Correlates and Actuarial Models of Assaultive Prison Misconduct Among Violence-Predicted Capital Offenders

Date01 January 2011
Published date01 January 2011
Subject MatterArticles
Dallas, Texas
Prairie View A&M University
Shreveport, Louisiana
Huntsville, Texas
Correlates of prison violence and the classification accuracy of an actuarial model were examined from retrospective review
of the disciplinary records of former death row inmates in Texas (N = 111) who had been predicted to commit future violence
at trial and subsequently obtained relief from their death sentences between 1989 and 2008. Correlates of “potentially” violent
infractions included age (inversely), intellectual capability (inversely), prior violent crime arrest, and gun-only weapon used
in murder (inversely). An actuarial scale constructed from the sample was modestly (area under the curve [AUC] = 0.690)
associated with combined violence on death row and in the broader prison population, as were scales constructed previously
from other samples (AUC = 0.609 to 0.656). Although AUCs for serious assaults in three models were relatively high
(AUC = 0.799 to 0.831), low base rates result in these actuarial scales having high false positive rates (e.g., 76%) in identify-
ing offenders who will commit serious prison assaults.
Keywords: prison violence; capital sentencing; actuarial model; risk assessment; death row; inmate assault
There is much interest in identifying inmates who are at increased risk of assaultive
misconduct in prison. The broadest application of this effort is made by prison classi-
fication procedures that attempt to allocate security resources so that the most violent-prone
inmates are subject to greater preemptive incapacitation. A far less frequent, but manifestly
graver, attempt to identify inmates who are likely to commit serious violence in prison is made
by capital sentencing juries in some jurisdictions, as they consider this as a factor in impos-
ing the death penalty (for a discussion, see Cunningham, 2006; Cunningham, Sorensen, &
Reidy, 2009; Shapiro, 2009). Criminal justice and forensic psychology researchers have an
interest in the correlates and actuarial models of prison violence, as these inform theoretical
constructs, correctional recommendations, and professional risk assessment practices.
Inmate classification applications and capital jury violence-prediction determinations
share a focus on individual-level factors that may be associated with prison violence, that
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors derive income from evaluations and testimony at capital sentencing specify-
ing varying levels of improbability of future prison violence and/or describing prison classification and secu-
rity. Partial funding for data collection and analysis was provided by a Texas district court at the request of
defense counsel. The authors acknowledge and thank the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for its assis-
tance. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Mark D. Cunningham, PhD, ABPP, 6860
North Dallas Parkway, Suite 200, Plano, TX 75024; e-mail:

CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, Vol. 38 No. 1, January 2011 5-25
DOI: 10.1177/0093854810384830
© 2011 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology

