prison gang violence essay

We spoke to hundreds of prison gang members – here’s what they said about life behind bars

prison gang violence essay

Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Colorado Boulder

prison gang violence essay

Foundation Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University

Disclosure statement

David Pyrooz has received research grant funding in last five years from the City of Denver's Department of Public Safety, the National Institute of Justice (US Department of Justice), the Charles Koch Foundation, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

Scott H Decker has received funding from the National Institute of Justice and the Arizona State University Foundation.

Arizona State University and University of Colorado provide funding as members of The Conversation US.

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The United States incarcerates a larger proportion of its citizens than any other developed country in the world, with around 1.5 million people serving time in prison. But to anyone who doesn’t work or live in a facility, life behind bars largely remains a mystery . The public gets a glimpse of life on the inside only when there are riots , executions or scandals .

As criminologists , we spent nine months interviewing over 800 prisoners in Texas in 2016. They told us about their lives before and during prison, as well as their impending return to the community, a journey shared by over 600,000 people each year .

We also learned about a significant reality in prisons: gangs.

Our book , published in 2020, pulls back the curtain on how gangs compete for control and structure prison life. Gangs wield power behind bars, but they are more fractured and have less control than people believe.

Getting in, getting out

Despite fairly extensive research on street gangs, there is little research on gangs in prison.

Conducting research in prisons is rare because it is hard to gain access. Prison officials tend to be risk-averse and loathe to let outsiders inside the walls. Even if researchers get inside, there’s the possibility that prisoners will not participate in interviews. When the topic is gangs, these issues are even bigger.

That was not our experience. About half of the people we interviewed were affiliated with gangs. Gang and nongang prisoners told us, “I’d rather talk to you than sit in my cell.” They saw the interview as cathartic; they were able to “get things off their chest” to a neutral party.

The ‘war years’

Prison gangs exploded across the U.S. with the rise of mass incarceration in the 1980s. Texas prisons were mostly gang-free until bloody battles broke out in 1984-85 between the Mexican Mafia and Texas Syndicate as well as the Aryan Brotherhood and Mandingo Warriors. Fifty-two prisoners were murdered in a 21-month period that became known as the “ war years .”

Over 50 different gangs were represented in our study. Most of these gangs were active in prison and on the street. All of the 12 “security threat groups,” or STGs as they are termed by prison officials, fit the classic view of prison gangs: organized, conspiratorial and violent. The remaining gangs are called “cliques.” If security threat groups are like criminal organizations, cliques are like a band of criminals without clear leadership, direction or structure.

Race and ethnicity mattered to all gangs. Geographic proximity is the great social sorter for street gangs; it is race and ethnicity for prison gangs. Nearly all of the prison gangs were composed of a single race or ethnicity.

The people we spoke with made it clear that prison gangs in Texas are not what they used to be. Prison gangs were described as “watered down,” no longer having the teeth to enforce rules, especially the security threat groups. Few prisoners, including gang members, believed that gangs brought order to prisons or made prisons safer, a claim often made about prison gangs . The perception of power is stronger than its reality.

Wielding power

While gangs may not have iron-fisted control over prison life, it would be wrong to think they lack influence. If gang members compose only a minority of prisoners, around 20% in Texas according to our research, how do they wield power?

Gangs use violence to resolve disputes, discipline members and protect their interests. Stories of violence are passed down across generations to ensure the memory lives on. The “war years” occurred more than 30 years ago, yet still loom large in the minds of the people we interviewed.

Gangs bring a different flavor to prison violence. There is a multiplier effect. A violent incident involving a gang member expands the pool of future victims and offenders because of the collective gang identity. Being in a gang means assuming these liabilities.

Joining the gang

For the uninitiated, prison is scary . People are stripped of their identity, roles and status from the outside. About half of the prison population is convicted of a violent offense . Joining a gang would seem like a pretty good decision.

Our research reveals that about 10% of inmates in Texas joined a gang for the first time in prison, while another 10% imported their gang affiliation from the street. Status and protection were common reasons for joining a gang in prison, much like on the street. But ideology was also important, such as race supremacy or vigilantism, which we rarely observe in street gangs .

Still, most prisoners don’t end up in gangs. That’s true even though avoiding gangs is harder in prison than on the street. Nongang members get their affiliations “checked” and are often recruited when they step onto a prison unit. Those that want to avoid gangs cite their religion, homosexuality or even status as sex offenders – most gangs ban inmates convicted of sex crimes – as reasons to not to join.

