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An examination of the institutional adjustment of sexual offenders

19 April 2013


In the United States, as of the year 2008, more than 1.6 million people were incarcerated representing the highest incarceration rate of any other developed country (Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009). Given the large number of inmates, institutional systems regularly face budgetary issues. They must therefore find and implement effective and efficient ways to manage the inmate population, while balancing the rights and safety of the inmates (Austin & McGinnis, 2004; Clements, 1996). Identifying “risky” and vulnerable inmates can improve institutional safety for both staff and inmates (Wright, 1988). Most research conducted in prisons has focused on male offenders and the research has been blindly and erroneously applied to female offenders. The small existing body of research indicates female inmates are different than male inmates in many ways and warrant special consideration.

Institutional adjustment is a process during which inmates must acclimate to the complex, and sometimes dangerous prison environment. Although researchers have not come to a consensus about how best to define and measure adjustment, there are known factors that can positively or negatively influence adjustment. This adjustment period is of particular interest to prison administrators because the stress of incarceration can exacerbate existing mental health problems or contribute to their emergence. During this time inmates may be more prone to acting out and/ or victimization by other inmates (Toch, Adams, & Grant, 1989).

Sexual offenders entering prison are a vulnerable and stigmatized group by the title alone (South & Wood, 2006). It is thought their adjustment process is more difficult than the average offender due to their increased likelihood of victimization (Edgar & O’Donnell, 1998). Sexual offenders as a whole have a high prevalence of mental health problems, which can further complicate their adjustment experience (Kafka & Hennen, 2002).

This study will compare the adjustment of sexual and nonsexual offenders during their first six months of incarceration using the Conflict and Distress scales of the Prison Adjustment Questionnaire (PAQ) and Victimization scale of the Prison Violence Inventory (PVI). It is hypothesized the sexual offender group will have poorer adjustment than the nonsexual offender group and scale scores will decrease in both groups from baseline to the six month follow-up as offenders adjust to the prison environment. The results of the study indicated sexual offenders experienced more distress at baseline and a higher rate of victimization at follow-up than nonsexual offenders. There was also an unexpected increase in scores for both sexual offenders and nonsexual offenders from baseline to follow-up in regard to level of conflict and rate of victimization. The results of this study have broader implications and can be used by institutions to improve management of vulnerable inmates and increase overall institutional safety.


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