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July 19th, 2011

If you have been following the antics occurring in Washington, DC this summer, then you, as am me are tired of the numbers….if politicians do this, we save X billions; if they do not do this, we lose X billions.  It is enough to give you a headache.

However, numbers can assist those of us who work inside a jail.  I teach a college class, and I tell students that statistics look very impressive in a research paper and sound very knowledgeable, but there are some numbers that have a critical bottom line.   I also take this approach in conducting in service training.  It is not important that a jail staff member knows numbers; it is more important to realize in a practical sense what the numbers actually imply.  It is more important to have this practical view than to walk around impressing folks with statistical data.

So, I looked around my office at my ever growing “stack of stuff” and picked out some publications containing correctional statistics.  I picked out a few numbers and will discuss what they mean for the folks working inside our nation’s jails.  Don’t get me wrong-numbers get us research, funding and insight.  But-they can paint a picture, too.

Mental Health of Jail Inmates*

Information on the mental health of jail inmates is available from many sources, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  In the report Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates, released in September of 2006 (data revised in December 2006),   the most quoted statistics are that 64 per cent of local jail inmates were estimated to have a mental health problem; 21 percent reported a recent mental health problem history and 60 percent had symptoms.   To the jail officer, that is not very surprising.  Jail staffs encounter many mentally disordered inmates.  But-let’s look at specifics:

Behaviorally, the top five major depressive or mania symptoms can be important to the jail staff.  As reported in the above referenced report, the top five reported such symptoms (in past 12 months or since admission)  in jail inmates were:

  • Persistent anger and irritability                            (49.4%)
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia                                       (49.2%)
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation               (46.2%)
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt    (43.0%)
  • Increased or decreased appetite                           (42.8%)

What do these numbers mean for the jail staff?  Simply this- mentally, inmates in jails experience difficulties that pose risks for themselves, to the inmates around them and to the staff that they encounter.  Look at the anger/irritability statistic-almost one half of inmates are persistently angry or irritable.  You may want to keep that in mind the next time you have to deal with them and they are not in a good mood….or you see a staff member getting enjoyment from “pushing their buttons”.  Yes-you must assert authority and cannot “shy away” from inmates.  But just remember-watch out for the anger factor-it can be easily channeled towards you or another inmate.  Or-43 per cent of inmates feel worthlessness or guilt.  While only 12.9 per cent of inmates reported ever having attempted suicide, almost half report feeling worthless.  The key is to not escalate the situation to where overt acts of suicidal behavior occur.

Also reported in this BJS report was indications of psychotic behavior.   Approximately 24 per cent or about one in four jail inmates reported at least one symptom of psychotic disorder- a serious concern.  Delusions (believing that the brain or thoughts was being controlled by others, the mind could be read or one was being spied on by others) were reported in 17.5 percent of local jail inmates.  The bottom line?  Almost 1 in 5 inmates.  Hallucinations (seeing things or hearing things not seen or heard by others) were reported at a rate of 13.7-almost 14 percent.   Finally, almost one half (49 percent) of local jail inmates were reported to have problems in two critical areas:  mental health and substance abuse or dependence.  For jail staff, it is agreed that mental illness among inmate populations is bad enough, but the situation worsens when substance abuse complications are thrown into the mix.

Profile of Jail Inmates**

The Bureau of Justice Statistics published in 2004 a benchmark look at the jail population, the Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002.   Let’s take a look at a “snapshot” of some of the information that the profile provides plus some practical applications for jail officers and staff.

* Forty six per cent (46%) of jail inmates had a family member who had been incarcerated.  Practical application?  Many inmates are well versed in the criminal justice system, having been around family members who have been locked up.  Did Uncle Joe give his niece or nephew advice on how to scheme, manipulate or otherwise survive incarceration?  It may be that the jail education starts in the home.

* When all statistical data is considered, 77 per cent (77%) of convicted jail inmates were involved with alcohol and/or drugs at the time of the offense.  This means that almost 8 in 10 convicted inmates in jail have trouble with drugs and alcohol.  There are two things to consider:  on the positive side, inmate participation in substance abuse programs should be encouraged.  On the negative side, the “pull” of drugs and alcohol is strong, resulting in homemade “booze” being manufactured or drug smuggling flourishing as an illegal enterprise in the jail.  At times, as we sadly know, some jail staff members are enlisted in these endeavors.

* Considering marital status, in 2002 60.1 per cent of jail inmates have never been married.   Ask yourself-what does it take for an individual to be successfully married?  Consideration for others, respect for others, commitment, etc.-in other words-putting someone ahead of yourself.   Sociopathic offenders are narcissistic-they are number one.  Many use romantic and affectionate feelings as tools to “scam” staff.  They put no one ahead of themselves.

* It also takes commitment to obtain a good education.  In 2002, 25.9 per cent or almost 26 per cent of inmates had a high school diploma.  Almost one third (31.6%) had “some high school”.  Regarding college 10.1 per cent of local jail inmates reported some college and only 2.9 per cent had a college degree or post college education.  You know and I know that education involves respect for authority, following instructions and doing the schoolwork.  These are positive traits to have.  If one does not; chances are that he or she will not complete high school.  The practical application is that if an offender does not follow instructions and respect authority in school, there is a good chance that he also will not respect the authority of jail staff.

The bottom line?  Statistics have a bottom line.    They can tell you a lot of practical information about inmates.  Think how statistics can be used by you on the job-and keep your guard up!


* James, Doris J. and Lauren E. Glaze.  2006.  Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates.  Washington, DC:  Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Government Printing Office.

** James, Doris J.  2004.  Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002.  Washington, DC:  Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Government Printing Office.



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