Blood in, blood out

It was once believed that once you join a gang you could never leave . Criminologists have dispelled this myth among street gangs; young people leave gangs regularly, and usually without repercussions like violence. We also found this to be the case in prison, even for the security threat groups.

Disillusionment is the leading reason for leaving. Gang members eventually realize they are sold a bill of goods on gangs. Snitching, victimization, solitary confinement and delayed parole crystallize discontent with gang life.

Leaving a gang is more difficult in prison. Walking away is not a credible option. Gang members sought permission or “gave notice” of intentions to leave, or enrolled in the prison system’s two-year exit program.

Block the on-ramps, open the off-ramps

Despite decades of effort, breaking the grip of gangs on prison has been unsuccessful. The “silver bullet” simply doesn’t exist.

Placing gang members in solitary confinement is thought to be a solution, but that’s a management approach. It applies a Band-Aid to a bullet wound that could hurt more than help. And one-size-fits-all approaches to rehabilitation ignore the baggage of gang affiliation. [ Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter .]

To compete for control, gangs need numbers, which is why focusing on points of entry and exit offers hope for reducing the power of gangs in attracting new members and encouraging current members to leave.

Doing nothing only allows the problem to fester and grow. Prisoners today will eventually become the neighbors, religious congregants and employees of tomorrow. We want people to leave prison in a condition better than they arrived. That means effective responses to gangs.

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Prison gangs, also referred to as security threat groups, loosely refers to collections of inmates who engage in what is considered gang activity. Prison gangs engage in various illegal activities involving drugs, gambling, murder-for-hire, extortion, loan sharking, money laundering, and prostitution. A recent study estimated that one fourth of all adult male inmates confined in U.S. correctional units were members of gangs.

Gangs use violence instrumentally and expressively. Violence may be instrumental to attain economic rewards, sex, social power, or control over desired institutional resources or space. Violence may also be expressive, with much gang violence being directed at enemy gangs. Gang members are socialized to use violence to uphold the honor of themselves and their gangs, as well as to vanquish potential rivals. Gangs may use violence expressively against their own members to establish discipline and control. Incarcerated gang members are no longer seen as just “doing time”; they are “doing gang time,” meaning that they are not just passing time until release, but also are fundamentally oriented toward serving the needs and goals of their gangs during their periods of incarceration.

One study has shown that prison gangs were responsible for 20% of the violence toward staff and 40% of the violence directed at other inmates. Another recent study demonstrated gang affiliation as a predictor of inmate violence. Further, this study revealed that core gang members were more likely to engage in violence than more peripheral members.

Gangs may be informal, loosely organized groups with shifting axes of power and alliances. But gangs can also be formal, hierarchical societies with strict codes of conduct and detailed social control practices. In recent years, prison gang affiliation has tended to be based along racial and ethnic lines. The larger gangs in the U.S. prison system in recent times are the Aryan Brotherhood, the Crips, Gangster Disciples, White Supremacists, Vice Lords, and Latin Kings.

Prison administrators have struggled to reduce the influence of and even the existence of prison gangs in a number of ways. Many prisons forbid tattooing since gangs often use their own unique tattoo design to symbolize members’ affiliation, though the bans have not been strongly successful. Prison classification specialists often attempt to separate gang members, using administrative segregation for anyone thought to be affiliated with a gang, assigning gang members to different prison units or work details, and/or sending individual gang members to separate prisons. Prison officials also have refused to permit gangs to meet and distribute informational materials as other groups in prison enjoy. Despite these attempts, gang activity continues to flourish in prison.

Bibliography:

  • American Correctional Association. (2003). A study of gangs and security threat groups in America’s adult prisons and jails. Alexandria, VA: Author.
  • Gaes, G. G., Wallace, S., Gilman, E., Klein-Saffran, J., & Suppa, S. (2001). The influence of prison gang affiliation on violence and other prison misconduct. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons.
  • Knox, G. (2005). The problem of gangs and security threat groups (STGs) in American prisons today: Recent research findings from the 2004 Prison Gang Survey. Chicago: National Gang Crime Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/abstract.aspx?ID=207764

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How Can Prisons Eliminate Violence? One Researcher Is Determined to Find Out.

There are theories about what causes prison violence, but a new three-year, seven-state study is seeking hard data to document the problem — and find solutions.