is, factors specific to the offender, also characterized as “importation factors.” Individual-
level factors, of course, are not the only or even the most powerful influences on the occur-
rence of prison violence. Indeed, prison-level factors (i.e., deprivation, situational, and
administrative) may account for a greater proportion of the variance related to prison vio-
lence than individual-level factors (see Gendreau, Goggin, & Law, 1997; Huebner, 2003;
Jiang & Fisher-Giordano, 2002; McCorkle, Miethe, & Drass, 1995; Patrick, 1998; Steinke,
1991). That said, the identification and predictive implications and/or limitations of individual-
level factors remain topics of active investigation.
A limited number of individual-level factors have been reported as associated with
prison violence among male inmates, although the support for some has been isolated or
mixed. These correlates and potential correlates will be briefly described (see also Morris,
Longmire, Buffington-Vollum, & Vollum, 2010).
Age. Assaultive misconduct has a strong inverse relationship with the age of the inmate
(e.g., see Berk, Kriegler, & Baek, 2006; Cunningham, Reidy, & Sorensen, 2008; Cunningham
& Sorensen, 2006a, 2007a, 2007b; Kuanliang, Sorensen, & Cunningham, 2008; Morris et al.,
2010; Sorensen & Cunningham, 2007; Steiner & Wooldredge, 2009b).
Race-ethnicity. Findings regarding the association of inmate race or ethnicity to prison
violence are mixed, as well as ethically and constitutionally complex in application. Black
inmates have been reported as disproportionately represented in perpetrating prison
assaults (Sorensen, Cunningham, Vigen, & Woods, 2010; DeLisi, Berg, & Hochstetler,
2004; Harer & Steffensmeier, 1996; but see Jiang & Fisher-Giorlando, 2002; Cunningham,
Sorensen, Vigen, & Woods, 2010). Among life-sentenced Texas capital inmates, Morris
et al. (2010) reported that Black or Hispanic racial status was a risk factor for prison
assaults. Steiner and Wooldredge (2009a) described similar findings from national inmate
samples. The role of inmate race in prison violence, however, is far from simple. Hispanic
inmates were underrepresented among prisoners perpetrating serious assaults on staff
(Sorensen et al., 2010), but were overrepresented among inmate homicide perpetrators
(Cunningham et al., 2010). Furthermore, Steiner and Wooldredge (2009a) emphasized the
interaction of a number of contextual and period-specific factors with inmate race in under-
standing prison violence (see also Camp, Gaes, Langan, & Saylor, 2003).
Ethical and constitutional considerations make any application of this factor in classifi-
cation or preventative intervention particularly troublesome (e.g., see Saldano v. Texas, 2000,
regarding the exclusion of the defendant’s race as a consideration in death penalty sentenc-
ing; see Johnson v. California, 2005, regarding the exclusion of race as a primary rationale
in cell or classification assignments). Because of ethical and constitutional implications,
race-related variables from risk models for prison violence have often been excluded from
actuarial models for prison violence (e.g., Cunningham, Sorensen, & Reidy, 2005; Cunningham
& Sorensen, 2006a, 2007a, 2007b; Sorensen & Pilgrim, 2000).

Education. Level of education or literacy level has demonstrated an inverse relationship
with assaultive prison misconduct (Cunningham et al., 2005; Cunningham & Sorensen,
2006a; Harer & Langan, 2001; Toch & Adams, 1986; but see Cooper & Werner, 1990;
Morris et al., 2010). Educational level has been hypothesized as an expression of a broader
community stability factor (see Cunningham & Sorensen, 2006a), also reflected by employ-
ment history or marital status (see Monahan, 1981; Quay, 1984; Toch & Adams, 1986; Van
Voorhis, 1994). It is also possible that education may serve as a proxy for intelligence.
Prison gang. Membership in a prison gang is associated with increased prevalence of
institutional violence (Cunningham & Sorensen, 2007b; DeLisi et al., 2004; Drury & DeLisi,
2008; Sorensen & Pilgrim, 2000), particularly among younger inmates (Gaes, Wallace,
Gilman, Klein-Saffran, & Suppa, 2002). Morris et al. (2010), however, found that among
capital offenders, gang affiliation was positively associated with some forms of inmate mis-
conduct, but not with actual violence.
Prior prison and criminal history. Having served a prior prison sentence was associ-
ated with an increased risk of prison violence in a number of studies (Cunningham et al.,
2005; Cunningham & Sorensen, 2006a, 2007a, 2007b; Gendreau et al., 1997; Sorensen
& Pilgrim, 2000), but in other investigations was not found to be significantly associated
with actual assaults among life-sentenced capital offenders (Morris et al., 2010) or with
inmate-on-staff assaults (Lahm, 2009). Having served a prior prison sentence may serve
as a proxy for criminal history, which is less frequently available in the data sets of large-
scale samples of inmates. Consistent with this observation, Steiner and Wooldredge
(2009b) found that the number of prior arrests was positively correlated with both inmate
and staff assaults.
Psychological disturbance. Other individual-level factors have also been studied in rela-
tion to prison violence. Inmates with mental health problems have been identified as more
likely to perpetrate and be victimized by institutional assaults (see Cunningham et al.,
2008; James & Glaze, 2006). This factor may be of limited preconfinement utility, as some
inmates will not be identified as psychologically disturbed until after entrance into prison
and as the nature of mental disturbances associated with prison violence may be symptom
specific. To illustrate, Baskin, Sommers, and Steadman (1991) reported that of three group-
ings of psychiatric symptoms, only confusion was correlated with violence against inmates
and staff.
Type of sentence. Type of sentence has been correlated with prison assaults. For example,
in some studies, life-sentenced inmates have been observed to have lower...

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