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The `Victim's' Contribution

Assaults in prison occur for diverse reasons. Understanding the role of the victim can help to explain the assault. In this article, concepts developed to analyse the victim's contribution to crimes outside prison are applied to interpersonal violence within penal institutions. A close examination of 96 prison assaults showed how activities which are considered routine in custody increased the risk of assault. Victims contributed to their victimization through facilitation or precipitation, by gaining a reputation for vulnerability, and by increasing the aggressor's sense of impunity. The participants' interpretations of events showed that there may be good reasons for an inmate deliberately putting himself at risk of being attacked.

This article explores violent episodes in prisons and Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) from the perspective of those who were assaulted. It is based on a broader study of victimization in custody (O'Donnell and Edgar 1996, 1998) which explored the pathways leading to robbery, assault, name-calling, threats of violence, cell theft and exclusion. In this article, concepts developed to analyse the victim's role in crime outside prison are applied to interpersonal violence within penal institutions. We show how activities which are considered routine in this environment increase the risk of assault.

To discuss the contribution made by victims is to enter contentious ground. The suggestion that characteristics of victims, or their actions, might contribute causally to a crime is taken by some to mean that the victim is being blamed for his or her victimization (see Fattah 1986; Walklate 1989). However, explanation of an event does not necessarily entail the distribution of blame or responsibility. An adequate explanation of interpersonal crime requires some knowledge about the parts played by each participant, including the victim.

In this paper, we explore the kinds of situations which give rise to assaults, building on the assumption that people choose courses of action deliberately, based on their view of the best option open to them. In other words, when prisoners act in ways which they know may lead to their being assaulted, they may nevertheless have good reasons for their behaviour. Or, they might be unaware that their actions will put them in danger. We will discuss some of the reasons for engaging in behaviour which, though understandable in the prison setting, increases the risk of assault.

A traditional approach to interpreting the `crime' of assault begins by defining one party as the aggressor and the other as the victim. However, some of the assaults we examined arose out of a shared willingness to resort to violence. In such incidents, the categories of victim and attacker break down. When considering some offences, such as homicide, there can be no ambiguity about which person was the eventual victim. However, in the aftermath of a fight between two prisoners of comparable strength, labels of aggressor and victim are ill-suited to describe the roles of those who took part. Thus, an underlying theme of this article is the ambiguity inherent in the term `victim'.

Method and Sample

Our study of victimization in custodial institutions included a survey of 1,566 male inmates in two prisons for adults and two YOIs. The survey measured the levels of each of six types of victimization: assault, robbery, threat, insult, exclusion and cell theft. We found high levels of assault--30 per cent of the young offenders and 19 per cent of the adults stated that they had been assaulted at least once in the previous month. Thirty-two per cent of young offenders and 16 per cent of adults disclosed that they had assaulted another inmate during the same period. (O'Donnell and Edgar 1996). Such evidence echoes Sykes's view (1958) that prisons are high-risk settings.

We also interviewed in depth 60 prisoners who reported that they had recently been victimized and 31 who told us they had victimized others. Most of this sample also had some experience during their time in custody of the opposite role--victims had on other occasions victimized other inmates and victimizers had themselves been victimized. Although not all of the inmates interviewed had recent personal experience of assault, their stories of victimization enabled us to analyse 96 distinct incidents. Over half of these (n = 55) occurred between two individuals. There were few assaults by one person on more than one victim (n = 2) or fights between two groups (n = 3). In the remaining one third of incidents (n = 36) there was more than one aggressor on a single victim.

Theories about Victim Contribution

Our primary aims in this article are: (1) to describe the roles of both parties in order to help explain why these attacks took place; (2) to examine the participants' interpretations of events; and (3) to explore the norms which guide such behaviour.

It is not our intention to argue that victims cause the assaults upon them. Clearly, not all victims contribute to the same degree to the chain of events leading up to the incident in which they are assaulted. But analyses of such episodes can reveal how the victim's attributes, attitudes or behaviour significantly increase the likelihood of assault.

Our understanding of these incidents is based on a combination of quantitative and qualitative data. The survey of prisoners found that such activities as assaulting others, engaging in verbal abuse and trading (usually tobacco and drugs) were linked with a higher risk of being assaulted. Similarly, the qualitative information gained from the interviews frequently showed how assaults occurred after the victim had engaged in such activities. Our aim here is to describe the high-risk behaviour in greater detail.

There have been a number of attempts over the past 50 years to describe the victim's contribution in criminal events. These are usefully summarized in Meier and Miethe (1993). A pioneer was Hans von Hentig (1948), who analysed the characteristics of victims which made it more likely that they would be victimized. He took the view that, in some crimes, the victim could be said to have played a determining role. A major shortcoming of his approach was the failure to make clear distinctions between different kinds of crime and the wide variety of situations in which they occurred.

Wolfgang (1958, 1967) advanced our understanding of the victim's role in his classic study of homicide. He examined murders which had been precipitated by the victim in the sense that the victim had been `the first in the homicide drama to use physical force directed against his subsequent slayer'. The strengths of Wolfgang's rigorous study are that he applied a precisely defined concept to one type of crime (homicide) in cases where sufficient information was available to facilitate meaningful analyses.