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Previously: part i, ​ ‘ i can kill you in here and no one would know it’.

Nancy Rodriguez was frustrated.

From her time visiting prisons across the nation as a researcher, Rodriguez knew prison facilities were dangerous places. She knew that both the incarcerated population and correctional staff faced atmospheres of violence and intimidation. But she also knew she was powerless to provide scientifically based guidance to prison officials. There just wasn’t enough data to latch on to — on how often and why prison violence occurred — to come up with a solution.

There were occasional headlines when a death occurred or an incarcerated person leaked photos or video to the media, but it was anecdotal and specific to one prison in one state. There was a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey that collected information from incarcerated people on violence, but that ended in 2004 . There were reports about sexual violence, mandated by the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, and those on homicides. But there was no uniform metric that detailed all violence in all prisons across the United States.

“ As a researcher, not being able to say, ​ ‘ This is what we can do’ — that was tremendously frustrating,” Rodriguez said. She didn’t have the tools to help incarcerated people transition from a life of violence inside prison to their homes and families. She didn’t have strategies or interventions for correctional staff to keep them safe. ​ “ I was frustrated at the fact that we have many correctional leaders who are forward-thinking, who are tremendously innovative in many ways, who value data and research and want to use it to improve correctional systems … and I saw that they just did not have the tools and did not know what to do in many cases. I thought, certainly there is a role for science here.”

Today, that science is leading the way as Rodriguez sets out to find answers. With a $ 2 . 7 million grant from Arnold Ventures and the buy-in from correctional leaders in seven states, she is launching a three-year study to collect data and set up an evidence-based framework for reducing and preventing incidents of violence inside prisons.

Grant from Arnold Ventures to launch a three-year study to reduce and prevent incidents of violence inside prisons.

“ It’s a landmark study — an examination of an important dynamic where lives are at stake,” said Jeremy Travis , Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. ​ “ We thought it was worth a big investment.”

The criminal justice work done at Arnold Ventures is heavily focused on transparency as a way of holding systems accountable and demystifying them so that progress can be made. The new prison violence study will go a long way toward doing just that, said Jocelyn Fontaine , Director of Criminal Justice Research at the philanthropy.

“ Prisons are closed places; they are out of sight, very much out of mind for the general population,” Fontaine said. ​ “ Our theory of change is that the pathway to reform is in opening them, making the invisible more visible, so by revealing what’s happening, then we hope that people would be motivated to change them.

“ And I don’t just mean the public — getting the public to be angered and push on systems to be more accountable — but also administrators themselves,” she said. ​ “ Policymakers will take a look at something and say, ​ ‘ Oh goodness, I didn’t know about this, and so therefore we want to change it’ by knowing the true extent and scope of something. So that’s our theory. That reform can come by them being more transparent and accountable.”

prison gang violence essay

‘ Open and Honest’ About Successes and Failures

Two years ago — after leaving the National Institute of Justice as its Director and settling in California as a Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine — Rodriguez reached out to correctional leaders to gauge their interest in studying the issue of prison violence. Those seven leaders all signed on to be part of her Prison Violence Consortium, holding candid discussions about violence in their prisons, the ways in which violence is captured and reported, how they address incidents, and what can be done to better understand and reduce violence.

Now, with the Arnold Ventures grant, Rodriguez and the seven states are taking their study even further. 

Research will include a review of prison incident reports, interviews with incarcerated people and staff in 23 prison facilities, and a review of the policies and practices that guide the state systems on responding to violence. The seven leaders will then implement the state-specific recommendations from the study and begin collecting data. The ultimate goal is to have the knowledge be used not just by these systems but systems throughout the country. 

Having the states open their prison doors to the study is what makes the work so compelling, Travis said. 

“ There’s an incentive to downplay or minimize or, at worst, sweep under the rug problems of violence,” he said. ​ “ The fact that these states have allowed the UCI team in to look at something that is potentially embarrassing to them is a great testament to their desire to come to grips with this problem. I think this has potential for opening up a different conversation about violence in prisons that begins with the principle of transparency.”

prison gang violence essay

Pennsylvania — which has spent the better part of the past decade working to reduce violence inside its prisons — is one of the states committed to Rodriguez’s study. Over his nine-year tenure as the state’s Secretary of Corrections, John Wetzel has adopted a number of proactive initiatives to address inappropriate behavior in his prisons. The state has a proven intel network to track rumblings of violence, incorporates verbal de-escalation sessions into its staff training, uses a classification system to determine where incarcerated people should be housed, and keeps violence-reduction statistics on its website for the public to view.

