use, which obviously plays a critical role in someone’s likelihood of re-offending, but also many, many offenders also struggle with substance use issues, we found that those in-prison victimization experiences increased the likelihood of substance use, but through the feelings of depression.

For people who had an emotional reaction that was in line with depression versus anger and hostility, that depression led to a greater likelihood of relapse to substance use.

Leonard: The bottom line is, whether it happens in prison or whether it happens in community, your research took a look at the prison experience. If you have a person who has been constantly victimized, exposed to violence, whether it be in their own neighborhoods, whether it be their own families, whether it be their own friends, whether it be while in prison, by the time we get them in parole and probation, it’s a real challenge in terms of dealing with a long history of violence, exposure to violence, perceptions of violence. Then they come to us and we have to deal with them as individuals oftentimes through cognitive behavioral therapy, through mental health interventions, and through substance abuse interventions.

We note that our population, and I think it’s fairly common, 80% have histories of substance abuse. We’re finding that mental health problems are increasing and seem to be increasing dramatically within the populations that we both supervise and serve. It’s becoming a real conundrum in terms of what to do with individuals who have such a long history of exposure to violence. Correct?

Janine: I think that’s correct. I think that one of the findings that you find across various literatures, for example you find it in the substance abuse treatment literature, that if trauma is left unaddressed, then someone may not be able to get all the benefit that treatment might provide them. It might be misinterpreted as being resistant to treatment, when really this person has larger issues around victimization experiences and trauma that have been left unaddressed in that treatment scenario.

I think we could learn from that in this context as well. If someone seems to be resisting changing from a life of criminal behavior or these kinds of things, there’s so many things contributing to that behavior, but one that might be left unaddressed by supervision agencies might be this person’s own experiences with victimization, and then the trauma that they have as a result of those experiences and addressing that trauma in an appropriate way.

For example, you brought up sexual assault. In the sexual assault world, it is widely believed that specific trauma-informed care for sexual assault survivors is really key to helping them move past those experiences. That’s not a typical therapy, I use that word a little bit loosely, but it’s a particular kind of therapy. That kind of offering, it’s not clear the extent to which that’s being addressed in supervision agencies.

Leonard: I want to reintroduce our guest, Janine Zweig. She is a Senior Fellow with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. The particular piece of research that Janine is responsible for is, for prisoners who face violence, reentry is a challenge. That is the show today, dealing with individuals who have a history of violence, whether it be in prison, whether it be in the community. It becomes a lesson for those of us in community supervision and for the larger population.

Janine, somebody once suggested that the people that we deal with on community supervision … and, again, I’m with the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, we are a federal parole and probation agency serving Washington, DC … many cases, I’m told by our parole and probation agents, and I’ve told by therapists, that some of the individuals who we deal with under supervision almost are like war victims, the level of violence, the level of trauma in the community, in the prison.

By the time they get to us, they are in many cases traumatized individuals who have a very difficult time expressing who they are and what they are, because quite frankly they’re not sure. A very large distrust of the criminal justice system, a very large distrust and profound distrust of the treatment process. Am I in the ball park?

Janine: Yeah, I think that sounds like what we found here. Although we didn’t measure posttraumatic stress disorder specifically, we do know that victims of physical and sexual violence from the literature do display symptoms of PTSD, and that that would be analogous to what someone who has experienced war would experience.

Leonard: What does it mean to us in terms of community supervision? What does it mean in terms of the incarcerative process? How do we deal with this? Because the recidivism rates, generally speaking, are described as two-thirds re-arrested, one-half re-incarcerated after three years. You get different measurements from different studies based upon the length of the study, but basically the rate of re-contact with the criminal justice system is high. This could be part of the underlying structure as to why it is as high as it is.

Janine: I think that is true. I think that when trauma is left unaddressed that it leads to health-compromising and life-compromising behaviors like re-offending, like violent re-offending, and things like substance use and substance abuse. If a person has these experiences that have caused trauma in their lives that they have never addressed, their well-being is damaged, and their ability to move forward is potentially damaged as well.

It isn’t clear to me the extent to which community supervision agencies actually assess for victimization experiences, whether it be in prison or in the community. As you noted, we have another study with a community supervision population who are diverted from incarceration, and similar patterns apply here, that victimization is related to recidivism and substance use in that population as well.

Leonard: Tell me about that.

Janine: Sure. This was an evaluation of a drug court program. We asked questions related to victimization in the year prior to their participation in our study. The focus was on the drug court population, but our comparison sample were also individuals who were on probation and under community supervision functions. It was a community-based sample of offenders where we looked at their physical and sexual victimization, and then applied the same theoretical premises we talked about before to look at what was their emotional reaction in terms of depression, anxiety, and hostility, and then also what was their likelihood of recidivating and relapse into substance use.

We found that the same patterns apply in terms of substance use, that a victimization experience led to depression, which then led to substance use relapse. Then we found a more direct relationship with recidivism, and that is the victimization led to recidivism behaviors. Again, this is taking into account all kinds of other aspects of their lives going on at that same time to try to say, “Does this victimization matter beyond other things that might contribute to recidivism?”

I think there is some idea behind the idea that when you leave a trauma unaddressed that it can lead to offending and violent offending, and that’s an important … It does matter for their long-term consequences.

Leonard: What is the principal modality in terms of dealing with a history of violence? What can we do in community supervision, parole and probation agencies, community-based agencies? How can we [meaningly 00:20:40] intervene in the lives of people who have come from violent backgrounds?

