Abstract: Adversity & Mental Health/Substance Use Disorders As Predictors and Moderators of Rule Violations in US Prisons (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Adversity & Mental Health/Substance Use Disorders As Predictors and Moderators of Rule Violations in US Prisons

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 12, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Brandy Henry, MSW, Researcher, Brandeis University, MA
Background & Purpose: This study examines relationships between adverse experiences, mental health/substance use disorders and rule violations during incarceration. Rule violations during incarceration are behaviors by incarcerated people which are considered against the rules. They can be benign, such as having more than the allowed number of blankets, or more serious, for example, an assault. Given that previous research has linked rule violations with recidivism, this is an important issue to address. The role of mental health and substance use disorders in contributing to rule violations has been examined in just a few studies. These studies have found that some specific disorders can contribute to rule violations. However, more nuanced analysis is needed to understand the role that adverse experiences may also play.


Methods: Data come from the 2004 cross-sectional Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities (SI-SFCF) (n=18,185). Rule violations were classified as either “major” or “drug.” Drug violations include only two types of violations which are described in the survey as “drug violations” and “alcohol violations.” Major violations fall under the following types: possession of a weapon, verbal assault on staff, physical assault on staff, verbal assault on another prisoner, physical assault on another prisoner, escape/attempted escape, and “any other major violation.” Structural equation modeling was used to predict each type of rule violation by using mental health/substance use disorders as mediators and latent classes of adverse experiences as predictors.

Results: Overall, nearly half (45.6%) of incarcerated people reported having been found guilty or written up for any rule violation during their current incarceration. Of the two sub-types of rule violations examined, major violations were most common (19.2%), followed by drug violations (6.9%). However, variation by gender, race and mental health/substance use disorders was found. People who identified as men, non-White, or who had an alcohol or substance use disorder reported both types of rule violations at significantly higher rates. Incarcerated people who had a mental illness or serious mental illness had significantly higher rates of major rule violations.

Findings provide evidence linking history of adverse experiences to rule violations during incarceration. Furthermore, they demonstrate how mental health/substance use disorders mediate this relationship. Prisoners who had the most extreme histories of adverse experiences, marked by high exposure to violence and deprivation, had the highest odds of both mental health/substance use disorder and having a rule violation. Alcohol Use Disorder and Substance Use Disorder predicted drug violations, while SUD and mental illness predicted major violations. Having a serious mental illness did not predict any type of rule violation, as its impact was fully mediated by a history of adverse experiences.

Conclusions & Implications: Findings offer important evidence for the need to incorporate trauma informed practices into prison settings. For example, results can be used by prison administrators to develop improved strategies to address rule violations through treating adverse experiences and mental health/substance use disorders during incarceration. Developing programs that are targeted the identified diagnoses and typologies of adversity could be useful in preventing future rule violations.