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Justice Study: Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates

Author: Tom Birch, National Child Abuse Coalition
Date: posted 4/99  

Almost half of the women and one tenth of the men in the nation's jails and prisons say they were physically or sexually abused before their imprisonment, according to a report released by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics on April 11. A third of the women in state prisons, a quarter in local jails and a fifth of the women in federal prisons said they had been raped before their incarceration.

Women in the nation's prisons and jails reported higher levels of abuse as children than women in the general population. More than a third of female state prison and jail inmates said that they had been abused as children, as did about 14 percent of male inmates. The report noted that in the general population, estimates of physical or sexual abuse as children ranged from 12 to 17 percent for females and from 5 to 8 percent for males.

For prisoners who had spent part of their childhoods in foster care, the rate of abuse was even higher. Forty-four percent of the male prisoners and 87 percent of the female prisoners who had spent the majority of their childhood in foster care or institutions reported abuse. Many of them may have been removed from abusive homes.

The new study draws a strong link between prior abuse and violent crime. Among male inmates in state prisons, 76 percent who were abused and 61 percent not abused had a current or past sentence for a violent offense. Among female offenders, 45 percent of the abused and 29 percent not abused had served a sentence for a violent crime.

A history of substance abuse was also higher among inmates who reported an abusive background. Illegal drug use and regular drinking were more common among abused state prison inmates than among those who said they had not been abused. An estimated 76 percent of the abused men and 80 percent of the abused women had used illegal drugs regularly, compared to 68 percent of the men and 65 percent of the women who had not been abused. Of those state prisoners who had grown up with a parent or guardian who drank heavily or used drugs regularly, 29 percent of the males and 76 percent of the females reported abuse.

The data on correctional populations used for this report were based on personal interviews from BJS surveys of state and federal prison inmates, local jail inmates, and probationers under active supervision. The special report, "Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers" (NCJ-172879) was written by BJS statistician Caroline Wolf Harlow. Single copies may be obtained from the BJS fax-on-demand system by dialing 301/519-5550, listening to the complete menu and selecting document number 153. Or call the BJS Clearinghouse number: 1-800-732-3277. Fax orders for mail delivery to 410/792-4358. The BJS Internet site is: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/

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