Skip to content
Incarcerated men stand in a crowded lunch line at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Alabama, in 2015. Because there is no uniform metric that reports violence in prisons nationwide, the only time it makes headlines is when egregious acts — like those recently in prisons in Alabama and Mississippi — are leaked or formally investigated. (Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press)

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.

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.”

Nancy Rodriguez, a Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine, is leading a three-year, seven-state study on prison violence. (Courtesy of Nancy Rodriguez)

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.”

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, pictured in 2018, is a member of the Prison Violence Consortium. I think using data to drive strategy is the only way to move forward,” he said. (Jacqueline Larma/​The Associated Press)

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.”

Craig Haney, a leading expert on the mental health of incarcerated people, speaks at a justice summit in New York City in 2016. (Slaven Vlasic/​Getty Images)

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.

Illegal contraband is collected at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, in this undated photo released in 2019. Prison officials said some 300 officers from multiple agencies searched the prison in an effort to reduce violence in state lockups. (Alabama Department of Corrections via The Associated Press)

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.

Tyrrell Muhammad, left, Monitoring Associate at the Correctional Association of New York, stands with Mark Graham, Executive Director of Redemption Center, and Nurideen Islam, a conflict resolution expert. It’s been three years since Muhammad finished his sentence, but he still suffers prison’s effects. (Courtesy of Tyrrell Muhammad)

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.