Understanding Violence in Prison

28 Jun

Michelle Butler is a lecturer in criminology and has conducted research into violence, imprisonment, identity, respect, youth justice and fear of crime. Here she describes one part of this work:

Violence in prison is a common occurrence. Studies indicate that between 10-20 per cent of adult prisoners are assaulted during a one-month timeframe while 33 per cent are threatened with violence (see Edgar, O’Donnell & Martin, 2003). These figures suggest that the majority of prisoners will experience some form of violence during their imprisonment.

Common explanations for this violence focus on the how the prison environment encourages violent behaviour. For example, confining large numbers of people in a prison which by its nature restricts their movements can lead to violence as individuals vent their frustrations and are unable to walk away from conflict situations. In addition, staff-prisoner relationships which are based on physical dominance and power, prisoner beliefs emphasising the use of aggression when feeling wronged/threatened and the debts and associated problems which occur when prisoners trade drugs, tobacco, phone cards, etc. facilitate violent behaviour (Edgar et al. 2003). However, many prisoners who are exposed to the same pressures and frustrations in prison differ in the extent to which they engage in violence (see Bottoms, 1999).

My research explores why some prisoners are more likely to behave violently in prison than others.  It focuses on how pre-prison experiences, experiences during imprisonment, past behaviour and personality factors can influence involvement in violence in prison. The results of this research indicate that individuals who have engaged in such violence in the past are more likely to do so again while those scoring higher on the personality trait of agreeableness are less likely to behave violently. In addition, individuals expressing feelings of shame in their identity are more likely to engage in violence. These feelings of shame arose from feeling stigmatised, discriminated against, socially rejected and/or disapproved of both in the community and in the prison.

This suggests that how people are treated and the implications of this treatment for their identity are important factors influencing an individual’s involvement in violence (see Butler, 2008). Indeed, the feeling of being disrespected has been found to be a key justification/excuse for violence in prison (see Butler & Maruna, 2009). Consequently, it is important that prison interactions are characterised by a basic level of respect if violence in prison is to be reduced (see Butler & Drake, 2009). However, it is equally necessary to tackle experiences of stigmatisation, discrimination, social rejection and social disapproval in the community, if we are to maximise the possibility of reducing violence. If we do not tackle these wider issues, the prison service will continue to have to deal with the repercussions of events occurring outside the prison walls.


Bottoms, A. (1999) Interpersonal Violence and Social Order in Prison. in M. Tonry & J. Petersilia (Eds.), Crime and justice: A Review of Research, Vol. 26 (pp. 205–82). Chicago: University of Chicago.

Butler, M. (2008) What Are You Looking At?: Prisoner Confrontations and the Search for Respect. British Journal of Criminology, 48, 856-873.

Butler, M. & Drake, D. (2007) Reconsidering Respect: Its Role in the British Prison Service. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 46,115-127.

Butler, M. & Maruna, S. (2009) The Impact of Disrespect on Prisoners’ Aggression: Outcomes of Experimentally Inducing Violence-Supportive Cognitions. Psychology, Crime and Law, 15, 235-250.

Edgar, K., O’Donnell, I. & Martin, C. (2003) Prison Violence: The Dynamics of Conflict, Fear and Power. Devon: Willan Publishing.


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