Wolfgang's method makes it possible to suggest several principles which can clarify the use of the concept of victim contribution.
   --The contribution must be defined in terms of some action by, or attribute
   or possession of, the victim. It is a mistake to base conclusions about the
   victim's role on assumptions made by the offender, whose account of events
   could be a rationalization for their own behaviour, a technique of
   `neutralization' (Sykes and Matza 1957). We found, for example, that many
   aggressors stated that the victim had provoked them. However, there was no
   consistency in the kinds of behaviour defined as provocation. `Provocation'
   often appeared to be a biased and self-serving description of the victim's
   role which functioned primarily to justify the aggression.

   --The victim's contribution needs to be defined in the specific terms of
   the particular type of offence being studied. The victim's possible
   contribution to a burglary cannot be the same as their contribution to a
   fraud. Still less can any notion of how victims contribute to offences be
   applied with equal force to offences as disparate as homicide, arson and
   rape. As types of crime differ, so do the chains of events which lead to

   --Sufficient data must be available about each case to allow meaningful
   investigation of the different roles played by victims.

   --Discussions about the victim's role must be based on what was actually
   done. There is nothing to be gained from hypothesizing about the
   consequences of a particular victim behaving differently. Explanations
   which take the form of stating, `If he had not done x or y, he would not
   have been attacked', lead to blaming the victim for the offence. It is not
   the task of the social scientist to decide whether victims should or should
   not have acted as they did.

Unfortunately, the clear approach taken by Wolfgang has not been followed by others. The most notorious research on victim contribution was that of Amir (1971), who analysed rape in terms of victim precipitation. He used the concept without taking account of the differences between homicide and rape. His definition was based on how the behaviour of the victim was interpreted by the offender and not on who was the first to use force. As a result, the concept of victim contribution was tainted with the charge of blaming the victim.

A very different approach was taken by Cohen and Felson (1979). They elucidated the importance of `routine activities' in creating the context where there is a convergence in time and space of a motivated offender, suitable target and lack of capable guardians. These are the preconditions of crime. For example, taking a shower in prison is routine. Inmates often have no option but to shower with others. Bathing areas are usually poorly supervised. Thus, showering brings together motivated offenders and suitable targets outside the presence of capable guardians. (A useful review of work in this tradition is contained in Felson 1994).

Richard F. Sparks (1982) provided a useful framework of six explanatory factors for victimization. We have adapted his scheme to shed light on assaults in prison. The significant factors for our study are facilitation, precipitation, vulnerability and impunity. Sparks also discusses `attractiveness' and `opportunity', which have been omitted because they add little to our analysis. Here again, it is important to define each factor in a way that is sensitive to the specific type of crime (assault) and the social context (the prison).

Facilitation Sparks writes that the victim may facilitate a crime, `by deliberately, negligently, or unconsciously, placing himself or herself at special risk' (p. 27). Hindelang, Gottfredson and Garafalo (1978) also considered ways in which behaviour could increase the risk of being victimized. They focused on lifestyle factors which increased the victim's exposure to high-risk situations. They explored the demographic profiles, the roles, and the activities which increased vulnerability to a range of personal crimes. Accordingly, we shall consider the inmate to have facilitated an assault upon himself when he has adopted a lifestyle which directly increases his exposure to greater risk of assault. A routine activity, such as showering or making purchases at the canteen (prison shop) can create an opportunity for victimization. However, routine activities are too common to expose any individual prisoner to a special risk of victimization. Lifestyles, on the other hand, necessarily draw one into interactions which carry an inherent risk of conflict. We will explore high-risk lifestyles to show how they can lead to assault.

Precipitation Sparks takes this to mean that the victim initiated the sequence of events which led to his being assaulted. He believes that the scope of precipitation is broad and can be applied to all interpersonal violence. He mentions `provocation' and `seduction' as key dynamics. However, it is our view that to extend the concept in this way obscures the definition. Wolfgang's study was logical and precise--the use of physical force by one person led to his becoming the victim of greater physical force. Our use of precipitation will be similarly limited to assaults in which the person who suffered most was the one who initiated physical action (took the first swing, produced a weapon). Incitement to fight or even verbal `provocation' is not sufficient in our scheme to be described as precipitation.

Vulnerability Sparks writes of vulnerability as the perception by the offender that the victim is a `suitable' target. As we are focusing on the victim's contribution, our use of the term differs. First, our judgement is based on the interpretation of the victim himself, rather than on the assessment made by the aggressor. Second, our survey found that people who had been victimized in one way tended to be vulnerable to other types of victimization. Thus vulnerability was not restricted to appearance or physical weakness. Vulnerability often overlapped with other characteristics to increase the danger of being attacked.

Impunity Assaults are more likely when the potential for negative consequences for the assailant is low. For example, a victim who is doing something illegal, such as using or distributing illicit drugs, is unlikely to inform the authorities if he is attacked and robbed of his supply. In the context of prison assaults, impunity is often directly linked to vulnerability. `Negative consequences' for the assailant can include the possibility that the victim will inflict more serious injuries on him in return. A more vulnerable target tends to increase the aggressor's sense of impunity.