Wetzel joined the Prison Violence Consortium because he wanted to share the work his state has done to reduce prison violence, ​ “ but also, opportunities to learn from other systems — you can’t put a price on that,” he said. ​ “ I’ve never been afraid of folks looking inside our facilities. I think the only way to get better is to be open and honest about your successes and your failures and then make modifications to mitigate your failures.”

prison gang violence essay

‘ A Profound Level of Neglect’

Rodriguez’s study seeks to capture which individual, institutional and situational factors cause prison violence. She’s heard her share of theories over the years.

“ I hear everything from you can’t talk about violence without talking about contraband or the illegal drug market, you can’t talk about violence without talking about the racialized environments and the role of gangs, you can’t discount mental health in discussing violence, you can’t ignore the conditions of confinement that exist and the limits of one’s freedom and movement, you can’t ignore staff and their engagement with incarcerated persons,” Rodriguez said. 

All of those factors certainly play a role, Rodriguez said, but because violence is a highly complex problem, it’s important to not lose sight of the fact there could be other factors at play. And that’s why the study — rooted in rigorous methods — is so important.

Craig Haney, a psychologist and professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, has spent decades inspecting prisons and interviewing incarcerated people and correctional officers, trying to understand the causes and psychological impact of various conditions of confinement. He was one of the researchers in the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which investigated the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the prison population and correctional officers. 

Sometimes when prison systems are badly managed, abusive and overcrowded, stress and tension can brew for only so long before it explodes. Take the 1971 Attica prison riot. This was ​ “ a group of prisoners who had been deprived, ignored, mistreated for a long time and were seeking redress, and when they realized that they could not achieve it through normal mechanisms, there was a collective response,” Haney said. 

That’s why the concern about the recent reports of excessive force, neglect and inhumane conditions at prisons in Alabama  and Mississippi  is so appropriate, Haney said.

prison gang violence essay

“ These are places where there has been a profound level of neglect of prisoners’ basic needs, a failure of the prison system to respond in a meaningful and remotely caring way,” said Haney, who has recently spent time at prisons in both states. ​ “ Both places are plagued by really significant levels of overcrowding and corresponding staff shortages; they’re underfunded institutions in which prisoners are in dire need of the basic necessities of life.”

Tabb Bickell, Executive Deputy Secretary for Institutional Operations at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, saw first-hand how his state turned things around after the 1989 Camp Hill prison riot — of which he, as a young correctional officer, was beaten and taken hostage — and he believes a big factor in reducing violence was gaining resources. 

“ When I started in corrections at $ 6 . 25 an hour, I remember walking out of there thinking, ​ ‘ I just made 45 bucks today to do this ,’” Bickell said. ​ “ And now through Wetzel and some of his people ahead of him, the money has gotten to where it makes it a competitive, decent place to work.”

And when correctional officers are compensated properly, when prisons aren’t overcrowded and understaffed but have good programming and decent living conditions, when the incarcerated population is treated humanely, there is less of a risk for violence, Haney said.

“ Well-run prisons that have the interests and the needs of the prisoners at the forefront are not places where riots break out,” he said.

prison gang violence essay

‘ Always Being on Point’

Anyone who has ever stepped into a prison has witnessed the ripple effects that violence can have, Rodriguez said. And those effects — which will also be researched in the new study — don’t end when a person is released.

Herbert Morales, who experienced violence at the hands of correctional officers and his incarcerated peers during his time in New York State prisons from 1985 to 2017 , has been out for three years but is still triggered by noises that, in his mind, mean a correctional officer may be coming after him.

“ Right now, when I fall asleep, noise could go on about me, people could yell, music could play, I’ll sleep through it,” Morales said. ​ “ But if you take a set of keys and you tap it against metal, I’ll pop up like I was never asleep.”

Tyrrell Muhammad has been home 15  years and he still wakes up every day at 4 : 35 a.m., ​ “ always being on point, always being on alert, and I can’t stop, I can’t get rid of it. It has become part of my everyday existence.” That’s because the shift change in prison was at 5  a.m., and it was imperative to be awake and ready. 

Josiah Rich, a Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Brown University and the Director and Co-Founder of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, has been witness to the effects of violence on incarcerated people.

