Characteristics of Inmates

views updated


Prisoners overwhelmingly represent societal "failures," young men (and a small percentage of women and older men) who have had unsuccessful experiences in their families, schools, military services, and labor force. They suffer disproportionately from child abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, poor self-concept, and deficient social skills. They tend to be hostile to others, and especially to authority.

—James B. Jacobs, "Inside Prisons," Crime File Study Guide (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, not dated)


In 2003 some 1.3 million men and 92,785 women were serving sentences in state and federal prisons, according to Paige M. Harrison and Allen J. Beck in Prisoners in 2003 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2004). (See Table 5.1.) Expressed in percentages of total prisoners 35% were non-Hispanic whites, 44% non-Hispanic African-Americans, 19% were Hispanics, and 1.9% were of other races (Asians, American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders). About 93% were men.

Among white prisoners, 8.6% were women, among African-Americans 5.9%, and among Hispanics 6.4%. The age group with the highest number of male prisoners in 2003 was twenty-five to twenty-nine years old (231,400). Women were most numerous in the thirty-five- to thirty-nine-year-old age group across all races. Among men, whites were more numerous in the group aged thirty-five to thirty-nine years (75,400), while African-Americans (111,400) and Hispanics (54,700) were more predominant in the twenty-five- to twenty-nine-year-old age group.

The largest overall number of prisoners were African-Americans. Among men, African-Americans outnumbered whites in every age group except those aged forty-five to fifty-four and fifty-five and older. Among women, whites were more numerous than African-Americans in every age category except those aged eighteen and nineteen.

According to Prisoners in 2003, incarceration rates (measured as the number of prisoners per 100,000 residents of a gender/age group) indicate that, overall, 465 white males aged eighteen and older were in prison per 100,000 resident males of the same age group. For African-Americans this number was 3,405, for Hispanics 1,231. The rates for women were thirty-eight for whites, 185 for African-Americans, and eighty-four for Hispanics. Whites and African-Americans in this context are non-Hispanic. (See Table 5.2.) These data, translated into percentages, indicate that 9.3% of African-American males aged twenty-five to twenty-nine were in prison in 2003 compared to 1.1% of white males in that age range and 2.6% of Hispanic males.

A somewhat expanded data set, prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities (a grouping that includes people on probation and parole), shows correctional population trends for men and women since 1995. (See Table 5.3.) These data, reported in Prisoners in 2003, indicate that 1,368,866 men and 101,179 women made up the correctional population in 2003. Men increased 2% from 2002 to 2003 with an annual average rate of 3.3% from 1995 to 2003. The female correctional population increased by 3.6% from 2002 to 2003 and grew 5% on average each year from 1995 to 2003. Numbers for prisoners sentenced to more than one year show that the male correctional population in this category grew 1.9% from 2002 to 2003 while the female population increased by 4.2%. The incarceration rate for men was 789 per 100,000 residents in 1995 and 915 in 2003. The corresponding rate for women was forty-seven in 1995 and sixty-two in 2003.

Number of sentenced prisoners
55 or older57,70031,90017,2007,2002,6001,400700300
Note: Based on custody counts by race and Hispanic origin from National Prisoner Statistics (NPS-1A) and updated from jurisdiction counts by gender at yearend. Estimates by age were derived from the National Corrections Reporting Program, 2002. Estimates were rounded to the nearest 100.
aIncludes American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders.
bExcludes Hispanics.
Number of sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents of each group
55 or older208141747397852216
Note: Based on estimates of the U.S. resident population on July 1, 2003, using intercensal estimates for July 1, 2002 (by gender, race, and Hispanic origin) and adjusted to the July 1, 2003, estimates by gender.
Includes American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders.
Excludes Hispanics.


State Prisons

Between 1980 and 2001, the number of people in the state correctional system increased by 309%, including an increase of 76.8% between 1990 and 2001, according to Key Facts at a Glance (Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 27, 2003). Most inmates were in state prisons rather than in federal facilities or local jails. Figure 5.1 shows a twenty-year history of state incarcerations divided by type of crime committed. The largest category was violent crime, which accounted for more than half of the increase in state prison population since 1995. Prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses grew from 19,000 in 1980 to 246,100 in 2001 as measured by state prison population. Between 1990 and 2001, the group confined for crimes against the public order increased from 45,500 prisoners to 129,900 prisoners. These crimes include illegal weapons possession, drunken driving, flight to escape prosecution, obstruction of justice, liquor law violations, and others.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Key Facts at a Glance (, nearly half (49.4%) of all prison inmates were serving time for violent crimes in 2001.

All inmates
Percent change, 2002–20032.0%3.6%
Average annual 1995–20033.3%5.0%
Sentenced to more than 1 year
Percent change, 2002–20031.9%4.2%
Incarceration rate*
*The number of prisoners with sentences of more than 1 year per 100,000 residents on December 31.

