The Public Interest

Prison violence and the paradox of reform

Kathleen Engel & Stanley Rothman

Fall 1983

MENS prisons across the country are besieged with violence. Inmate murders in state prisons alone left 450 inmates dead in 1972 and 1973 (the most recent period for which complete figures are available); indeed, death by murder is more common in prison than on the outside. Since the mid-1960s, correctional facilities have had substantial increases in inmate rapes and murders, with the number of victims peaking in the 1970s. Paradoxically, the rise in violence paralleled the growth of the prison reform movement, and escalated as rehabilitative policies became standard correctional practice and as the courts abandoned their “hands-off” doctrine in prisonersrights cases. Thus, at the very time our prisons were being designed to be more humanitarian, they were becoming worse. Whereas at one time prisoners had to fear possible brutality by prison guards, today the chief perpetrators of violence against prisoners are other prisoners.

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