Table of Contents
An Examination of the Early “Strains” of Imprisonment Among Young Offenders Incarcerated for Serious Crimes
Adrienne M. F. Peters and Raymond R. Corrado
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
Adrienne M. F. Peters, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University; Raymond R. Corrado, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University and Faculty of Law, University of Bergen, Norway.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Adrienne M. F. Peters, School of Criminology, 8888 University Dr., Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C. V5A 1S6, Canada; E-mail: email@example.com
KEYWORDS: incarcerated juveniles; risk factors; juvenile rehabilitation; needs assessment; coping
The research described in this article examined the impact of general strain theory on young offenders’ institutional adjustment, as measured using self-reported experiences in custody. Utilizing a sample of young offenders incarcerated for serious crimes in British Columbia, Canada, this study employed structural equation modeling (SEM) to explore the effects of noxious stimuli, the removal of positively valued stimuli, and vicarious strain on young offenders’ general institutional adjustment, as mediated by negative emotions including anger, depression, and anxiety. Our results support the following putative relationship: the prior experiences of these young offenders moderately, but significantly, influence negative emotionality and continued adjustment problems (i.e., victimization and environmental stressors) in an institutional setting. We present implications for custodial screening and programming that should be extended to the community, and propose areas for continued research.
Agnew’s general strain theory characterizes strain as “relationships in which others are not treating the individual as he or she would like to be treated” (Agnew, 1992, p. 48). He divides strain into three types: the failure to achieve positively valued goals; the removal of positively valued stimuli; and the presence of noxious stimuli. General strain theory posits that youth who experience these negative relationships turn to delinquency (e.g., drug use and violence) if they are unable to articulate their problems and/or if they are unable to develop acceptable coping mechanisms. It is highly likely that such strains continue to impact youth when they are incarcerated for such behaviors.
According to strain theory, strain has the greatest influence on the development of antisocial behavior when it is severe and occurs often; is seen as unjust; is associated with low levels of self-control; and motivates the individual to cope in a criminal way (Agnew, 2001, 2009). The specific strains theorized and empirically tested to have the greatest influence on youth, both emotionally and in relation to ensuing negative responses, include the following: parental rejection (e.g., instability at home or being in care); excessive/harsh discipline; abuse and neglect; low grades; negative relationships and experiences at school; abusive peer relationships; living in disadvantaged neighborhoods; discrimination; and criminal victimization. Running away is also indicative of strain at home and can be a viewed as a means of temporarily escaping the strain (see Agnew, 1992, 2001, 2009). Agnew has also proposed a relationship among vicarious strains, negative coping, and deviance. “Vicarious strain refers to the real-life strains experienced by others around the individual,” (Agnew, 2002, p. 603). One example of this is physical victimization, which is often seen as severe and unjust (Agnew, 2001).
General strain theory postulates that youths’ angry and negative affect resulting from exposure to strain is the central predictor of strain-related delinquency (Agnew, 1992; Agnew, Piquero, & Cullen, 2009), especially for those who experience chronic and/or frequent strain, such as strain that occurs in custodial settings (Sedlak & Bruce, 2010; Stevenson, Tufts, Hendrick, & Kowalski, 1998). Anger and irritability among youth in custody have also predicted delinquency (Butler, Loney, & Kistner, 2007). Youth diagnosed with psychopathology or impulsivity/reactivity have been found to engage in more institutional misconduct than others (Taylor, Kemper, & Kistner, 2007).
Researchers commonly apply the importation and deprivation theoretical perspectives (Cesaroni & Peterson-Badali, 2005, 2010; Gover, Mackenzie, & Armstrong, 2000), described below, to assess young offenders’ institutional adjustment. These perspectives, at least implicitly, include key themes from Agnew’s general strain theory (i.e., the presence of stressors, blocked access to desired goals, removal of desired items, and resultant negative emotions). These theoretical perspectives, however, do not include key concepts such as the presence of noxious stimuli, removal of positively valued stimuli, and blockage from achieving certain goals. Recent research has extended general strain theory to assess institutional misconduct and found that, in line with the hypothesized strain-delinquency relationship, the greater the presence of negative stressors in custodial settings, the greater the likelihood that incarcerated offenders will engage in official misconduct (Blevins, Listwan, Cullen, & Jonson, 2010; Morris, Carriaga, Diamond, Piquero, & Piquero, 2012).
