Violent Crime in Prison Doesn’t Count in Federal Reports

George Lavender

Violent crime is nearly half what it was in the 1990s, according to two federal government reports which track crime rates. But by excluding a significant population, are these reports painting an incomplete picture? Neither the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports nor the National Crime Victimization Survey, produced by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) take into account violent crime in prisons. At Slate, Josh Voorhees takes a closer look at these statistics. He points out that if the incarcerated population of 2.2 million people lived in a single city, it would be the fourth largest in the country. As for the crime stats in that city, Voorhees writes:

Someone living there is less likely to be murdered than they would be elsewhere in America. That, however, is where the good news ends. The bad news, of which there is plenty, is that the life he faces is so brutal that he is more likely to commit suicide than if he were free, and his chances of being raped and beaten, possibly repeatedly, appear exponentially greater. 

Voorhees explains that, given the size of the incarcerated population, the decision to exclude a large proportion of violent incidents involving prisoners from national crime statistics is significant. 

If we had a clearer sense of what happens behind bars, we’d likely see that we are reducing our violent crime rate, at least in part, with a statistical sleight of hand — by redefining what crime is and shifting where it happens. The violence is still there,” says Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse and violence in prisons and jails. It’s just been moved from our communities to our jails and prisons where it’s much more hidden.” It counts as an assault when one drug dealer beats up a second on the streets of Chicago, why shouldn’t it count as sexual assault when one of them is raped after he is sent to prison? It is a crime when someone beats his wife, so why shouldn’t it be a crime when that same person attacks a prison guard?

Technically, of course, they are crimes — only the likelihood that someone will be investigated, charged, and prosecuted for them are vanishingly small. Indeed, the assault — especially if it’s between inmates — is likely to never be officially noted. The Department of Justice chooses to exclude the bulk of violence committed inside its correctional facilities from the national crime surveys. These wholesale omissions make it impossible to paint a complete picture of life behind bars in America, but there are nonetheless bits and pieces of the puzzle that we can pull together from what little is available. Continue reading…

Voorhees compares the figures cited by the FBI and BJS reports with self-reported violent incidents by prisoners

For comparison, there were 1.2 million violent crimes reported to the FBI by police departments across the country in 2012, and a little more than 5.8 million self-reported by inmates that same year, according to the BJS survey.

For one example of this statistical sleight of hand” Voorhees points to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ data for sexual assaults in prisons. Rates of sexual violence in prison and jails, are significantly higher than in the general population, despite recent legislation aimed at reducing that violence. According to the Survey of Sexual Violence, administrators at federal, state, US military, and Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) facilities reported 8,763 allegations of sexual victimization in 2011

In 2011, 902 allegations of sexual victimization (10%) were substantiated (i.e., determined to have occurred upon investigation). 

About 52% of substantiated incidents of sexual victimization in 2011 involved only inmates, while 48% of substantiated incidents involved staff with inmates.

About 52% of substantiated incidents of sexual victimization in 2011 involved only inmates, while 48% of substantiated incidents involved staff with inmates.

The article concludes if we choose to continue to lock people up at a rate unparalleled in the world, we should at least be honest and acknowledge that doing so is aimed at eliminating violence from our streets, not necessarily our country.”

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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