A fifth of all prisoners (20.4%) were serving for drug offenses, and another fifth (19.3%) for property crimes. The remaining 10.9% of prisoners have been convicted of offenses against the public order.

The distribution of offenses has changed somewhat over the period shown in Figure 5.1, dramatically in some instances. Thus in 1980 inmates incarcerated for drug offenses accounted for less than 7% of total prisoners; by

Types of offenses
Drug offenses:88,960 (53.8%)
Weapons, explosives, arson:21,475 (13.0%)
Immigration:18,325 (11.1%)
Robbery:10,078 (6.1%)
Burglary, larceny, property offenses:6,784 (4.1%)
Extortion, fraud, bribery:6,856 (4.1%)
Homicide, aggravated assault, and kidnapping offenses:5,326 (3.2%)
Miscellaneous:3,478 (2.1%)
Sex offenses:1,732 (1.0%)
Banking and insurance, counterfeit, embezzlement:1,013 (0.6%)
Courts or corrections:709 (0.4%)
Continuing criminal enterprise:603 (0.4%)
National security:103 (0.1%)

1990 they reached a peak of 22%, declining slightly thereafter. Violent crimes represented 59% of all incarcerations in 1980, dropped to a low in this period of 46% in 1990, but have been increasing in share of total offenses since. The largest drop in share has been in property crime. The category dropped from 30% in 1980 to 26% in 1990 and finally to less than 20% of total inmates in 2001.

Federal Prisons

In 2003 there were nearly eight people in state prison for every one in federal facilities. While in state prisons a fifth of all inmates were held for drug offenses, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported at its Web site ( that at the federal level more than half (53.8%) were imprisoned for drug violations as of March 2005. (See Table 5.4.) The next three categories of inmates in terms of percentage were: weapons violations, explosives charges, and arson (13% of offenders), immigration violations (11.1%), and robbery (6.1%).

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Quick Facts (, most federal inmates were male (93.2%) in March 2005. The inmate population at that time comprised 56.7% whites, 40% African-Americans, 1.7.% Native Americans, and 1.6% Asians. In addition, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that among those incarcerated in federal prisons, 71.5% were American citizens, 17.2% were citizens of Mexico, 1.9% were Colombian citizens, 1.9% were citizens of the Dominican Republic, and 1% were Cuban citizens. The remaining 6.5% were either of unknown or other citizenship.


Early in 2003, the Bureau of Justice Statistics issued a special report, Education and Correctional Populations, on the educational attainment of prison and jail inmates. Data on prisoners are for the benchmark years of 1991 and 1997. The study utilized surveys of inmates in correctional facilities for those two years, surveys of local jail inmates conducted in 1989 and 1996, Current Population Survey data for 1997, and data from the 1992 Adult Literacy Survey sponsored by the National Center of Educational Statistics. Although the data are somewhat dated, this study is the most recent to take a comprehensive consideration of the education of inmates. Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2004), provides some updated statistics on the educational levels of jail inmates in 2002.

Educational Attainment

In 1997, 11.4% of state prisoners had "postsecondary/some college" education or were "college graduates or more." Federal prisoners in the same categories represented 23.9% of the federal prison population. In contrast, 48.4% of the general population had postsecondary education or a college degree or higher. Prisoners with less than a high school education comprised 39.7% of the state prison population and 26.5% of the federal prison population in 1997—compared to only 18.4% of the general population that had attained less than a high school education.

In 1997, 33.2% of the general population had achieved a high school diploma as their highest level of education. By contrast, only 20.5% of the state prison population and 27% of the federal prison population were high school graduates. More than a fifth of the prison population had a General Education Development (GED) certificate—28.5% in state prisons, 22.7% in federal prisons. No comparable data for the general population were available. Concerning those in the state prisons without a high school education, Education and Correctional Population presented the following summary:

The groups of state prison inmates who had not completed high school or the GED included:

40% of males and 42% of females

27% of whites, 44% of African-Americans, and 53% of Hispanics

52% of inmates 24 or younger and 35% of inmates 45 or older

61% of noncitizens and 38% of U.S. citizens

59% with a speech disability, 66% with a learning disability, and 37% without a reported disability

47% of drug offenders

12% of those with military service and 44% with no military service.

According to Doris J. James of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002, jail inmates in 2002 with less than a high school education include 31.6% with "some high school" and 12.3% with eighth grade or less, for a total of 43.9% of all inmates. Forty-three percent of jail inmates had attained either a high school diploma or GED as their highest level of education. Thirteen percent of jail inmates had either "some college" or had graduated from college. (See Table 5.5.)