He’s been visiting prisons mostly in Rhode Island for the past 25  years, taking care of people with HIV and other infectious diseases as well as providing treatment for opioid addiction. Patients will come into his exam room, close the door and just melt.

“ They’ll talk about their frustrations and their fears and things that have happened to them, repeated traumas,” Rich said, and then the session will come to an end, ​ “ and you can see them kind of like steel themselves and put their battle mask on their face, and it’s like, ​ ‘ Now I’ve got to go back in there. Thanks doc, see you later, back into the maelstrom.’”

Violence, Travis said, is part of the ​ “ dark underbelly” of an already dark prison system, and it’s critical that society not look away. He is hopeful the new study will make the country face what’s happening inside prisons.

“ Prisons are toxic environments, and they do enormous harm, and it’s hard for any society that calls itself civilized to confront that reality, much less the reality that these are living situations that are not safe,” Travis said. ​ “ It’s easier for us to claim there will be episodic outbreaks rather than to acknowledge that violence is a fact of daily life for those who already are deprived of liberty and for those who work in prisons. It’s a harsh reality to grapple with.”

‘ This is the Future of Corrections’

Go inside the Young Men Emerging unit in the D.C. Department of Corrections with this in-depth short film, ​ “ Emerging: The Story of YME ” — produced by a former YME member — and learn how they build community and help one another take ownership of their stories.

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Do Overcrowding and Turnover Cause Violence in Prison?

Stéphanie baggio.

1 Division of Prison Health, Geneva University Hospitals and University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland

2 Department of Forensic Psychiatry, Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

Nicolas Peigné

Patrick heller.

3 Adult Psychiatry Division, Department of Mental Health and Psychiatry, Geneva University Hospitals, Geneva, Switzerland

Laurent Gétaz

4 Division of Tropical and Humanitarian Medicine, Geneva University Hospitals and University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland

Michael Liebrenz

Associated data.

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation, to any qualified researcher.

Violence is common in prison and its individual risk factors are well documented. However, there is a mixed evidence on the relationship between prison violence and institutional factors, such as overcrowding and turnover, and recent research suggested that these factors may not be important or relevant. This study investigated the association between prison violence and institutional factors in a Swiss pre-trial prison between 2013 and 2018. Measures included violence (assaults requiring immediate medical attention) as well as the annual overcrowding and turnover rates. Using a meta-regression, the results showed that prison violence was higher when overcrowding and turnover increased. Overall, our study highlighted that institutional prison factors might have notable detrimental effects on prison life. Reduction of prison overcrowding and turnover appear critical to reduce prisoners’ vulnerability. Turning prison into safe places designed to promote desistance would probably not be achievable without considering these crucial factors.

Introduction

Prison overcrowding, when the number of prisoners exceeds the prison capacity, is an important concern worldwide. In 2018, overcrowding remained one of the most important issues in prison ( 1 ), with 27 countries operating at 150% to 200% ( 2 ). Turnover, the rate at which the prison population is renewed, has been less extensively studied ( 3 , 4 ), but may also have detrimental consequences for prisoners ( 4 ). Both can undermine the ability of prison systems to meet human needs, including access to appropriate accommodation, timely health care, and access to rehabilitation programs and educational or vocational activities ( 5 ).

However, in a recent empirical study, Fazel, Ramesh & Hawton ( 3 ) underscored the importance of individual over institutional factors. In their multicentric study conducted in 24 high-income countries, there was no significant association between prison suicide and two major institutional factors, namely overcrowding and turnover. These findings resulted in a call to focus on individual and relevant ecological factors ( 3 ). This mixed evidence also applies to prison violence: A meta-analysis to conclude that future policies should focus on “more important predictors” than overcrowding to predict (violent) misconduct ( 6 , p. 409), even if overcrowding has long been described as a potential risk for prison violence ( 7 ).

These conclusions have risen legitimate fears of misinterpretation and neglect of critical institutional factors ( 8 ). Besides, very recent prison studies highlighted significant associations between overcrowding, turnover, and self-harm ( 4 ); and between overcrowding and violent misconduct ( 9 , 10 ). Another recent study also reported that institutional infractions were more likely to happen a few months after entry ( 11 ). As turnover is associated with an increased number of prison entries, it may lead to increased levels of misconduct, infractions, and violence.