The factors Sparks lists do not denote four mutually exclusive categories of victim contribution. Rather, they highlight the extent to which a person's characteristics, behaviour, attitudes and social relationships increase the risk of victimization. The victim's contribution to a particular assault can be explained in terms of a single factor, but often a number of factors overlap and interact to shape the sequence of events leading to victimization.

High-Risk Behaviour


The prison setting constrains the choices open to prisoners, as Goffman (1961) made clear in showing the all-encompassing character of institutions. Hence, there are identifiable patterns of interaction which pose a special risk for those who take part. A typical high-risk lifestyle for young men in urban life includes late night drinking in public places. Obviously, this is not how a prisoner might facilitate an assault. High-risk lifestyles in custodial institutions are based on the importance inmates assign to their status and the distribution of power among inmates which is realized through economic relations and brute force.

In prison, the high-risk lifestyles included name-calling; trading, lending and borrowing; and assaulting others. This is not intended as an exhaustive list of ways of facilitating an assault in prison. Rather these key examples are used to illustrate how the lifestyles of some prisoners lead to assaults. Participation in these lifestyles frequently brings prisoners into potentially dangerous interactions with other inmates. The handling of drugs also carries risks. But as impunity is a more significant factor in drug handling, it will be discussed below under that heading.

We are not suggesting that prisoners were necessarily aware that these activities increased their risk of being assaulted. Prisoners clearly did not engage in insulting others, reneging on debts or even assaulting other inmates because they intended to become a victim of an assault. Rather, they engaged in high-risk behaviour for reasons which made sense within their frame of reference and this behaviour contributed to their becoming a victim of assault.

Borrowing and lending are extremely common in prison and young offender institutions, yet subtly raise the risk of being assaulted. Trading was an explicit factor in six of the 96 assaults in our sample. This is quite low compared to other types of facilitation, especially given the fact that trade between prisoners is not sanctioned or regulated officially in prisons and is subject to the disorder of an informal market.

Debt was only one of the elements that linked trading to assault. The exchange of goods operated on a continuum from the sharing of possessions on an equal basis between friends to forms of extortion or robbery. The nature of the exchange was blurred when inmates, attempting to defraud others, disguised their purposes by offering trades, as the following story illustrates.

Inmate 1 I loaned Tony two burns [cigarettes]. I took his radio to be sure he'd pay me back. He said he wouldn't. Then he came in the TV room and just hit me. I said I didn't want to fight and left. But he came up to me in front of an officer and hit me again.

Inmate 2 John loaned me a couple of burns and took my radio. Then he demanded ten burns back. I told him no. I offered him eight. He started insulting me and plus he broke my radio. When I went into the television room I saw John had some mates with him. I thought he was getting ready to punch me, so I punched him. The thing is, I am getting trouble--I mean I'm being bullied.

Assault was linked with robbery as a means of coercing the victim into surrendering goods; but also as a form of self-defence against attempts to rob, and as in the above example, in fights resulting from disputes when initially fair terms of trade have been manipulated to become extortionate. This assault arose out of an attempted extortion rather than trade per se. But participation in trading is the lifestyle which enables some inmates to engage in extortion.

Verbal abuse is extremely common in custodial establishments, particularly in young offender institutions. Fifty-six per cent of the young offenders we surveyed and 26 per cent of the adults had been called hurtful names at least once in the previous month. Name-calling was an element in 21 of the 96 assaults. The links between insults and assaults took different forms. Some assaults resulted from an escalation of antipathy which began in rough banter. Others arose out of some specific dispute, and the insults were a peripheral element. In the next example the inmate explicitly related the assault to insults. Coincidentally, the episode also demonstrates the overlap between Sparks's victimization factors, as the speaker precipitated the fight with a punch.

Some guy was running off his mouth at me the previous nigh t so the next day I went up to him and I said, `Don't run your mouth off at me.' Then I threw a couple of punches in his face. I went to play pool. A couple of minutes later I saw him coming towards me. He had a piece of glass in his hand, from a cell window. He cut me on the face with it. I swung the pool cue and missed then I chased him back to his cell where he locked himself in. My right cheek was gashed open. He had a bit of a bruise on his face. I got sent to hospital and got six stitches. He got put on report `cause he cut me. It all started with name-calling.

In another instance, an inmate was assaulted on the exercise yard of a special anti-bullying unit. The incident was described by both parties.

Inmate 1 I was cussing the neighbour's mother and next door neighbour was cussing my mum. Next door said he would get me next day during exercise. I said, `Suck your mother.' I didn't know that his mother had been seriously injured the previous week. The other inmate went up to an officer during exercise and asked could we fight. The two officers watched the fight. He said to my mate, `Divert, because I am going to knock him out.' My mate walked off and then he hit me in the face about ten times. All the other cons just looked on and clapped. I got a broken nose, two badly bruised eyes, damaged nerves in my face. I still have blood coming from my eyes, still on painkillers, still coughing up blood.