Research on Incarceration and Institutional Adjustment
Extant research on young offenders’ custodial adjustment has focused on two leading perspectives— the importation and deprivation models— in relation to youths’ official misconduct as measured by institutional rule infractions and/ or violence (see Cesaroni & Peterson-Badali, 2005; Gover et al., 2000; Taylor et al., 2007). The importation model stresses the importance of an individual’s characteristics and life experiences when he or she enters a custodial institution (Irwin & Cressey, 1962), including age, preexisting attitudes, history of offending, negative relationships with others, and prior custodial experiences (Flanagan, 1983). The deprivation model stresses characteristics of the institution itself that contribute to losses experienced by the youth, such as the type of facility the youth enters, its size and structure, the institution’s philosophy (e.g., deterrence, punishment, or rehabilitation), the ratio of inmates to correctional staff, and personal losses resulting from institutionalization (e.g., loss of autonomy and material items) (Lawson, Segrin, & Ward, 1996; MacDonald, 1999; McCorkle, Miethe, & Drass, 1995; Sykes, 1958). An abundance of research on each of these theories validates their utility; however, “neither model, by itself, adequately predicts inmate misconduct” (MacDonald, 1999, p. 35). As a result, much of the research on the influences of these variables on an individual’s institutional experiences has married the two models.
Recent studies emerging primarily from the U.S. and Europe have found that a number of additional risk factors have led to juveniles’ infractions while incarcerated. These include age at incarceration; police contacts and arrests; previous convictions; delinquent background; a history of abuse, violence, and weapon possession; gang involvement; family criminality; drug use; and psychological and personality features (Arbach- Lucioni, Martinez-García, & Andrés-Pueyo, 2012; Gover et al., 2000; Kury & Smartt, 2002; Taylor et al., 2007; Trulson, DeLisi, Caudill, Belshaw, & Marquart, 2010; Vasile, Ciucurel, & Ciucă, 2010).
Young offenders’ perceptions of the custodial setting—such as environmental stressors (e.g., noise, lack of privacy, and boredom) and incidents of violence and victimization, whether direct or indirect—are equally important when seeking to understand their adjustment to incarceration (Hochstetler & DeLisi, 2005). Environmental stressors, violence, and victimization may be threatening to offenders and can greatly influence their custodial adjustment and ability to cope.
Canadian researchers have confirmed that school-, home-, and peer-level variables are associated with youths’ psychological and adjustment difficulties while in custody (Cesaroni & Peterson-Badali, 2005; 2010). Using the life course perspective, DeLisi, Trulson, Marquart, Drury, & Kosloski (2011) found that home/family-level variables predict misconduct during incarceration.1 A Dutch study found that young offenders’ perceptions of prison group climate positively impacts their motivation for treatment, and that program workers influence prison group dynamics (Van der Helm, Klapwijk, Stams, & Van der Laan, 2009).
General Strain Theory and Institutional Adjustment
Agnew’s (1985) general strain theory hypothesizes that certain types of strain, when combined with weak coping mechanisms, will ultimately lead to delinquency. Although the “pains of imprisonment” are associated with the deprivation model, they also shed light on an interesting association between typical adjustment theories and Agnew’s general strain theory. A model integrating the importation, deprivation, and general strain theory posits that the existing gaps in these theories could be filled by incorporating variables used to assess general strain theory, including additional importation (or traditional strain) variables, a coping element, emotionality, and selfcontrol (Blevins et al., 2010).
Blevins and colleagues (2010) have proposed that three major types of strain identified by Agnew (1992)—goal blockage, the loss of positive stimuli, and the presentation of negative stimuli—are present in institutional settings. These strains are manifested in inmates’ inability to access programs available on the outside, their physical exclusion from important relationships, their recent lack of freedom and privacy, and the presence of negative peer influences. Morris and colleagues (2012) used trajectory analysis to assess the relationship between institutional strains and misconduct in an adult inmate sample, finding that environmental strains were important predictors of misconduct, as were individual-level factors predisposing inmates to react negatively to the overarching strains of the institution (Morris et al., 2012).
