Inmate Histories: Evidence of Childhood Abuse

Inmate Histories: Evidence of Childhood Abuse

"Inmate Histories: Evidence of Childhood Abuse" by University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center. Alaska Justice Forum 15(3): 1, 6-8 (Fall 1998). Individuals incarcerated on a long-term basis within Alaska's prisons show evidence of having experienced a high rate of abuse during their childhoods. The finding is the result of a survey of long-term inmates conducted by the Justice Center and the Alaska Department of Corrections. This article summarizes findings of the study, which had three primary concerns: to describe the childhood abuse experiences of a sample of long-term inmates; to examine the issues of a "cycle of violence"; and to discern correlates of abuse which may have an impact on offense patterns or inmate behavior.

Individuals incarcerated on a long-term basis within Alaska's prisons show evidence of having experienced a high rate of abuse during their childhoods. The finding is the result of a survey of long-term inmates conducted by the Justice Center and the Alaska Department of Corrections. The study, which was completed in summer 1998, had three primary concerns: to describe the childhood abuse experiences of a sample of long-term inmates; to examine the issue of a "cycle of violence"; and to discern correlates of abuse which may have an impact on offense patterns or inmate behavior.

Incidence of Child Abuse

According to Gallup polls conducted in 1989, 1994, and 1995, between 10 and 20 per cent of children in the general population experience some form of abuse. The polls asked national samples of adults if they had been victims of abuse as children. Varied studies conducted with inmates throughout this country and Canada show that the incidence of childhood abuse in the backgrounds of those who are incarcerated is much higher. The findings of this Justice Center study support this previous research with inmates, with incidence of abuse among Alaska inmates being even higher than that found in the other prison studies.

Study Design

The study involved three distinct data collection components: interview by survey conducted in congregate groups; review of inmate file "jackets"; and in-person interviews with survey interview participants. The congregate interviews elicited the information on abuse histories and were the basis for determining correlates of abuse. Data derived from file jackets were used to assess sample biases. In-person interviews explored the experience of abuse more thoroughly and addressed the "cycle of violence" thesis.

The target population for the Justice Center study comprised long-term offenders, i.e., those sentenced to prison for 5 years or more. Participation was voluntary. Two hundred forty inmates participated in the congregate interview survey. Data from file jackets were assembled for the 240 congregate interview participants and 149 non-participants. In-person interviews were conducted with a non-random sample of 100 inmates who had completed the congregate survey instrument.

Child Abuse Histories of Alaska's Long-term Inmates

The survey instrument elicited information on abuse in three conceptual dimensions: physical abuse, neglect and sexual abuse. Figures 1 through 3 present the percentages of inmates who indicated they had experienced specific forms of neglect.

As Figure 1 indicates, more serious physical abuse (beating, burning, attack with a weapon) was reported less frequently than minor forms of physical abuse. What is surprising is the percentage of respondents who reported some form of physical abuse: over 80 percent indicated they had experienced some form of physical abuse—not necessarily from a family member—while nearly 50 per cent reported abuse from a family member.

Figure 1. Percentage of Long-Term Inmates Reporting Specific Types of Physical Abuse

Figure 2 presents the percentages of respondents who indicated they had been neglected as children. Again, severe forms of neglect of basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) are less frequently reported than absence of nurturing (caring adults, guidance, mentoring).

Figure 2. Percentage of Long-Term Inmates Reporting Specific Types of Neglect

Figure 3 presents the levels of respondents who indicated that they had had specific sexual experiences before they were 12 years old. Slightly more than 70 per cent indicated that they had had one or more of the sexual experiences before the age of 12. However, just slightly less than 25 per cent considered the experience abuse.

Figure 3. Percentage of Long-Term Inmates Reporting Specific Typs of Sexual Abuse

The study also explored child abuse histories by sex, race and age at first arrest.

Women were more likely to report experiencing abuse than men, particularly when the instrument examined family abuse, neglect, need and sexual abuse. Another difference appeared when participants were asked if they considered their early childhood sexual experiences to be abuse. Over 70 per cent of the women respondents indicated they considered this early experience sexual abuse while just 17 per cent of the men felt it was abuse.

A higher percentage of African American inmates reported physical abuse, neglect and sexual abuse than either Caucasians or Alaska Natives. Caucasian inmates were next most likely to report abuse , but Alaska Natives were more likely to report neglect or unmet needs than Caucasians.

Inmates who reported early ages for a first arrest were likely to report a history of abuse as a child.

Among the other findings derived from the survey were the following:

Inmates who reported no juvenile arrests were less likely to report abuse than those with arrest records. In fact, all 52 respondents who indicated they had three or more juvenile arrests reported experiencing physical abuse as children.

Inmates who reported growing up in villages, as indicated by having attended elementary school in villages, were less likely to report abuse but more likely to report neglect.

Inmates who reported growing up in a two-parent family were less likely to report a history of abuse or neglect.

Inmates whose parents abused alcohol or drugs were more likely to report histories of abuse and neglect.

Correlates of Abuse

In looking at the correlates of abuse, the study focused on plausible consequences of abuse–both personality consequences and criminal consequences. The personality consequences explored included hostility, disassociation, anxiety, coping strategies (rational problem solving or escapism) and histories of psychological treatment. Criminal consequences included the nature of the conviction offense (either violent or sex offenses) and the nature of incarceration (length of sentence and initial incarceration security level). This examination showed that there appears to be a weak relationship between some measures of abuse– particularly, physical abuse within the family and child sexual experience–and several of the personality variables– particularly, hostility, anxiety, escapism, and histories of psychological treatment. However, the type of offense, sentence length or initial incarceration security level was not predicted by the any of the forms of child abuse.

Cycle of Violence

The personal interview permitted more open-ended inquiry regarding childhood experiences than the congregate interview or the examination of files. The interview began with the interviewer asking the subject to describe what it was like growing up. The interviewer recorded the responses, probed for detail and prompted the subject to recall certain items. Later, responses were rated and coded for data entry.

The results presented no compelling statistical evidence for the existence of a "cycle of violence." Vague recollections or lack of contact with parents or grandparents hindered precise determination of how parents were raised. For many, the topic of whether their own parents had been abused had never been raised, and for others, the lack of consistent care givers made it difficult to isolate the main "parent." Almost all inmates were adamant about not treating their children as they had been treated. Overall, the interviews made it clear that many of these inmates had experienced disrupted, unstable and somewhat abusive childhoods.

The Justice Center study sought to document the amount of abuse experienced by long-term inmates during their childhoods. What was revealed was that the magnitude and rates of abuse were very high. However, analysis of the data also revealed that childhood abuse was only weakly related to offense types and personality problems. It is important to remember that this analysis focused only on long-term inmates; a review of other segments of the inmate population may reveal other results.

The study summarized in this article was conducted by Robert Langworthy, Allan Barnes and Richard Curtis of the Justice Center. The complete study, Results from the Long-term Inmate Survey: Focus on Child Abuse Histories, is available at the Justice Center web site (http://www.alaska.edu/just/).