The second inmate also discussed the incident, explaining how he interpreted the background circumstances.

I told him you can't talk out your window and not fight. He had to defend it. If he don't he was gonna get hit.

Inmate I referred to the incident as a fight, although he did not hit Inmate 2 and was badly injured by him. Inmate 2 stated as a prison norm that people who verbally abuse others must be prepared to back up their use of words with physical force. His interpretation directly connects verbal abuse to the risk of assault.

The common ground between verbal abuse and assaults is that both are forms of sparring or competition. They share a concern for status and for getting the better of the opposition. Ironically, one goal of verbal sparring is to hurt the other's feelings and cause him to lose self-control, which inevitably increases the likelihood of physical aggression. Whether the person intends to start a fight or not, to insult another prisoner increases the chances of assault. Hence name-calling facilitates prison assaults. Peer pressure and the stratified social structure in prison tended to increase the importance of rough banter.

Our survey of 1,566 prisoners found that one of the key predictors of being assaulted was having assaulted others. In some custodial establishments assaulting others was widespread. Horseplay is a commonplace example of the way assaulting others can lead to being assaulted. Rough play-fighting heightens emotions, and it is not clear where the playing ends and the fighting begins. An inmate who engages in horseplay and is then seriously assaulted has facilitated the assault.

There is also a practical link between assaulting others and the risk of being assaulted. An attacker is usually at close quarters with his intended victim, which inevitably increases the likelihood of being hit back. This is borne out by the fact that blows were exchanged in 34 of our sample of 96 incidents.

A `mutual assault' makes it difficult to specify one party as the aggressor and the other as the victim. In some sense in every mutual assault it is possible to see both parties as victim and aggressor.

It was over a phone card. I beat him up after I used it all up. It was his card. Later I was playing table tennis. He came up and hit me with a pool ball right in front of an officer. I doused him with a mug of boiling water. Burned him all down the side of his neck. I got some on me and burned my stomach.

The use of the phone card and the beating which followed inclined one inmate victim to seek revenge by striking his antagonist with a pool ball. This in turn increased the likelihood that he would be assaulted a second time.

By definition, all fights are mutual assaults. Everyone who engages in a fight is aware of the risk of being hit by the other person. A few inmates put forward the view that fighting relieves tension. Given the fights were conflicts which had escalated into physical violence, it was remarkable that these incidents could sometimes create bonds.

I had two fights, both over pool, not bullying. Arguments about who was on to play next. Just me and him. Punches in the face. My worst injury was a cut lip. No one was nicked. We were both banged up and warned we would be nicked if there was any more trouble. We were best of friends after.

Fights which united the foes in mutual combat were different in kind from assaults which led to revenge attacks. Seven of the 96 incidents of assault explicitly involved revenge. In these cases, there was a strong overlap between `victim' and `victimizer'. In each pair of assaults, the roles were reversed in the second incident.

Inmate 1 I had my nose busted on another wing. He hit me from behind. Weeks later I was out on the landing cleaning my cell. The geezer who broke my nose come on the landing. I went up to him from behind and knocked him to the ground. Then I jumped on his head. He got up and ran along the wing, shouting and trying to get in a cell. I chased him down and grabbed him. He had two broken teeth and concussion. I wish I had done a better job and broken his jaw. I could have PP9'd him [hit him with a PP9 battery in a sock] or used a razor blade. But I wanted it to be just fists. Because he had broken my nose, people were thinking he was tougher than me. I would never lose and let it go.

Inmate 2 The second time happened on the upstairs landing when I went to borrow cigarettes. Him and a friend of his jumped me, got me on the ground and kicked and punched me. It was a revenge attack for the last fight. Later the same day I went into the TV room and saw one of them sitting there smiling at me. I hit him and cut his eye open with a punch. I hit him again. Some inmates jumped in between us.

In another case, an inmate's arm was slashed by two would-be robbers. He decided not to tell staff about it. Rather he chose to claim his own retribution.

The day after it happened I decided to do them, but I planned it for a few weeks. I got a flick knife, passed in on a visit. I hid it and kept it in my pad [cell] for a few weeks. I always carried the knife on association in case I could do them. Five weeks after the attack I was coming back from Education and they were coming from the wing. I felt a surge of energy in my body. They turned round and said, `Look who it is.' We were in the corridor going up to the wing. There were three officers close by. I stabbed one in the ribs. I slashed the other from the ear, across the throat and down the chest. I dropped the knife and the officers intervened. One of the victims was lying on the floor. The other one ran up the wing screaming. I was brought to my cell. A Principal Officer came in. I was crying--thought it was the end of my life.

These incidents were the culmination of arguments which had escalated, rather than examples of spontaneous fights. All of the people involved in the revenge incidents described here were seriously injured. A key factor in revenge attacks would seem to be that the initial victim felt a need to reassert that he was not weak by launching a vicious attack to deter other potential predators.


We follow Wolfgang's definition in seeing precipitation as the initiation of physical force by hitting the other person, producing a weapon or taking the first swing. As such, precipitation is itself an act of assault and can be seen as a specific form of facilitation.