This study focused on violence against others, as there is a paucity of empirical studies investigating the association between institutional factors and this kind of violence. Prison violence has been most often investigated using assaults registered in official prison records (i.e., “violent misconduct”) ( 6 , 7 ). In addition, to our knowledge, previous studies on prison violence focused on overcrowding and turnover has been neglected. We hypothesized that institutional factors would lead to increased levels of violence, and thus, that these factors should not be neglected in empirical prison studies and health policy.

Materials and Methods

Prison-level data were collected between 2013 and 2018 in a Swiss pre-trial prison located in Geneva (Champ-Dollon). This prison is mainly a pre-trial prison, but there are also sentenced detainees. In this prison, prisoners spend 23 h a day in their cell. The prison capacity was 376 (with 22 additional places in 2017 and 2018). Nurses are present in the prison 24/7 in a prison medical unit. This prison has been repeatedly criticized by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) for chronic overcrowding and detention setting, including lack of activities ( 12 ). Data were collected using prison-level statistics and prison nurses’ records. Since we used anonymous quality control data, ethical approval was not required.

Prison Overcrowding

The annual overcrowding rate was computed by dividing the annual mean daily population by the prison capacity. It was extracted from the statistics available each year for the whole prison, upon request to the direction of the prison.

Turnover Ratio

The turnover rate was computed using the number of releases divided by the number of entries plus the average prison population of the previous year ( 3 ). It was also extracted from the statistics available each year for the whole prison, upon request to the direction of the prison.

Nurses recorded systematically and anonymously each assault requiring medical attention immediately after its occurrence, in accordance with the guidelines of a previous study on prison violence, recommending a systematic statistical recording of routine data on prison violence, to standardize injury surveillance ( 13 ).

Statistical Analyses

We tested the association between violence, overcrowding, and turnover using a fixed-effect multivariate meta-regression. Each year was considered as a separate sample (too few events to consider months as separate samples). Analyses were performed with R 3.5.1 (package metaphor 2.0.0).

Over the study period, the average rate of overcrowding was 175.4% and the turnover rate 73.2%. This meant that the prison was overcrowded, as the number of prisoners exceeded its official capacity (100%). However, there is no official definition of what constitutes overcrowding ( 5 ). The turnover rate was also high, with on average 73.2% of the prison population entirely reviewed each year. On average, there was 9.1% of cases of violence/population of inmates over the study period. The meta-analytic prevalence estimate for prison violence over the study period was 8.5% (95% confidence interval: 7.6%–9.3%).

There were significant effects of both overcrowding (b = 0.001, p < .001) and turnover (b = 0.009, p < .001) on prison violence. Increased overcrowding and turnover were associated with increased prevalence estimates of violence. When overcrowding increased of one point (on a one hundred percent scale), prison violence increased of 0.1 point of percentage. Figure 1 shows that increased levels of overcrowding were associated with higher prevalence estimates of prison violence. When turnover increased of one point (on a one hundred percent scale), prison violence increased of 0.9 point of percentage. The pattern was less clear in the forest plot depicted in Figure 1 , but the effect was nonetheless significant.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is fpsyt-10-01015-g001.jpg

Forest plot of the effect of overcrowding and turnover on prison violence, sorted by overcrowding rate. 95% CI: 95% confidence intervals. Whiskers represent 95% CI for the prevalence estimate of each year. Prevalence estimates are reported for assaults requiring immediate medical attention. Overcrowding and turnover are reported as percentages.

In our study, there was a meta-analytic percentage of 8.5% of assaults requiring immediate medical attention. This percentage ranged between previous estimates, from 0.8% for assaults classified as violent misconduct in official prison reports ( 9 ) to 23.5% of assaults (including assaults against staff) classified as disciplinary offences in official prison reports ( 10 ). As these studies used very different measures to assess prison violence and were conducted in different settings, comparisons are not possible.

Our study showed that institutional prison factors were significantly associated with prison violence (i.e., assaults requiring immediate medical attention). This result replicated recent empirical findings focusing on overcrowding in the US and using official misconduct reports ( 9 , 10 ). Our study extended these results in a European country and with data not necessarily recorded in the official prison reports. It followed recent guidelines for systematic statistical recording of violence ( 13 ). In addition, to our knowledge, this study was the first to examine the association between turnover and prison violence, highlighting that this institutional factor also led to increased levels of prison violence.

