Theories on the Roots of Prison Violence and Its Effects on Prisoners

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World Health Organisation, stated in the World report on violence and health (2002) defined violence as the use of physical power or force, a threat to self, others, communities or groups that result in injury, psychological harm or death. The definition emphasises that an individual or group must intend to use force or power against another. Wolff et al., (2007) states the occurrence of violence, is a growing problem within prison especially violent assault on prisoner’s or staff, Keller and Wang (2005) stated that it is not surprising that violence is a pervasive feature in prison as it is a by-product of hundreds of inmates being confined in close proximity to each other with certain inmates having anti-social behaviours (Sykes 1958; Keller and Wang, 2005).

Recent research on prison violence has focused on understanding prison misconduct and assaults. using two leading models; Deprivation (Sykes, 1958) and the Importation model (Irwin and Cressey, 1962; Keller and wang, 2005). However, Austin and Irwin (2001) noted that the idea of prison violence is promoted by the general public, this sociological phenomenon of someone ‘predicting’ or expecting another individual to act a certain way, is referred to as ‘self- fulfilling prophecy’. Scheider et al., (2012), suggested that prison violence occurs due to external expectations that violence is going to occur, regardless of the inmate’s crime. These pre-prescribed expectations contribute to the self -fulling prophecy and enhances violence in prison. King et al., (2008) suggested to reduce the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy, prison officers need to respect the inmates and promote a positive environment with helpful programmes, rather than enhancing inmate aggression by pre-labelling the inmates violent and resecting their access to treatments and programmes, these changes will help to reduce violent behaviour (Johnson, 2002).

Research supports the notion that violence is an integral part of prison life, UK government statistics demonstrate that the rates of assault in 2019 had significantly increased, within one-year assaults rose by 5%, and assaults on staff rose significantly by 10% (Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales, 2019). Although these figures are alarming, Penologists have developed a range of theoretical explanations for inmate violence (DeLisis et al., 2010). Early scholars Clemmer, (1940) Sykes, (1958,) Wheeler, (1961), framed prison as a distinct society with an inmate culture and a micro-society characterised by its own argot, norms, and code of conduct. Explanations of prison violence and other forms of misconduct have been dominated by competing Models; Deprivation Model (Sykes, 1958) and the Importation Model (Irwin and Cressey, 1962), these models provide an understanding as to why violence occurs within a prison.

Traditional theories of violence in prisons are rooted in sociological processes (Wolff et al., 2007). Sykes (1958) Deprivation model is rooted in the belief that although inmates interpret their conditions within prison differently, all prisoners agree to life within a custodial setting is depriving due to the environment, Hilinski-Rosick and Freiburger, (2018) suggested prison violence increases when inmate population and firmer rules are implemented. Magargee (1976) suggested that pervious research failed to observe prison officers impact on prison violence, however recent literature suggested that prison officers and policies negatively impact prison life, overcrowding has been correlated to negatively impacting inmates overall well-being, due to inmates spending an increased time in their cells, which in turn heightens feelings of frustration, resulting in reactive behaviours such as violence (Gaes, 1994; Margargee, 1976). Therefore Magaregee (1976) suggests programmes should be in place to compensate for this potential feeling of depravation caused by the overcrowding, inmates should have access to programmes that help teach pro-social reaction to negative feelings, this will, in turn, help the inmate regulate their emotions thus supporting their rehabilitation and reduce prison violence.

The restrictive scope of Sykes (1958) Deprivation model has drawn considerable criticism for explaining inmate violence within prisons, Thomas (1970) suggested the heavy emphasis on immediate pressures of prison in the Deprivation model (Sykes, 1958) implies a closed- system paradigm and thus fails to take into consideration the inmates past experiences, furthermore, Teague et al., (2008) and Wright et al.,(2008), suggests there is considerable evidence that various forms of abuse, deprivation, violence, and suffering that occurs in early life and antisocial behaviours could cause violence in prisons.

Consequently, Irwin and Cressey (1962) argued that inmates did not arrive at the prison gates as blank slates to be molded by the institutional conditions. Instead, they saw inmate conduction as reflective of the values and behaviours offenders brought with them into the prison. Nevertheless, Damboeanu, (2016) supports Sykes (1958) suggestion, prison violence is due to the social environment, however, there are limitations, Kazdin (2003) proposed methodological limitation, due to the nature of the theory the data produced is subjective and therefore can be manipulated to a socially desirable outcome, therefore increases recall error. Damboeanu (2016), further argues the model fails to fully explain violence within prison due to the Reductionist position, the Deprivation model ignores the influence of biological influences and instead predominantly focused on external factors as the only cause for violence and aggression which in turn neglects the internal (psychological) factors that are important factors to consider for the inmates violent behaviour.Therefore Eysenck’s (1964) presented a comprehensive biosocial theory of crime, the theory proposed paradoxical biosocial interactions for violence and anti-social behaviours. Individuals with deficits in biological functioning (poor conditioners) struggle to not present anti-social and violent behaviours in a normal environment. Eysneck’s (1964) theory is the notion of condition-ability, highlighting, violence and anti-social behaviour can be intrinsically rewarding, therefore such behaviour occurs naturally unless conditions of punishment are deliberately provided. Therefore Raine and Venables (1981) proposed that classical conditioning of violence and reward needs to be broken by prisoner officers, with quick and consistent punishments, prison should provide intervention and programmes to help the inmates regulate their needs in a pro-social manner, rather than communicating through pervious anti-social behaviours such as violence which had formerly been rewarded (Brennan, 1997; Keller and Wang).