There is, however, an important distinction between precipitation and the more general forms of facilitated assaults. Whereas assaulting others raises one's own risk of being assaulted, the potential for a counter-assault is not necessarily immediate. Precipitation, on the other hand, refers specifically to a single incident of mutual assault in which the person who suffered the most serious injuries initiated the use of physical force in that incident.

The vast majority of the 96 assaults showed clearly how the violence started. Many were less explicit about the extent of injuries, but using prisoners' reports as a guide, it was usually possible to determine which party sustained the more serious physical harm.

The point of real ambiguity in precipitated assaults is the identification of one or other party as `the victim'. In Wolfgang's study of homicides, the victim was the one who had died. In mutual assaults, the designation of one party as the victim is sometimes arbitrary. The participants themselves were unreliable judges of who was the aggressor and who the victim. However, for the purposes of exploring precipitation, victim status was based on which party received the greater injury. This criterion was sometimes at odds with other indications of which party would be seen as the `victim'. In 15 of the 96 assaults, the eventual victim had been the first to use physical force.

In the following example of precipitation, the person who inflicted the most serious injury clearly felt himself to be the victim.

In my cell at night, I was called to my window by my next door neighbour and I was then called names. He said my dad was a beast. I couldn't get to him then because I was locked up. I told him to shut up but he wouldn't. He said my mum was a bitch and a slag. Next day at work, he pushed me. I punched him in the face and he ran straight to one of the officers on his hands and knees, crying, bleeding from the nose, saying I hit him. I was nicked for assault and got seven days added. It was bullying, him calling me names.

The dispute had escalated from verbal abuse (which facilitated the assault). The antagonism created a volatile relationship and the assault was set off by a mere push. The prisoner who suffered the more serious injuries precipitated the assault, escalating the conflict by using force.

Attempting to rob others was itself a high-risk activity. While the majority of robbery-related assaults were committed upon the intended victim, in a quarter of the assaults linked to robbery, the would-be robber was the victim of an assault. The victim of these assaults clearly precipitated the offence by trying to use force to take some one else's goods.

I had come from an open prison, so other prisoners thought I was soft. Also I am small and quiet. I had borrowed phone cards from somebody else and paid him back. But the guy I paid back was released and told somebody else on the wing that I owed two phone cards and he could collect them. He kept demanding them. I ignored him for a few days. He threatened me in the main corridor, coming back from a visit to hospital. I said I didn't owe him anything. I thought it had gone too far, so I cracked him. He wen t to hit me and I hit him once. He was stunned. Two black eyes and a broken nose. He thought he was a hard man.

A victim-precipitated assault on a would-be robber highlights the paradox of the status `victim'. Here again, there is an abrupt transfer of roles: the victim of the attempted robbery became the aggressor in the assault; the would-be robber became the victim.


`Vulnerability' like `victim' can be used in different ways. Sparks drew his understanding of the concept from the offenders' perception that the person was in some way `suitable for victimization'. This has the unfortunate effect of making the concept circular, since the offence is proof that the offender considered his victim to be vulnerable.

In our study we limit the concept of vulnerability as a form of victim contribution to circumstances in which the victim himself felt that this was a significant factor. Whether the offender felt that his victim was especially vulnerable is not our concern. The attributes or behaviour of the victim may have nothing to do with the offender's ascribing to him the suitability for victimization. We have built upon situations which the victims themselves interpreted as demonstrating their vulnerability.

Prisoners felt that there were various ways in which individual characteristics might increase vulnerability to assault. One was to be known to have been convicted of a sex offence. More generally, prisoners who saw themselves as weak or unlikely to fight back expressed feelings of vulnerability which became self-fulfilling. The prisoner who showed fear or lacked the self-esteem to defend his interests attracted victimization. To be assaulted in public without fighting back was not only humiliating; it was also a sign of vulnerability.

He picked on me because I am white and also because the first time he threatened me I didn't say, `Meet me in the showers and we'll sort this out.'

Another inmate described a trade which led to an assault.

On Saturday he hit me again. I had loaned him five cigarettes. He said he'd give me ten back. Then on association, he said, `Come here.' I went to him and he punched my face. No screws [prison officers] saw it, but he made me look like a fool in front of everyone. I had my arms at my sides.

One reason that conspicuous weakness increases vulnerability is that others are led to believe that they can assault the victim without fear of retaliation. In this sense, being publicly identified as a suitable target for attack is also an example of the aggressor's impunity. The public demonstration of his weakness leads others to become more confident in targeting him as prey. The effects of vulnerability and impunity reinforce each other, dramatically increasing the risk of being assaulted.

A different approach to vulnerability is to examine the methods used by prisoners to avoid being assaulted. Richard McCorkle (1992: 161) explored two strategies which inmates used to reduce their vulnerability: withdrawal from prison society and aggressive, proactive tactics. He commented that the pursuit of a reputation for toughness is borne of the belief that, `unless an inmate can convincingly project an image that conveys the potential for violence, he is likely to be dominated and exploited.'

