United States: no escape, the trauma of witnessing violence in prison

A recent study of recently incarcerated people finds that witnessing violence is a frequent and traumatizing experience in prison.

Early this year — before COVID-19 began to tear through U.S. prisons — five people were killed in Mississippi state prisons over the course of one week. A civil rights lawyer reported in February that he was receiving 30 to 60 letters each week describing pervasive “beatings, stabbings, denial of medical care, and retaliation for grievances” in Florida state prisons. That same month, people incarcerated in the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts filed a lawsuit documenting allegations of abuse at the hands of correctional officers, including being tased, punched, and attacked by guard dogs.

While these horrific stories received some media coverage, the plague of violence behind bars is often overlooked and ignored. And when it does receive public attention, a discussion of the effects on those forced to witness this violence is almost always absent. Most people in prison want to return home to their families without incident, and without adding time to their sentences by participating in further violence. But during their incarceration, many people become unwilling witnesses to horrific and traumatizing violence, as brought to light in a February publication by Professors Meghan Novisky and Robert Peralta.

In their study — one of the first studies on this subject — Novisky and Peralta interview recently incarcerated people about their experiences with violence behind bars. They find that prisons have become “exposure points” for extreme violence that undermines rehabilitation, reentry, and mental and physical health. Because this is a qualitative (rather than quantitative) study based on extensive open-ended interviews, the results are not necessarily generalizable. However, studies like this provide insight into individual experiences and point to areas in need of further study.

Participants in Novisky and Peralta’s study reported witnessing frequent, brutal acts of violence, including stabbings, attacks with scalding substances, multi-person assaults, and murder. They also described the lingering effects of witnessing these traumatic events, including hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, and avoidance. These traumatic events affect health and social function in ways that are not so different from the aftereffects faced by survivors of direct violence and war.

Violence in prison is unavoidable. By design, prisons offer few safe spaces where one can sneak away — and those that exist offer only a small measure of protection. Novisky and Peralta’s findings echo previous research revealing that incarcerated people often “feel safer” in their private spaces, such as cells, or in a supervised or structured public space, such as a chapel, rather than in public spaces like showers, reception, or on their unit. However, even inside their cells, people remain vulnerable to seeing or hearing violence and being victimized themselves.

Participants in Novisky and Peralta’s study discussed graphic, horrific acts of violence they had witnessed during their incarceration: stabbings, beatings, broken bones, and attacks with makeshift weapons. Some participants were even forced into direct, involuntary participation, by being required to clean up blood after an attack or murder. “I used so much bleach in that bathroom … I just couldn’t look,” one participant recalled. “I just kept pouring the bleach in it (the blood), and pouring the bleach in it, and then I would mop it.” As the authors succinctly state, “the burdens of violence are placed not just on the direct victims, but also on witnesses of violence.”

Responses to witnessed violence behind bars can result in post-traumatic stress symptoms, like anxiety, depression, avoidance, hypersensitivity, hypervigilance, suicidality, flashbacks, and difficulty with emotional regulation. Participants described experiencing flashbacks and being hypervigilant, even after release. One participant explained: “I’m trying to change my life and my thinking. But it (the violence) always pops up. I get flashbacks about it … just how the violence is. In a split second you can be cool. And then the next thing you know, there’s people getting stabbed or a fight breaks out over nothin’.”

The effects of witnessing violence are compounded by pre-existing mental health conditions, which are more common in prisons and jails than in the general public. As one participant in the Novisky and Peralta study put it, prison is no place to recover from past traumas or to manage ongoing mental health concerns: “I don’t think it (prison) made my PTSD worse, it just made the PTSD I already had trigger the symptoms.”

Prisons are inherently violent places where incarcerated people (often with their own histories of victimization and trauma) are frequently exposed to violence with disastrous consequences. Because there is no national survey of how many people witness violence behind bars, we compiled data from various Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys and a 2010 nationally representative study to show the prevalence of violence. Given the vast number of violent interactions occurring behind bars, as well as the close quarters and scarce privacy in correctional facilities, it is likely that most or all incarcerated people witness some kind of violence.

Even before entering a prison or jail, incarcerated people are more likely than those on the outside to have experienced abuse and trauma. An extensive 2014 study found that 30% to 60% of men in state prisons had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compared to 3% to 6% of the general male population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 36.7% of women in state prisons experienced childhood abuse, compared to 12 to 17% of all adult women in the U.S. (although this research has not been updated since 1999). In fact, at least half of incarcerated women identify at least one traumatic event in their lives.

The effects of this earlier trauma carries over into people’s incarceration. Most people entering prison have experienced a “legacy of victimization” that puts them at higher risk for substance use, PTSD, depression, and criminal behavior. Irritability and aggressive behavior are also common responses to trauma, either acutely or as symptoms of PTSD.

Rather than providing treatment or rehabilitation to disrupt the ongoing trauma that justice-involved people often face, existing research suggests our criminal justice system functions in a way that only perpetuates a cycle of violence. It is not surprising, then, that violence behind bars is common.

The relationship between past traumas and violence in prisons is further illuminated by a growing body of psychological research revealing that traumatic experiences (direct or indirect) increase the likelihood of mental illnesses. And we know that incarcerated people with a history of mental health problems are more likely to engage in physical or verbal assault against staff or other incarcerated people.

The cycle of violence also continues after prison. An analysis of homicide victims in Baltimore, Maryland, found that the vast majority were justice system-involved, and one in four victims were on parole or probation at the time of their murder. Other research has found that formerly incarcerated Black adults are more likely than those with no history of incarceration to be beaten, mugged, raped, sexually assaulted, stalked, or to witness another person being seriously injured.

Novisky and Peralta’s study should be read as a call for more research — and concern — about prison violence. Future research should focus on the effects of witnessed violence on further marginalized populations, including women, youth, transgender people, people with disabilities, and people of color behind bars.

The researchers also recommend policy changes related to their findings. In prisons, they recommend trauma-informed training of correctional staff, assessing incarcerated people to identify those most at risk for victimization, and the expansion of correctional healthcare to include more robust mental health and trauma-informed services. They also recommend that providers in the reentry system receive training regarding the potential consequences of exposure to extreme violence behind bars, such as PTSD, distrust, and anxiety.

While it is important to address the immediate, serious needs of people dealing with the trauma of prison violence, the only way to truly minimize the harm is to limit exposure to the violent prison environment. That means, at a minimum, taking Novisky and Peralta’s final recommendation to heart: changing the “overall frequency with which incarceration is relied upon as a sanction.” We need to reduce lengthy sentences and divert more people from incarceration to more supportive interventions. It also means changing how we respond to violence, as we explore in more depth in our April 2020 report about sentences for violent offenses, Reforms without Results.

Vast research with veterans shows that trauma comes not only from direct violent victimization, but can also stem from witnessing violence. Research among non-incarcerated populations further shows that trauma and chronic stress have a number of adverse effects on the human mind and body. And studies done behind bars show us that incarceration takes a toll on physical and mental health, and that accessing adequate care in prison is a challenge in and of itself. With all of these factors at play and with violence undermining what little rehabilitative effect the justice system hopes to have, we are stacking the cards against incarcerated people.