Women and Men

Among state prison inmates in 1997, 41.8% of women had an educational attainment of less than high school compared with 39.6% for men ("eighth grade or less" and "some high school"). Nearly 22% of women had only a high school diploma, 20.4% of men. However, if GED-certified prisoners are combined with high school graduates, men in these categories represented 49.3% of the prison population, women 43.9%. Proportionately more women had an educational attainment exceeding the high school level: 14.3% had postsecondary education, some college, or were college graduates; 11.1% of males fell into these categories. A slightly smaller percentage of women participated in educational programs offered in state prisons than men, 50.1% versus the male participation rate of 52%.

Education by Race and Ethnicity

A breakdown of the state prison population by race and ethnicity shows that 27.2% of whites, 44.1% of African-Americans, and 53% of Hispanics had less than a high school education in 1997—all significantly higher than the same group in the general population (18.4%). For 58% of the white prison population, a high school diploma or GED was their highest educational attainment while 14.9% had at least some college education. Among African American prisoners 45.8% had a high school diploma or GED as their highest educational attainment and 10% had at least some college. Among Hispanics, 39.6% had a high school diploma or GED but no further education and 7.4% had at least some college education.

Education Programs

Most prisons offer some kind of educational programs to inmates including basic adult education, secondary education, college courses, special education, vocational training, and study release programs. According to State of the Bureau 2003: Accomplishments and Goals (Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2004), in September 2003 there were 21,000 federal prisoners enrolled in GED programs. During 2003, 5,313 inmates graduated from the program and received GEDs. In addition, the Bureau of Prisons also operated or supported 325 occupational training programs, 514 apprenticeship programs, and 158 advanced occupational training programs. Some 10,000 federal prisoners were enrolled in these educational programs during 2003. The Bureau estimated that during 2003 some 35% of all federal prisoners were enrolled in one or another of the available educational programs.

Percent of jail inmates, 2002
Race/Hispanic originb
American Indian/Alaska Native1.
Asian/Pacific Islander1.
More than one raced3.
17 or younger1.8%1.2%2.9%1.6%2.3%
55 or older2.
Marital status
Never married60.159.361.759.858.6
8th grade or less12.3%11.8%14.3%10.6%13.1%
Some high school31.630.632.733.433.4
General equivalency diploma17.
High school diploma25.926.126.224.625.9
Some college10.
College graduate or more2.
U.S. citizenship
Number of jail inmatese631,241394,039182,754100,495507,026
aIncludes inmates with a prior conviction, but no new conviction for the current charge.
bExcludes 0.3% of inmates in 1996 and 2002 who did not specify a race.
cNon-Hispanic inmates.
dIncludes 1.6% of jail inmates who specified black and other races; 1.3%, American Indian/Alaskan Native and other races; and 0.1%, Asian and other races.
eThe survey totals were weighted to midyear estimates from the Annual Survey of Jails in 1995 and 2001.


The Bureau of Justice Statistics published a special report titled Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers in 1999. The report was prepared from survey data collected from state and federal prisoners in 1997, inmates of local jails in 1996, and the 1995 Survey of Adults on Probation. The special report found that 18.7% of state prisoners, 9.5% of federal prisoners, 16.4% of jail inmates, and 15.7% of probationers had experienced abuse before being admitted to prison. The survey relied on the respondents' own definitions of physical and sexual abuse.

A more recent study of abuse among jail inmates is reported in Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002. According to Table 5.6, 18.2% of all jail inmates reported having been either physically or sexually abused. While 13.4% of male inmates reported prior abuse, well over half (55.3%) of female inmates had been abused. Of those men who reported abuse, 11.2% said they had been physically abused, while 4% said it was sexual abuse. For women, the percentages were much higher: 44.9% had been physically abused and 35.9% had been sexually abused. Overall more inmates reported in 2002 that the abuse had occurred before the age of eighteen; however, among female inmates in 2002, more reported abuse after age eighteen. More than 92% knew their abuser, and a parent or guardian had been the abuser in 47.9% of the cases overall.

The same study found that over 46% of jail inmates reported having a close relative who had also been in jail. Over 18% of jail inmates said their father had been incarcerated, 31.4% a brother, and 8.9% a sister. (See Table 5.7.) Nearly 20% of inmates reported that a parent or guardian had abused alcohol when they were growing

Percent of all jail inmates
Ever physically or sexually abused18.2%16.4%13.4%12.9%55.3%47.5%
Before age 1810.911.69.710.620.320.8
After age
Physically abused15.1%13.3%11.2%10.7%44.9%37.2%
Sexually abused7.
Relationship to abuserPercent of abused inmates
Knew abuser92.4%86.6%92.5%87.9%92.1%90.3%
Other relatives17.324.416.421.618.931.3
Did not know abuser7.6%13.4%7.5%12.1%7.9%17.9%
Note: Details adds to more than total because more than 1 person may have abused inmates; or some inmates were both physically and sexually abused.
*Includes (ex) spouse, (ex) boyfriend, and (ex) girlfriend.
Person(s) lived with most of the time while growing up:
Both parents43.6%39.7%
Mother only39.243.3
Father only4.44.9
Ever lived in a foster home, agency, or institution while growing up11.5%13.6%
Family member ever incarcerated
Parent or guardian ever abused alcohol or drugs while inmate was growing up
Both alcohol and drugs8.66.9
*Details may not add to total because more than one response was possible.