Echoing McCorkle's work, our interviews with inmates revealed a widespread belief that demonstrating a willingness to fight decreased one's vulnerability. The prisoners provided examples of standing up to the aggressor which they thought proved that toughness was required in response to threats.

I was in the box waiting for my legal visit. We were all reading newspapers. A friend from the street saw a girl in the paper and said she looked like my missus. A guy grabbed the paper and said, `I know your missus. Everyone's had her.' I told him to fuck off. And he kicked seven kinds of shit out of me. I was sitting down and he hammered into me, punching, kicking, hitting. I was all cut up and bruised. Then, a couple of weeks later, waiting to go to court this bully came up to me. He demanded cigarettes. I said, `Fuck off, I'm not giving you any. If you want to take me on, without your gang, let's do it now.' Bully said, `If we do, you know you'll lose.' I said, `I know, but I'm not giving you anything.' He said, `You're all right.' Later he came up with his gang; asked how things went in court. He said it again, `You're all right.' Then he walked away.

The widespread belief that force was necessary to defend one's interests extended to diverse conflicts and disputes between prisoners. The pressures of the prison setting included the frustrations of having to queue for food or to use the telephone, and having to share games tables or access to television. Eight of the 96 assaults arose out of disputes about access to, or the defence of, shared resources. In the following incidents, both speakers clearly felt that they were acting reasonably in defending their right of access to the prison resources.

I was working outside. I came back one evening and I was waiting for the phone. It was eight o'clock in the evening. There was another guy in the queue who said he was first for the phone. I had never had trouble with him before although we didn't get on. I thought it was my turn so I went in to use the phone. Before I went in we had an argument. I said, `I don't give a fuck. I am going to use it.' Next thing, boom, I was hit from behind. I woke up in my room, lying on my bed with a towel under my head soaking up all the blood. My room mate carried me there. He kept saying I should get it treated but I didn't want to. If I brought it to their attention they would say I had been in a fight and ship me out.

In the second assault over access, the disputants clashed about more than one resource.

This guy is very selfish. It was a build-up of him bugging me, me bugging him. He would come down to the phone and say, `I'm on at seven.' Not think of anyone else. I was on table football. He came down and pushed me away. He tried to hit me with one of the food trays. That's a lethal weapon. I lost my rag and punched him five, six times. He provoked me. He tried to hit me. It was just a fight: two people got a grievance, got it sorted.

McCorkle (1992: 170) found that avoidance and withdrawal were positively correlated with experiences of having been threatened or robbed, but not assaulted. Proactive responses--threatening, getting tough--were correlated with those who had been threatened or physically assaulted. He concluded, `Because the most severe victimizations (i.e., physical assaults) that occur in prison typically follow challenges to machismo, strivings for status, or disreputable dealings on the sub rosa economy, those who avoid such trappings inevitably reduce their risks of serious violence. However, because such passive behaviors are generally interpreted by aggressive inmates as signs of weakness and vulnerability, those who employ them risk being assigned to a pool of victims who can easily be robbed or more generally exploited or dominated.'


Vulnerability is an indication of the victim's reputation. Impunity refers to the offenders' confidence that if he acts he will not suffer negative consequences as a result. Vulnerability increases impunity, but victims can contribute in other ways to potential offenders assaulting them without fear of repercussions.

Sparks implies that impunity refers to the risk of detection and apprehension by the police. In prison, the role of staff also has implications for impunity, but these are not always those that one might expect. Many inmates claimed allegiance to a norm against informing. This made it unlikely that an assault would be detected if it had not been witnessed by staff. Fights by mutual agreement, outside of supervision, provided an obvious boost to impunity.

Someone from the wing was supposed to fight someone from another wing and there was three of us down the hospital in the waiting room and the other geezer was there so the fight was going to kick off. The one off our wing turned a bit chicken. At first, me and my friend stayed out of it. When this other geezer seen the other one chicken out he turned to me saying, `They must be all fraggles on your wing'. He thought, having seen the other back down, that we would back down, too. So I said, `Come in the toilet and I'll show you who is a fraggle.' He came in the toilet, knowing there was going to be a fight. He threw the first punch. I grabbed him by the hair and hopped his head off the sink. And my friend came in and we beat the shit out of him while he was on the floor; kicked him, jumped up and down on him; just generally went crazy on him. He was covered in blood, bleeding heavy from the head, lost a few teeth, broken nose, broken fingers, fractured jaw. As an outcome, it was obvious. So we had to threaten the chicken from our wing to own up and say he did it.

Conversely, one could also fight with impunity when one initiated a fight under supervision, with the specific intention of achieving intervention by staff. The inmate in the following incident was assaulted directly in front of an officer. He was asked if he would have preferred the fight to have taken place outside of supervision.

Yes. I would have. But he wanted it in the association room. People fight in front of the screws `cause they know it will get stopped. They are afraid of what will happen if they get in a situation where it is just you and him and the screws won't stop it.