Janine: I think that when community agencies focus on victimization, they typically mean the victim of the crime of the person they’re speaking with, so the person under supervision, who was the victim of their crime. I don’t think there’s much focus on assessing the offender themselves, the supervisee themselves, for their own victimization. I think the first step is identifying the extent to which their probationers or parolees report these experiences, and if they’re reported then programming and referral beyond there. The first step would be what kinds of assessments are happening in these agencies to even identify who among their population might need help with dealing with traumatic victimization experiences of their own.

Leonard: Will they tell us?

Janine: I think that in our experience they do talk about their victimization experiences. They might not describe it in … I think there is best practices around how you ask about victimization experiences. In other words, instead of saying, “Are you a victim? Have you ever been a victim of domestic violence? Have you ever been raped?” there is best practice that shows when you label the kinds of victimization, people are less inclined to tell you, yes, they are a victim of that. If you say, for example, “Has your partner ever held you down so you couldn’t leave and forced you to have sex?” or, “Has someone slapped, kicked, or hit you?” people are more inclined to ask those behaviorally-focused questions versus questions that label them as a victim.

You could then assess from there, if they were saying, “Yes, I’ve had those kinds of experiences,” more deeply. Are those experiences recurring? Are they with their partners or not? Then addressing followup referrals and treatments that might make sense for the particular kinds of violence that they’re experiencing.

Leonard: Once we find out about that background, once we’ve established that background, what do we do with that individual, considering the context and the research saying that the vast majority of people just for substance abuse, very few people within the incarcerative setting, very few people in parole and probation or who are on parole and probation, get treatment for substance abuse issues, very few get treatment for mental health issues. This sounds like it goes way beyond that. It connects to it all. All of this behavior is interconnected. There’s no such thing as just a substance abuse problem, just a mental health problem, just a violence problem. Somehow, some way, as you just said, we have to assess that individual and then we have to meaningfully intervene.

Within the context of a system that is short on resources and having caseloads that are skyrocketing, what can we do to meaningfully intervene in the life of an individual who has such a profound exposure to violence?

Janine: I think perhaps it might be about doing better matches between what the person’s needs are and the treatment that’s being offered. If there are limited resources for treatment, just sending everyone who assesses for a substance use issue, for example, to the same treatment is a one-size-fits-all kind of characterization that might not work for everyone, because, for example, those who are dealing with the trauma of victimization by using substances, that person needs a different kind of care, what we would say is trauma-informed care, than someone who doesn’t have that background.

Maybe a better targeting and matching of particular individuals to the limited resources and treatments that you’re able to refer to is one way of trying to use the limited resources more wisely.

Leonard: We at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency believe in a group process. I’ve sat in on a variety of groups, of violence reduction groups and groups for women. This is not an easy process. Getting people to talk about what they’ve been through, what they’ve experienced, is profoundly difficult, and getting the answers. You have to have a lot of trust in the person running the group and you have to have a lot of trust in your group members to be able to share at this level. Sometimes that takes weeks or months of effort to get that person to finally feel free enough to admit to everything that’s happened to him or her.

This is a profoundly moving experience in their lives, and this is something that they carry with them for the rest of their lives. Whether it happened in the community or whether it happened in prison, it’s not easy to talk about this stuff.

Janine: That is surely the case. I do think that finding the right treatments and methodologies for caring for these individuals is beyond the scope of what we studied here, but what we could say is that better targeting might be one step toward it. I would also say that, in terms of partnering with local agencies that have expertise in some of these areas … For example, one of the pushes under the Prison Rape Elimination Act Standards is around partnering with local agencies that have expertise in treating survivors of sexual assault. If the in-prison experience is of sexual victimization, or even in the community, if it’s a sexual victimization and that’s what you discover is the issue at hand, then not necessarily relying on your own means to address that but partnering with agencies that that’s what they specialize in, is helping individuals who have had that kind of experience deal with it and move beyond it, and so tapping into other community resources and expertise that we wouldn’t necessarily expect a supervision agency to have.

Leonard: The bottom line behind all of this, and we only have a minute left in the program, the bottom line behind all of this is that we within the criminal justice system need to understand that the people that we deal with, and we’re experiencing rather high rates of recidivism throughout the United States, that we need to understand that individuals who come to us are oftentimes traumatized by their own experiences while in the community, while in prison. Prison certainly doesn’t help in many cases in terms of furthering that victimization, that sense of trauma. We have to understand that as a bottom line construct if we’re going to have a shot at helping these people overcome their difficulties, get off of drugs, deal with mental health issues, deal with anger issues, and reintegrate successfully. Correct?

Janine: I agree. I think that we often don’t think about offenders as victims, but their victimization experiences matter as well.

Leonard: That’s the interesting thing, because in our life we see people caught up in the criminal justice system as victims all the time, because, again, we’re the ones who go through that experience with them in a group setting and what happens to them. To talk to a woman … It’s very common for women to be sexually victimized by family members, by people who they know, before they even got into the prison setting. Same thing in some cases happens to men, just violent victimization. These are often traumatized individuals. Like I said before, they’re almost like, people have described them as being victims of war.

Janine: Right, and that victimization likely played a hand in their criminal behavior and offending to begin with.

Leonard: We’ve had Janine Zweig, ladies and gentlemen, a Senior Fellow at the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, talking about the show title today: Violence directed towards offenders, how it affects their behavior. I really want to express my profound appreciation for Janine and the Urban Institute for taking something like this on, because we within the criminal justice system must come to grips with the people who we have under our supervision if we ever hope to reduce the rate of recidivism.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments, we appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

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