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.

by Emily Widra, December 2, 2020

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 behind bars is inescapable and traumatizing

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.”

graph showing percent of people in prison experiencing physical or sexual violence

Violence in prison by the numbers

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. The table below shows the most recent data available,1 although it is likely that many of these events are underreported.

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.

Estimating the prevalence of violence in prisons and jails
Reported incidents and estimates
Indicator of violence State prisons Federal prisons County jails Source
Deaths by suicide in correctional facility 255 deaths in 2016 333 deaths in 2016 Mortality in State and Federal Prisons, 2001-2016; Mortality in Local Jails, 2000-2016
Deaths by homicide in correctional facility 95 deaths in 2016 31 deaths in 2016
“Intentionally injured” by staff or other incarcerated person since admission to prison 14.8% of incarcerated people in 2004 8.3% of incarcerated people in 2004 Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2004
“Staff-on-inmate assaults” 21% of incarcerated men were assaulted by staff over 6 months in 2005 Wolff & Shi, 2010
“Inmate-on-inmate assaults” 26,396 assaults in 2005 Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, 2005
Incidents of sexual victimization of incarcerated people (perpetrated by staff and incarcerated people) 16,940 reported incidents in 2015 740 reported incidents in 2015 5,809 reported incidents in 2015 Survey of Sexual Victimization, 2015
1,473 substantiated incidents in state and federal prisons and local jails in 2015

Prison is rarely the first place that incarcerated people experience 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.2

Violence continues after release

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.

“Gladiator school” and ties to PTSD among veterans

While the effects of witnessing violence in correctional facilities have not been extensively studied, Novisky and Peralta’s findings are reminiscent of the significant body of psychological research about veterans, witnessed violence, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. And while a prison is not a war zone, the study participants themselves made these comparisons, describing prison as “going through a nuclear war,” “a jungle where only the strong survive,” “needing to go be ready to go to war constantly,” and “gladiator school.” Veterans, regardless of exposure to combat, are disproportionately at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can experience the same debilitating symptoms of PTSD that Novisky and Peralta document among recently incarcerated people.

In an article drawing attention to PTSD among our nation’s veterans, journalist Sebastian Junger describes his own experience with symptoms of PTSD after witnessing violence in Afghanistan. Importantly, he points out that only about 10 percent of our armed forces actually see combat, so the exorbitantly high rates of PTSD among returning servicemembers are not only caused by direct exposure to danger.3 The extensive psychological research on witnessed violence among veterans helps us better understand the risks of witnessing violence in other contexts; with the findings from Novisky and Peralta’s study, we can see a similar pattern of post-traumatic stress symptoms among incarcerated people who have witnessed acts of violence, even if they did not participate directly.

Witnessing violence — whether on a neighborhood block, prison unit, or a battlefield — carries serious ramifications. Exposure to this kind of stress can lead to poor health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, and even certain cancers, which are compounded by inadequate correctional health care. Previous research has also shown that violent prison conditions — including direct victimization, the perception of a threatening prison environment, and hostile relationships with correctional officers — increase the likelihood of recidivism.

Moving forward

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.




  1. The forthcoming release of data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016 (expected before 2021), will provide updated information.  ↩

  2. Based on data from 2011 to 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 14.2% of people who indicate experiencing serious psychological distress in the past 30 days are written up or charged with some kind of assault while incarcerated in state prison, compared to 11.6% of people with any history of mental health problems, and 4.1% of people with no indications of mental health problems.  ↩

  3. Studies of U.S. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suggest that the lifetime prevalence of PTSD for veterans is anywhere from 13.5% (which is more than double that of the general population) to 30%.  ↩

Emily Widra is a Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

One response:

  1. Martin Mendoza jr says:

    I am 31 years old and have spent half of my life in and out of juveniles and prisons. I suffer from PTSD because of the violence I suffered and witnessed in the T.D.C.J. I was denied medical treatment and put in solitary by the prison guards where I suffered kidney failure. I was in a coma and had to do dialysis. I am very paranoid of people and people who abuse their authority.

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