up. In addition, 2.1% reported that a parent or guardian had abused drugs, and 8.6% reported the use of both drugs and alcohol by a parent or guardian. Less than half of all inmates (43.6%) had been raised in a two-parent family.

Percent of jail inmates
Restraining orderAllViolentNon-violent
Ever under order18.6%24.3%16.7%
At admission5.17.34.4
Ever violated4.4%5.1%4.1%
Violation charge at admission1.52.01.3
Percent of inmates ever under a restraining order
Person who sought order*
Other relative2.32.72.2
Other nonrelative20.522.119.3
Note: Details add to more than total because more than one person may have sought restraining order.
*Includes (ex-) spouse, (ex-) boyfriend, and (ex-) girlfriend.

Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002 also reported that 18.6% of jail inmates had been under a restraining order at some time. (See Table 5.8.) A restraining order is issued by a court and forbids a named individual from visiting or even approaching the person who has asked for the order. Restraining orders are usually requested by those who fear they may be violently attacked by a former spouse or boyfriend. Over 75% of the restraining orders against jail inmates had been requested by their intimate partners.

State prisonersFederal prisoners
Number of parents
Number of minor children
Note: Numbers are estimates based on responses to the 1991 and 1997 Surveys of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, and custody counts from the National Prisoner Statistics program.


In 1999, the latest year for which statistics are available, some 1.5 million children had a parent in prison (Christopher J. Mumola, Incarcerated Parents and Their Children, Bureau of Justice Statistics, August 2000). At the state level, 642,300 prisoners had 1.325 million minor children being taken care of by others. In federal prisons, 79,200 prisoners had left 173,900 children in others' care. (See Table 5.9.) Among state prisoners, males were parents to 92% of the minor children, female prisoners accounted for 8% of children left behind. In federal prisons, female prisoners were parents to 6% of minor children left behind, while male prisoners accounted for 94%.

Looking at state prisons only, the number of prisoners' children had increased by 55% since 1991. Prisoners with children had on average 2.1 children both in 1991 and 1999. Male parents in state prison increased 54%; the number of their children increased by 52%. The female-parent prison population rose 82%; the children they had left doubled in number in this eight-year period.

Data for federal prisons show a somewhat different picture. Children with parents in federal prisons more than doubled—a 106.5% increase; federal prisoners with children increased 101%. Children with a male parent in prison increased 108.6% (from 78,300 to 163,300), those with a female parent in prison by 79.7% (from 5,900 children in 1991 to 10,600 in 1999).

According to Mumola in Incarcerated Parents and Their Children:

Half of the parents in state prison were never married.

Fewer than half of the parents in state prison lived with their minor children before incarceration.

One-third of mothers in prison had been living alone with their children in the months before arrest.

Fathers cite the child's mother as the current caregiver; mothers cite the child's grandparents or other relatives.

About 40% of fathers and 60% of mothers in state prison had at least weekly contact with their children.

A majority of parents in prison were violent offenders or drug traffickers.


There are a number of active gangs operating among the inmates in prisons. "The environment in most U.S. prisons is ripe for recruiting and controlling gang members because inmates tend to form associations for self-protection along racial, ethnic, and cultural lines," according to the National Gang Threat Assessment (National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations, February 2000, In addition to providing mutual protection, prison gangs are also involved in selling drugs and other contraband. They routinely use violence and intimidation to dominate other inmates.

The BJS defines gangs as groups that commit illegal acts and have five or six of the following characteristics:

  • Formal membership with a required initiation or rules for members
  • A recognized leader or certain members whom others follow
  • Common clothing or group colors, symbols, tattoos, or special language
  • A group name
  • Members from the same neighborhood, street, or school
  • Turf or territory where the group is known and where group activities take place

The Florida Department of Corrections ( identified six major gangs operating in prisons in early 2005. They are: Neta (Puerto Rican inmates), the Aryan brotherhood (white inmates), the Black Guerrilla Family (African-American male inmates), the Mexican Mafia, La Nuestra Familia, and the Texas Syndicate (all Mexican-American inmates). While these gangs operate in prisons nationwide, such street gangs as the Crips, Bloods, Latin Kings, Barrio Aztecas, Black Gangster Disciples, and Nazi Low Riders are known to be operating in prisons as well.