There is a crucial distinction in prison between consequences in terms of those stemming from the official disciplinary response, and those involving retaliation by other inmates. Because few assaults were reported to staff, the more immediate possibility of negative consequences for the assailant came from other inmates or his victim. The potential of other inmates to inflict serious harm on the assailant reduced impunity.

A variety of factors linked assaults to illicit drugs, but a key element was the impunity of those who assaulted inmates handling drugs. Thirteen of the 96 assaults involved drugs. Inevitably trading in drugs raised the possibility of debts and these were sometimes enforced with violence. In some situations the possession of drugs was enough to identify the prisoner as a potential victim of robbery. The fact that the victim of a robbery for drugs would be very unlikely to report the loss to officers encouraged likely offenders to act with impunity.

One victimizer was outspoken about his use of force to obtain drugs. He included a justification for assaulting others, based on a perceived norm that everyone who smuggles drugs into the prison must share with others.

Certain people you know they've got drugs, among the people who are getting them in. You are expected to share. If they don't share, you take it. But only if you know they are a weak person you can intimidate. This happens to a number of people. They've come off a visit. I get them. I become abusive and threaten, `If you don't give me some I will take the whole lot.' A little boy came back from a visit with cannabis. He didn't share his cannabis. I pushed him into my cell and shoved a pencil against his throat. I said, `I will stab you if you don't give me the cannabis.' Then I punched him and he got frightened and handed it over.

Impunity refers to the state of mind of the offender, not the victim. Hence it can appear that this explanation of the victim's contribution depends on the offenders' perceptions. However, our analysis of impunity shows that the victim's decision to engage in illicit behaviour--such as fights or handling drugs--reduced the threat of official sanctions being brought against offenders. The victim's decision to become involved in illicit activities, hidden from staff, created the conditions required for impunity.

Assigning the Status of `Victim'

The incidents we have discussed show many circumstances in which it is difficult to designate one party or the other as the `victim'. Prisoners themselves were often unclear about the role. For example, an inmate whom staff had identified as a victimizer felt aggrieved that he had been labelled unfairly following an incident of mutual assault.

I slagged this geezer off and he hit me and I hit him back. If I thought they wouldn't fight back I wouldn't hit them--that is bad bullying. But it was a fair fight, not bullying, `cause he hit me. He didn't have to hit me. Does it make me a bully just `cause he's worse off?.

In an assault based on an argument over access, the assailant explicitly declared that he acted to protect himself. He saw himself as the victim in the incident.

I was on the phone speaking to my mum who has cancer and a geezer told me I could only use three units so I said `Come here', as if I was going to whisper something and smacked him in the forehead and told him to sit down. It was self-defence.

In a third example, the inmate telling the story was assaulted. But he did not see himself as the victim, because he regarded the beating as justified.

I found some phone cards at the telephone. There was no name on them so I took them. I put my name on them. He found out and came to my cell. He said, `Have you got my cards?' I said `no'. He found out I did, though and came back and hit me--just punches on the arms. I had a bad bruise on the upper arm where he'd hit me about nine or ten times in the same spot. I asked for it myself. He didn't want to do it but I lied to him.

As we noted in discussing precipitation, assaults raise particular issues for the definition of one party as the `victim'. One way to designate a victim would be to assume that the person who delivered the first blow is the attacker; the person who fought in defence is the victim. However, the concept of victim-precipitated assaults reverses this view as the person who begins the fight is defined in these cases as the victim if he comes off worst.

One could label as the victim the person who sustained the more serious injuries. However, it is not always possible to gauge the extent of injuries, especially when psychological harm is considered. In any case, the fighter's wounds must be seen as one among many factors to determine whether there was a single victim or if the roles were, to some extent, mutual. Determining the victim is further complicated if it is a revenge attack or one in a series of assaults.

A third method requires the researcher to consider the explanations offered for the assault, and then decide who was wrong and who was right. The person whose behaviour was more justifiable might be defined as the victim even if he initiated the fight or inflicted more serious injuries. However, this approach requires researchers to make profound judgements about situations based on limited information, forces them to assign blame, and can involve them in complicity in the notion of a `justified' assault.

Victim blaming can be inferred from explanations offered of one person's role in an incident. For example, `The prisoner would not have been assaulted if he had not insulted the assailant.' `If the prisoner had not been in possession of drugs he would not have been assaulted.' Stated in this form, the explanation assumes that the person who was assaulted failed to take reasonable precautions to prevent foreseeable consequences.

A second form of blaming the victim begins by presuming that the person deliberately chose to be victimized. The role of `victim' is one who has been harmed. It is perverse, or at least masochistic, for someone to desire to be hurt or harmed, and to put themselves in a position which drives another person to administer the harm.

Clearly, many of the inmates who were assaulted in the incidents we explored contributed to their own victimization. But while their behaviour risked victimization, they did not deliberately adopt the victim role. Rather, they engaged in activities which carried risks and were motivated by the potential rewards.

