Correction News

September 2000

Survey: Prison custody staff more likely victims of assault

By Pamela Walker

The results of a survey measuring violence committed against prison staff reveal custody staff is targeted more often than other staff for assault. This is the second set of results from the Workplace Violence Survey. Results from the first part of the survey, which measured violence committed by inmates against staff, were published in the October edition of Correction News. Part II focused on violence against staff by non-inmates.

"We wanted to measure inmate violence separately from non-inmate violence against staff," said Alan Harrop, Ph.D., director of Human Services Testing and Research. "Part II of the survey asked staff if they had been victims of violence by a co-worker, supervisor, subordinate, friend or relative of an inmate or friend or relative of a co-worker."

The Departmentís Human Services Research and Testing Section sent out the anonymous survey to more than 14,000 Division of Prisons employees; 9,693 surveys were returned. Overall, custody staff reported more incidents of violence by non-inmates than those in food service, health services, programs, maintenance, Enterprise or management and administration.

Table: Percent of all staff, by category, physically assaulted by non-inmates

Job Category # of Staff in each Job Category # of Staff 
% of Staff 
Physically Assaulted
Custodial  6482 76 1.2
Enterprise 240 2 0.8
Health Services 635 5 0.8
Food Services 271 2 0.7
Programs 712 2 0.3
Admin/Clerical 759 2 0.3
Maintenance 397 0 0.0
Other 11 0 0.0
Total 9507 89 0.9

Note: The percentage of staff physically assaulted by non-inmates is calculated by dividing the number of assaults in a given job category, by the total number of survey respondents in that category.

"I think the percentage of violence reported is relatively small when you think of the number of employees the Department has," said Harrop. However, he added that the size of our prisons are increasing and with that we can expect violence against staff to increase due to an increase in stress. "As our agency moves toward building larger institutions with inmates with longer sentences and greater histories of violence, we need to look for ways of reducing employee stress and conflict between staff."

Harrop said he came to the conclusion after seeing the results of reported assaults by non-inmates broken down into facility custody level. The survey showed 1.2% of respondents from close custody facilities reported being assaulted by non-inmates compared to 0.6% in medium institutions, 0.8% in medium field positions and 0.6% in minimum custody.

The assaults were divided into six categories. Of survey respondents who had been assaulted, 41.5% reported they had been pushed, shoved, pulled or grabbed; 18.9% reported being struck with a hand, fist, foot, etc; 7.5% reported being struck with a solid or blunt object; 5.7% reported being struck with a liquid or bodily substance; and 0.9% reported being stabbed or cut with a knife or sharp object. More than 25% reported assaults in the "other" category.

Harrop says there are several factors that might lead to staff violence. "The correctional setting requires more co-dependence for safety which in turn has some feeling confined in close-working areas," said Harrop. "Staff who work in potentially dangerous settings such as corrections become dependent on each other for support and safety. When expectations are not met, frustration and conflict can develop. Also, job stress can make people irritable and emotional, which contributes to misunderstandings and conflict. Chronic staff vacancies that result in excessive overtime can aggravate the situation."

Harrop suggests this type survey be distributed approximately every two years. "Now that this survey has been done, we have the opportunity to go back periodically to see if incidences of violence are going up, down or staying the same compared to recent years."

Part II of the survey also measured the locations where violence had reportedly occurred, the experience level of the victim, how many people had reported assaults officially, and the age, gender and race of the victims. Harrop thanks all staff who completed the survey. Copies of both Part I and Part II of the survey are available at the office of Human Services Testing and Research in Raleigh.

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