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Experiences in prison reduce perceptions of corrections officers’ fairness, regardless of time served

Numerous studies have examined the coercive nature of prisons, but few have considered the role of in-prison experiences (e.g., confinement in restrictive housing) and time served in prison in incarcerated people’s perceptions of corrections officers’ fairness. A new study examined whether in-prison experiences among a nationally representative sample of inmates varied in their effect across different lengths of time served on incarcerated people’s perceptions of procedural justice. The study found that most incarcerated individuals’ in-prison experiences lessened their perceptions of procedural justice and fairness.

The study, by researchers at Iowa State University and Kent State University, appears in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

“Past research has not evaluated whether the in-prison experiences and attitudes associated with perceptions of treatment by correctional staff vary by the amount of time served in prison,” explains Daniel Butler, assistant professor of sociology in criminal justice studies at Iowa State University, who led the study. “Such an investigation is essential as policymakers and researchers question how managerial strategies and policies in correctional settings influence the well-being of incarcerated people.”

One way to measure correctional inmates’ perceptions of corrections staff is to examine whether their behaviors are perceived by incarcerated people to be procedurally just. Corrections officers and others in criminal justice who treat individuals with dignity and respect, make decisions based on facts, and allow inmates opportunities to express themselves are more likely to be perceived as procedurally just.

Using the National Inmate Survey (NIS), 2011-2012, a nationally representative sample of incarcerated individuals who self-report on pre- and in-prison experiences, researchers examined more than 31,000 adults incarcerated at almost 200 state confinement facilities across different categories of time served in a facility.

Researchers measured the effects of a variety of in-prison experiences—including confinement to restrictive housing (e.g., solitary confinement), institutionalized resistance (i.e., filing a complaint), incidences of assault by staff and fellow inmates, perceived crowding, and family visits—on incarcerated individuals’ perceptions of staff members’ procedural justice. They also considered the effect of inmates’ experiences of staff support, inmate support, and mental health.

Procedural justice was defined by looking at eight measures, including staff fairness, staff treatment of inmates with respect, and staff members’ attempts to meet the needs of inmates. The study gauged how inmates’ perceptions varied based on the length of time incarcerated, categorizing  time in prison as less than one year, between one and five years, and more than five years.

The study found that most of inmates’ in-prison experiences reduced their perceptions of staff members’ procedural justice, regardless of how much time they had served. This finding contradicts past study results, perhaps because the experiences measured in this study differ from those measured in other research.

Specifically, the study found that:

  • Decreased perceptions of staff members’ procedural justice were highest among inmates who had been incarcerated for less than a year.
  • Confinement in restrictive housing (up to 13 percent of the study’s participants served more than 30 days in restrictive housing) significantly decreased inmates’ perceptions of procedural justice for those who had served less than five years in prison.
  • Inmates who had served more than five years perceived prison to be more dangerous than other inmates, and this decreased their perceptions of staff members’ procedural justice. In addition, inmates who had served more than five years who reported having mental health problems were more likely to perceive staff as less procedurally just.
  • Inmates’ race and ethnicity influenced their perceptions of procedural justice across each category of time serve: Black and Hispanic inmates perceived correctional staff as less procedurally just than White inmates.
  • Inmates who filed a grievance, received support from other inmates, and were younger also perceived correctional staff as less procedurally just.
  • Inmates who had served between one and five years and who perceived the facility as crowded had more negative perceptions of staff procedural justice than did inmates who had served less than a year.

Among the study’s limitations, the authors note that they did not examine characteristics of the facilities or staff that prior research had identified as important predictors of correctional officers’ legitimacy and fairness. In addition, the NIS data included information on experiences within the past 12 months of confinement or since admission to the current facility, which excluded some in-prison experiences.

“The discretion and power afforded to correctional staff creates an imbalance,” notes Starr Solomon, assistant professor of sociology at Kent State University, who coauthored the study. “As correctional agencies develop strategies to help incarcerated people adjust to prison, it is important to recognize that the coercive nature of prisons makes it difficult for individuals to perceive treatment by staff as procedurally just.”

The research was funded by the Sam Houston State External Grant Application Development System.

Summarized from Justice Quarterly, Time Served in Prison, In-Prison Experiences, and Perceptions of Procedural Justice by Butler, HD (Iowa State University), Solomon, S (Kent State University), DeLisi, M (Iowa State University). Copyright 2021. The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. All rights reserved.

Contact Information
Caitlin Kizielewicz
Crime and Justice Research Alliance
(412) 554-0074