Large Percentage of Inmates Abused Prior to Incarceration

A U.S. Justice Department report issued yesterday revealed that a high percentage of prison inmates have suffered physical or sexual abuse prior to their incarceration.

Most of the abuse took place during the inmates’ childhood and was carried out by spouses, boyfriends, parents, family friends, and other relatives.

Among women in state and federal prisons and local jails, nearly half reported that they had been physically or sexually abused. The comparable rate for men was much lower, at 10%. The highest incidence of prior abuse was found among female state prison inmates, at 57%. One-third of these women also reported that they had been raped before entering prison.

Female inmates were most-often abused by a spouse or boyfriend. Among male inmates, the majority said that a parent or guardian had abused them.

Three main criteria appeared to influence whether or not an inmate suffered abuse. First, women and girls were more likely to suffer abuse prior to incarceration than were men. Second, inmates’ likelihood of suffering physical or sexual abuse increased when s/he had a parent who abused alcohol or drugs. Third, inmates who had lived in foster care homes or institutions were more likely to report past abuse.

Justice Department statistician Caroline Wolf Harlow compiled the report’s finding, which she described as “striking” and “sobering.” One of the study’s strongest findings was a relationship between prior abuse and conviction for violent crimes.

Among male inmates who reported that they had been physically or sexually abused, 75% had been convicted of a violent crime. Among male inmates who reported no abuse, 46% had violent crime convictions. A similar pattern was found among women. Nearly one-half of the women inmates who reported past abuse had also been convicted of a violent crime, while that percentage decline to 21% among women who reported that they had no suffered physical or sexual abuse.


New York Times and Washington Post - April 12, 1999

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