Overall, our study highlighted that institutional prison factors might have notable detrimental effects on prison life and adjustment to prison life. Reduction of prison overcrowding and turnover appear critical to reduce prisoners’ vulnerability and they should not be neglected. These detrimental effects may be even worse for especially vulnerable people living in detention (e.g., those in bad health or having severe psychiatric disorders, older people). Even if these factors are not easily modifiable, future prison policies should be developed to promote prisoners’ health and rehabilitation. Indeed, (violent) misconduct is associated with increased recidivism ( 14 ).

Meanwhile, adequate prevention measures to reduce violence in overcrowded prisons are needed. It should include adequate occupational activities as well as screening and treatment for psychiatric disorders targeting specific needs; as well as enhancement of social skills, social relationships, and social support using relevant psychosocial programs ( 13 , 15 ). Such need for adjustments in prison policy is regularly emphasized in the legal literature as well ( 16 , 17 ).

This study has some limitations. A first limitation was the lack on individual data, such as personal risk factors for prison violence. However, the prison population of Champ-Dollon was stable over time [e.g., rates of psychiatric treatments and socio-demographic profiles, ( 18 )] so we could be confident that the changes in prison violence was mostly related to the institutional factors. Second, the results were probably related to the specific characteristics of the prison, namely the lack of freedom of movement and activities. However, the 23-h confinement period per day and the lack of access to a workplace are comparable in most pre-trial prisons in Switzerland ( 17 ). Furthermore, Champ-Dollon is especially overcrowded ( 12 ). Another shortcoming was that we used an operationalization of prison violence (i.e., assaults requiring immediate medical attention) which did not allow comparisons with other studies. Our study missed less severe cases of violence (not requiring immediate medical care), but it used a less restrictive operationalization of prison violence in comparison with some previous studies relying exclusively on official prison reports. In addition, given its retrospective design, we were unable to collect information on violence against staff members. Future multicentric studies should include prisons’ characteristics, and especially time spent locked up in cells and available pro-health, pro-social, and occupational activities ( 4 ), as well as individual-level factors and all kinds of violence, including those against staff members. Further studies should also develop assessments of prison violence that allow comparisons between prisons and include less severe forms of violence. Finally, prison violence can also mean psychological violence, such as harassment, bullying, or sexual violence ( 19 ). Future studies should also investigate this kind of violence.

To conclude, we believe that institutional factors should not be neglected in prison research and future prison policies. Overcrowding and turnover have an important impact on prisoners’ health, prison life, and adjustment to prison life; even if these effects depend on the specific characteristics of the prison under study. Distress and misconduct in prison should be considered as the interplay between individual and institutional factor, and not only as something prisoners import in prison ( 8 ). Turning prison into safe places designed to promote desistance would probably not be achievable without considering these crucial factors.

Data Availability Statement

Ethics statement.

Ethical review and approval was not required for the study on human participants in accordance with the local legislation and institutional requirements. Written informed consent for participation was not required for this study in accordance with the national legislation and the institutional requirements. Since we used anonymous quality control data, ethical approval was not required.

Author Contributions

SB conceived the study’s objective, drafted the manuscript, and performed the statistical analyses. NP participated in data collection. PH, LG, ML, and HW made substantial contributions in the interpretation of the data. NP, PH, LG, ML, and HW revised the manuscript critically for important intellectual content. All authors approved the final version to be published and agreed to be accountable for all aspects of the work related to its accuracy and integrity.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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A Research of Violence in Prison Through Socio-psychological Lens

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A Study on The Increase on Incarceration Cases in The United States

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A Diplomatic Spat in Ecuador May Lift Its President’s Political Fortunes

Analysts believe that President Daniel Noboa’s re-election hopes are what motivated the arrest of an Ecuadorean politician taking refuge at the Mexican Embassy.

Uniformed soldiers in helmets and carrying rifles walking past police officers in riot gear.

By Genevieve Glatsky

Ecuador’s decision to send police officers into the Mexican Embassy to arrest a politician who had taken refuge there inflamed tensions between two countries that were already at odds, but it may prove a political boon for the Ecuadorean president.

President Daniel Noboa has been faced with flagging approval ratings amid rising violence weeks before a referendum that could affect his prospects for re-election next year. The spat with Mexico, which suspended diplomatic relations, may be just what he needed.

The politician who was arrested, Jorge Glas , a former vice president of Ecuador, had been sentenced to prison for corruption and living at the Mexican Embassy in Quito since December. Then on Friday, Mexico granted him asylum, and the Ecuadorean police moved in.