Although Eynesck (1964) Biosocial theory has provided an understanding for prison violence, Rain and Venables (1981) stated the theory lacks empirical testing, consequently, Rain and Venables (1981), conducted an Empirical Study; results from the study were consistent with Eyenseck (1964) concepts of anti-socialization, therefore individual conditional-ability and criminogenic environments impact the likelihood of violence. Horn et al., (2014) further support Eysenck’s (1964) notion that psychological functioning and criminogenic environments influence violence, especially within prison. Although Biosocial theories suggest an explanation for prison violence, there are limitations, Eysneck (1964) theory for prison violence is out-dated and subjective, due to the inability to consistently measure a criminogenic environment (Rain and Venables,1981). Furthermore, there are wider influences on violence including, brain dysfunction, neurotransmitters, and upbringing. These factors differ between each inmate, although genetic factors influence prison violence, there is still a gap in the research demonstrating the role Genes and the environment have on explaining prison violence (Pinto et al., 2010).

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Another dominant theory for explaining violence in prison is Irwin and Cressey’s (1962) Importation Model. Irwin and Cressey (1962) suggested that the prison environment alone does not cause violence within prison. Alternatively, the Importation Model assumes that the pre-existing characteristics of the prisoners determine how they respond to life behind bars (Irwin & Cressey, 1962). Offenders enter prison with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and attitudes, which in turn impacts their adaption to prison. Thus, Irwin and Cressey (1962) reasoned that the deviant subculture such as prison violence derived from inmate characteristics and their experience prior to entering prison (see, Hilinski-Rosick and Freiburger,2019). The Importation model continues to inform Penological research and policies (Berk, Ladd, Graziano, & Baek, 2003; Camp & Gaes, 2005).

Although the Importation model provides an alternative perspective to the Deprivation model, unfortunately, Irwin and Cressey (1962) omitted specific variables to measure pre-prison and antisocial behaviours that would, in theory, predict the likelihood of prison violence. Due to this, Penologist and Correctional Officers have focused on multiple risk factors prison present, which has been empirically linked to misconduct and violent behaviour (DeLisi et al., 2010). Byrne and Hummer (2008) further suggested that a variety of inmate characteristics have been linked to prison violence, based on these links, prison classification systems were designed to identify inmate characteristics (e.g. age, race, prior criminal charges, mental health history) likely to be associated with an inmates risk of violence to self, others and staff, to reduce prison violence (Steiner et., 2014).

Empirical tests of the Importation Model are typically conducted on an individual level, examining relationships between inmate behaviour and demographic variables such as age, gender, education, SEN, race, relationship status, history of mental health illness, substance abuse and previous crimes (Akers et al., 1977; Cao et al., 1997; Ellis et al., 1974; Gaes & McGuire, 1985; Poole & Regoli, 1983; Wright, 1991). Therefore, the Importation Model (Irwin and Cressey,1962) suggest prison violence assumes that demographic and criminal history variables are indicative of inmates propensity to engage in violence, individuals with poor socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour within the community, therefore Peterson (2015) proposed individuals from a poor socio-economic background are predisposed to engage in violent behaviour in prison rather than being influenced by the environment as suggested by the Deprivation model.

Conversely, Blevins et al., (2010) proposed that although Sykes, (1958) Deprivation model and Irwin and Cressey (1962) Importation model provide insight into prison violence, traditional Criminological theories have not often been systematically applied to prison violence, therefore Steiner (2008) suggests there is a need for a deeper understanding of prison violence. Consequently, Blevins et al., (2010) adapted Agnew’s (2009) General Strain Theory (GST) integrated the Deprivation model (Sykes, 1985), Importation model (Irwin and Cressey, 1962) and Toch (1977) less prominent, coping model, in order to highlight theories can be collaborative. Blevins et al., (2010) proposed GST offers a theoretical framework incorporating the three models to explain prison violence. Toch (1977) suggested that inmates cope with prison life immaturely or maturely, inmates who have an immature coping strategy are more likely to engage in prison violence. Furthermore, coherent with Deprivation Model (Sykes, 1958), the GST explanation of prison adjustment, recognises that inmates exposed to certain environments must adapt to the deprivations, which in turn can highlight deviant attitudes and behaviours, nevertheless not all inmates will react to strain and deprivations with violence (Blevins et al.,2010). Consistent with the Importation Model (Irwin and Cressey, 1962) of prison adaption, reactions to strain and deprivations are coherent to the individual’s attributes (personal values and age).

Therefore GST provides a holistic approach to prison violence, which in turn helps to understand why prison violence occurs and which treatment formulations and programmes are needed. Although Belvins et al., (2010) provides an understanding for violence, funding for rehabilitation programmes are not readily available therefore not all inmates access the programmes, leaving some inmates feeling further deprived, which can lead to further violence, however, prisons are unable to provide the right support to prevent violence, due to a macro-level issue, thus more funding is needed thereby programmes can effectively provide support for the inmates.

Overall, empirical research has demonstrated that Biological, Social and Criminal theories, provide an explanation for prison violence, no one theory alone fully explains violence within prisons, Mitjan et al.,(2018) suggests appointing blame onto one aspect of the individual’s personality, characteristics or past experiences for prison violence can be reductionistic, prison violence is the result of multiple factors including internal and external influences.

Although theories proved an explanation for prison violence, several theories suggest prison violence is the priority of HM Prison and Probation Services (HMPPS) and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), therefore Keller and Wang (2005) proposed prison officers need to be effectively trained, interventions and rehabilitation programmes also need to be provided to support the inmates (Webster and Kenny, 2015). However, a deeper understanding of the integration processes of adapting to deprivation within the prison and individual characteristics is needed to help improve the explanation for prison violence which in turn will provide more accurate laws and policies within prison.

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