Violence by staff within “total” institutions may take many forms, often leaving the institutionalized person without avenues for protection and/or recourse. Within jails and prisons around the United States, violence committed by correctional staff has included physical, sexual, and verbal assaults. In addition, the absence of action (e.g., failure to report violence or protect an inmate), as well as engagement in some routine institutional procedures (e.g., strip searches), can be considered forms of violence.
Many inmates report the routine use of physical violence. Physical violence by corrections staff can be used as a form of discipline and of establishing control within the institution. Although the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Eighth Amendment rights on behalf of inmates who experienced malicious and sadistic force used to cause deliberate harm, corporal punishment and the excessive use of force are permitted as self-defense, for the defense of another, for upholding prison rules, or for the prevention of escape. Corrections staff who are younger and who work in maximum-security prisons are more likely to use physical violence.
Sexual misconduct by corrections staff is present in both male and female institutions. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistic reports that of all allegations of sexual violence in 2004, 42% were allegations of staff-on-inmate sexual misconduct and 11% were sexual harassment of inmates by staff. Female inmates with histories of sexual assault prior to incarceration are particularly vulnerable to victimization, which may cause retraumatization. Sex may also be used as a commodity to barter for items or privileges within the institution, leading some staff to claim that sex was consensual. However, either policy or law in every state prohibits sex between an inmate and staff.
Insidious forms of violence include verbal threats and/or retaliation. Inmates are dependent upon corrections staff for meeting most of their basic human needs, as well as for their exit from the institution. Threats of withholding basic needs—or threatening undeserved sanctions that may jeopardize parole—are forms of violence that affect mental and physical health. Often, inmates who report or threaten to report staff for physical or sexual violence experience retaliatory events by staff such as sabotaged drug tests or false accusations. Some staff members abuse the power differential, feeling that the convict’s statement will be subordinated in favor of their own.
Finally, some routine behaviors within the institution can be considered violent. Angela Davis suggests that cross-gender pat downs and cavity searches are forms of government-sanctioned sexual assault. Also, the conspiracy of silence among staff can contribute to a culture of violence within the institutional setting.
Violence by staff can inflict bodily, psychological, social, or material injury that enhances the pain and isolation associated with incarceration and often leaves prisoners with profound feelings of hopelessness and anger. Thus, reintegration into society becomes a greater challenge for the individual as well as the community.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2004). Sexual violence reported by correctional authorities, 2004. Retrieved from http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/svrca04.htm
- Davis, A. Y. (2003). Are prisons obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
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