About 5 and a half million U.S. adults are under correctional supervision, including probation and parole, according to the Justice Department's 1996 figures. Large racial disparities exist at all levels. About 500,000 adults are in jail (short-term, usually county or city-controlled facilities): 89 percent are male, 42 percent are white, 41 percent are black and 16 percent are Hispanic. Federal and state prisons house another 1.1 million adults who are 94 percent male, 49 percent black, and 48 percent white.
Compared with the incarcerated population, adults on probation are more likely to be white (66 percent) and female (21 percent). Among black and Hispanic men, the youngest, poorest urban adults are most likely to be incarcerated: the highest rates of incarceration are for Hispanics, age 2024; blacks, age 2529; and whites, 3034.
Currently, incarceration is a missed opportunity for psychologists' intervention. Despite evidence that inmates have significant levels of trauma, mental illness, addiction, infectious diseases and other health problems, interventions are rare and inadequate. Men and women are released to their communities without needed behavioral changes.
In addition to clinical interventions, research is needed to document clinical needs, design multisystemic programs and evaluate current efforts. Victimization behind bars also needs to be addressed. Staff education and training are key. Psychologists willing to engage in this work will find no lack of opportunity to use their clinical and research expertise.
The scope of the problem
Growing numbers of addicted and mentally ill individuals are behind bars and many have other health issues, such as HIV/AIDS. The relatively small research base suggests many inmates have severe trauma histories, with significant exposure to violence, including child maltreatment. Most of those incarcerated are parents, and the impact appears to be greatest in poor, minority, urban communities. For many, drug convictions mean the loss of future eligibility for welfare assistance, including welfare-to-work training programs. According to the Justice Department, the large increase in incarcerated drug offenders during the 1980s has slowed in the 1990s. However, the percentage increase from the 1980s to the 1990s has been astounding (478 percent). Meanwhile, drug convictions have increased twice as fast for blacks (707 percent) as for whites (306 percent) (see Haney & Zimbardo, 1998). For women inmates, the population increased 500 percent in the past 20 years. Blacks, Hispanics and whites each make up about a third of the female population in federal prison, while in state prisons, blacks are nearly 50 percent of the female inmate population.
Incarceration is a family matter: Nearly 2 million children have a parent or close relative in jail or prison, and half of all youth in custody have a parent or close relative who has been in jail. While 93 percent of incarcerated parents are fathers, women are more often the custodial parents. Nearly two-thirds of women in prison have children under 18, and in federal prison, 84 percent of these children were living with their mothers before incarceration. What little research has been conducted indicates that children of incarcerated mothers are more likely to experience poverty, family substance abuse, community violence, and to show emotional and behavioral problems.
Furthermore, many inmates have issues of childhood trauma, mental illness and substance abuse. In state prisons, 57 percent of women inmates report a prior history of physical or sexual abuse, compared with 40 percent of women in federal prisons. Since the 1980s, these percentages have doubled in state prisons, while actual numbers reporting abuse have tripled. A few research studies with inmates suggest these rates may be even higher.
In state prisons, 24 percent of women and 16 percent of men are identified as mentally ill. Within this subgroup, reported abuse is greater: 78 percent of these women report physical or sexual abuse. While two-thirds of this subgroup of women receive mental health services, the prevalence of substance abuse, violence and victimization suggests many more inmates may be candidates for services.
In jails, 64.2 percent report they use drugs regularly--up 6 percent since 1989. Although more jail inmates report receiving treatment than they did 10 years ago, only 10.3 percent had received any treatment since incarceration. In prison, despite increases in those who regularly use drugs (nearly one-half of federal and three-fourths of state prisoners), rates of reported treatment dropped by half from the 1980s to the 1990s.
Finally, correctional populations have high rates of HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and other health problems. Most come from poor, urban communities, with little access to health-care interventions.
Given the magnitude of these issues, particularly within communities experiencing high rates of incarceration, psychology has much to offer. Critical examples include the assessment of clinical needs of children, parents and communities; research into the issues outlined; and the development and evaluation of new or existing programs.
"Judicial notebook" is an effort by the Courtwatch Committee of APA's Div. 9, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, to encourage involvement by psychologists in judicial decision-making.
Letters to the Editor
- Send us a letter