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Positive Correlation between Mental Illness and Prison Victimization

In September 2008, the Center for Behavioral Health Services & Criminal Justice Research (the Center) published its Policy Brief regarding a recent survey conducted to determine the quality of life for prisoners in New Jersey’s Department of Corrections (DOC). The survey was funded by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 and authored by Rutgers University Professors Nancy Wolf, Ph.D., and Jane Seigal, Ph.D., along with Center statistician, Jing Shi, M.S. A random sample of approximately 7,500 male and female adult prisoners was selected from 13 male institutions and one female institution. The purpose of the survey was to determine the prevalence of physical and sexual victimization in New Jersey prisons and their correlation with mental illness. Although there is an across-the-board correlation between mental illness and abuse, the survey concluded “physical victimization was more common than sexual victimization among both male and female inmates.”

One disturbing trend uncovered in this study was the increased prevalence of victimization among prisoner who re-ported a history of sexual or physical abuse prior to age 18. In point of fact, both male and female prisoners who reported a pre-adult history of sexual victimization were shown to have a two to four times greater likelihood of being similarly vic-timized in prison compared to prisoners without the history of abuse.

Specific mental illnesses were also found to predict specific types of victimization. For instance, male prisoners previ-ously treated for depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or anxiety were shown to be at a greater risk of being sexu-ally assaulted by other prisoners. On the other hand, those previously treated for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder may experience inappropriate sexual contact but not sexual assault.

Overall, this study succeeded in shining a much-needed light on the plight of many mentally ill prisoners in New Jer-sey and, by inference, all other states. It really should come as no surprise that people who are victims of abuse in their pre-adult years are more likely to be victimized in prison. What some may consider a weakness in this study may be found in the relatively small number of female prisoners surveyed and whether they provide an accurate random sample repre-sentative of the total female prison population.

However, even if the results are slightly skewed, there should be no doubt as to the positive correlation between men-tal illness and victimization in prison. In light of this study, New Jersey’s DOC enhanced its guard training to include new curricula on victimization. Additionally, a “zero tolerance policy” regarding prison rape was instituted, as well as a prisoner education program geared toward preventing, reporting and treating sexual victimization. If similar programs and initia-tives were to be mandated in prisons nationwide, it would certainly lessen the incidence of victimization for our prisons’ most vulnerable residents, the mentally ill. Allowing current abusive trends to continue and even worsen will negatively impact not only the prison environment but society at large as the predators who commit the violence are set free.

Source: Center for Behavioral Health Services & Criminal Justice Research, Policy Brief - Victimization Inside Prisons.

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