Prisoners cannot choose to move to a safer neighbourhood, nor can they simply avoid a potential aggressor. Confinement in prison severely limits their options. Nonetheless, the activities we have described--insulting or assaulting others, entering into debt, handling drugs--are areas over which prisoners have some control. They are not forced to insult other inmates, any more than risk-takers outside are forced to participate in rugby, hang-gliding or motorcycling. People engage in such activities, despite the risks, because of the meaningful rewards they provide. This article has attempted to broaden our understanding of victimhood by clarifying the benefits that people in custody can reasonably anticipate from conduct which also increases their risk of being assaulted.


Assaults in custody were frequent. This paper has demonstrated that the circumstances which underlie assaults are diverse and cannot be subsumed under a single, coherent explanation. Nonetheless, some common factors can be identified. Some assaults were based on status, as an outcome of disputes, or mutual verbal abuse, or a perception that the other had shown a lack of respect. Sometimes they were instrumental in the commission of robberies, or intended as defences against attempted robbery. Assaults were also committed in retaliation, drawing a cycle of retributive violence. Finally, some inmates believed that fighting was a fair method of settling differences.

An understanding of prisoners' interpretations of the situations they face enables us to see why an inmate might choose to put himself in danger of being assaulted. Their stories illustrate the many circumstances in which inmates may deliberately put themselves at risk, but with good reason. People who shouted insults may have felt that their status could be enhanced by the display of wit or their capacity to hurt others. Victims of robberies were attacked, in part, because they attempted to hold on to their possessions, and resisted the would-be robbers' demands. Those who were assaulted by people they were trying to rob intentionally put themselves at risk of assault because of the attraction of material gain. Those who fought often felt that fighting was the best way to resolve the conflict they had with another prisoner--and both combatants were willing to fight.

Prisoners directly put themselves at risk of assault when they decided to argue about access to telephones, games tables, or the television channel of their choice. Like robbery, these were disputes between one who wished to dominate the situation and another who elected to defend his rights. It is not unreasonable to claim one's turn to use a telephone. But, in prison, resisting another's demands increases the risk of being assaulted. Prisoners also increase their risk of being assaulted when they engage in verbal abuse with others. Here the competition is not for goods or shared resources, but for status.

The various theories of victim contribution--from Wolfgang (1958, 1967), Sparks (1982) and Hindelang, Gottfredson and Garafalo (1978)--have shed light on a wide range of factors which lead to assaults in prison. Indeed, in three-quarters of the assaults we studied the victim had made the attack more likely or had directly brought it about by his own actions. Roughly a quarter of the 96 incidents could not be explained in these terms, either because of a lack of detailed information or because the victim did not play an obvious determining role in the event. Our research demonstrates that the victim's contribution is open to analysis and can often help to explain why an assault took place.

Nevertheless, despite high levels of assault in both adult and young offender establishments, seven of ten young offenders and eight of ten adults had managed to avoid being assaulted during the previous month. One could hypothesize, perhaps, that they stayed clear of drugs, did not assault other prisoners, did not engage in exploitative trading, sought solutions to conflicts which were not based on force, tended to ignore verbal abuse directed at themselves and refrained from insulting others. They may also have worked to maintain good relationships with a few trustworthy inmates, thereby avoiding a reputation of being isolated or vulnerable. We might suppose that these strategies could form the basis of a protective prison lifestyle. But these issues lay outside the remit of our research. Investigating the strategies and tactics inmates use to protect themselves from assault and to manage interpersonal conflicts should be a priority for future research.

There is a further dimension, beyond the incidents we examine, which involves the social context in which assaults occur. (For good accounts of prison society, see King and Elliott 1978, Boyle 1985 and Sparks, Bottoms and Hay 1996). We have drawn attention to a persistent faith among many prisoners in the protective value of the use of force against others. The important point here is that an ethos which legitimates the use of force to resolve differences increases the likelihood that all prisoners will consider violence as a viable option when they are under pressure, whether they see temselves as victims, victimizers, both or neither. This analysis of prison assaults has indicated that force is perceived to be a solution in a wide range of situations.

We are left with a dilemma for prisoners. Many inmates believe that the ubiquitous threat of force against them requires them to use force upon others. There may be compelling reasons for them to believe that force is necessary in response to pressures specific to prison society. However, in the long-term their use of force not only exacerbates the problem for prison society, but increases the chance that they, personally, will be assaulted. It is ironic that the prisoners' faith in force is misplaced. But the situation in prisons is doubly ironic: within a value system which promotes force as a means of resolving problems, the principled decision not to use force, if interpreted as weakness, might be no more effective as a strategy of self-protection from assault.


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IAN O'DONNELL, Kimmett Edgar is Research Officer at the Oxford Centre for Criminological Research, 12 Bevington Road, Oxford OX2 6LH. Dr Ian O'Donnell is Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust and an Associate of the Oxford Centre for Criminological Research. The authors are indebted to Diane Caddie and John Ditchfield of the Home Office Research Statistics Directorate and Para Wilson from HM Prison Service Order and Control Unit. As always, Roger Hood, Director of the Oxford Centre for Criminological Research, was a constant source of support, encouragement and advice. Thanks are also due to the prisoners whose thoughts and experiences form the basis of this study. Crown Copyright 1998.
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Publication:British Journal of Criminology
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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