Mr. Noboa’s office said that the arrest had gone forward because Mexico had abused the immunities and privileges granted to the diplomatic mission, but the message it sent was also in keeping line with Mr. Noboa’s hardhanded approach to tackling violence and graft in Ecuador.

The 36-year-old center-right leader came to power in November after President Guillermo Lasso, facing impeachment proceedings over accusations of embezzlement, called for early elections. Mr. Noboa is in office until May 2025, the remainder of Mr. Lasso’s term.

Mr. Noboa’s ability to show that he can restore law and order to the nation of nearly 18 million may prove critical to his re-election, and that means tackling the country’s gangs, as well as corruption within the government that has enabled criminal groups, analysts say.

Many experts say those political aspirations appear to explain the arrest at the embassy, which signaled that the president is tough on impunity.

“He did this to change all these negative talking points that were affecting him and try to have a conversation in his favor,” said an Ecuadorean political analyst, Agustín Burbano de Lara.

Mr. Glas held various ministerial positions during the presidency of Rafael Correa, a leftist, most notably serving as vice president. In 2017, he was forced from office and sentenced to six years in prison for accepting bribes. Another bribery conviction in 2020 implicated him and Mr. Correa, and both were sentenced to eight years.

Released in 2022, Mr. Glas eventually sought asylum in Mexico, a move that strained relations between Ecuador and Mexico. Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry said in March that it had requested Mexico’s permission to arrest Mr. Glas.

While Mr. Noboa is very popular, polls show that his approval rating fell 11 points in recent months, from 85 percent to 74 percent, amid the rising violence in Ecuador.

After the coastal city of Guayaquil was overrun by gang violence in January, Mr. Noboa declared an internal conflict , an extraordinary step taken when the state has come under attack by an armed group. He deployed the country’s military, allowing soldiers to patrol the streets and prisons to tackle the soaring gang violence linked to drug trafficking.

The aggressive response initially reduced violence and brought a precarious sense of safety to places like Guayaquil — but the stability did not last. Over the Easter holiday, there were 137 murders in Ecuador, and kidnappings and extortion have worsened .

In two weeks, Ecuadoreans will vote on a referendum to allow the government to increase security measures by making prison sentences for some crimes more severe and enshrining the increased military presence into law.

Experts say it is too soon to say if the arrest of Mr. Glas will benefit Mr. Noboa at the ballot box, but several Ecuadoreans said on Sunday that they supported the action.

“Mexico has treated Ecuadoreans like fools, giving asylum to all these convicted people,” said Danilo Álvarez, a 41-year-old salesman from Guayaquil, one of the country’s most violent cities.

Ecuador itself once famously granted asylum and protection at one of its embassies. In 2012, when Mr. Correa was president, it did so for the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange , housing him at its embassy in London for seven years.

Mr. Álvarez said that robbers had broken into his house a few years ago, tied his hands and feet together and held a gun to his head. It was months before he was able to sleep well again, he said.

Not all citizens, however, were in agreement with the arrest.

“This was an act of total disrespect for international law,” said Delfa Mantilla, 62, a retired teacher. “It seems that it was something that President Noboa did as a product of his rich-boy ego, without empathy.”

Some worried about the affects that the diplomatic dispute could have for ordinary people. Tens of thousands of Ecuadoreans migrate through Mexico to the United States every year, and the two countries have faced a surge in transnational crime, with many Mexican cartels operating out of Ecuador.

“Part of me thinks it’s fine, because Glas should go to jail,” said Mario Zalamar, a 34-year-old commercial engineer. But, he said, “There are thousands of Ecuadoreans right now moving through Mexico on foot to migrate to the United States, and we don’t know how much this is going to affect them.”

Even if many Ecuadoreans support the arrest at the embassy, Mr. Noboa has likely deepened a diplomatic rift that may weaken its relations with other countries in the region.

Honduras, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina have all rallied around Mexico and criticized the arrest. And the government of Nicaragua announced it was suspending its diplomatic relationship with Ecuador, characterizing the arrest as “neo-fascist political barbarity” in a statement shared by state-run media .

Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the American State Department, said, “The United States condemns any violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and takes very seriously the obligation of host countries under international law to respect the inviolability of diplomatic missions.”

Mr. Miller called on both countries to resolve their difference.

José María León Cabrera and Thalíe Ponce contributed reporting.

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