Most important to the current study, DeLisi et al. (2010a) studied a sample of young delinquents incarcerated for committing serious offenses in the U.S. and found a significant association between inmates’ levels of anger measured using the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument Version 2 (MAYSI-2) and incidents of institutional violence. DeLisi and colleagues (2010a) encouraged the incorporation of general strain theory into research on the association between anger and institutional conduct.
Perceptions and Experiences in Custody and Community Reentry
Offenders’ experiences while in custody may further imbed negative emotions, which may continue to produce strain and delinquency, and even impede their participation and engagement in community interventions. Research, although limited, has studied the link between the prison environment—particularly victimization—and offenders’ subsequent community adjustment.
Studies of incarcerated adults have determined that institutional strains and custodial infractions or victimization are associated with an increased probability of reoffending (Listwan, Hanley, & Colvin, 2012; Mears, Wang, Hay, & Bales, 2008). Among young offenders incarcerated for committing serious crimes, institutional behavior and violence also predict rearrest (Lattimore, MacDonald, Piquero, Linster, & Visher, 2004; Trulson, Marquart, Mullings, & Caeti, 2005). Many of the variables from these studies are consistent with general strain theory and illustrate the ways in which experiences in custody and the justice system are related to post-custody activities. Such activities may include education, employment, reconnecting with family and friends, attitudes, and following court-ordered community conditions (Abrams, 2007; Huizinga & Henry, 2008). Whereas one study has shown that the intervention setting (e.g., the community versus an institution) and the program delivery method is less important for success than offender characteristics (Lipsey, 2009), other research has found that program delivery methods are of primary importance: that is, youth sentenced to restrictive custodial interventions have an increased likelihood of justice involvement as adults (Gatti, Tremblay, & Vitaro, 2009).
Since custody-related risk factors and existing family-level and school-related strains can be linked to incarceration and reentry challenges (Altschuler & Brash, 2004), it is critical to study youths’ perceptions of their custodial experience and these variables. This belief led to the present study’s research question: do young offenders’ experiences of general strain before their incarceration affect their negative emotionality, and ultimately result in negative perceptions of, and adjustment to, custody?
This study examined the relationship among three themes from general strain theory and negative emotionality as described by Agnew, along with reports of young offenders’ perceptions of their institutional adjustment. We hypothesized that higher levels of strain-inducing pre-custody experiences—conceptualized as noxious stimuli, the removal of positively valued stimuli, and vicarious strain—would be associated with higher levels of anger, anxiety, and depression and that these, in turn, would be associated with increased problems involving institutional adjustment (e.g., perceptions of victimization, environmental stressors, and programming opportunities).
Sample and Research Instrument
This study utilized data from the Study of Incarcerated Serious and Violent Young Offenders in Burnaby and Victoria, British Columbia, 2005- 2008. Under the Youth Criminal Justice Act (2002), only young offenders committing the most serious/ repeat crimes are incarcerated; therefore, the youth in this sample exhibited a number of risks for serious delinquency. They were incarcerated for offenses ranging from murder and assault to property offenses, drug offenses, and administrative offenses. Young offenders in Canada are in custody for exceedingly brief periods—in almost half of all Canadian cases, youth are in custody for 1 month or less (Milligan, 2010). This suggests that youth have a limited time to adjust to custody and that the early experiences of young offenders can be equally as important as later ones. We therefore administered an interview questionnaire to youth after a mean of 11 days in custody.2,3 The final sample comprised 380 incarcerated young offenders aged 12 to 19, of whom 314 were male and 66 were female; more than one-half of the sample had been incarcerated before (58.4%).
This research employed three types of general strain—the presence of noxious stimuli, the removal of positively valued stimuli, and vicarious strain—comprising several individual strain measures that have been found to be significant for young offenders (e.g., Agnew 1985, 2002; Mazerolle, Piquero, & Capowich, 2003). Similar to other studies of general strain theory (Hoffmann & Miller, 1998; Mazerolle & Piquero, 1998), we created composite measures of the strains. See Appendix A for the specific research questions.
Presence of noxious stimuli. The first noxious stimuli variable was an additive scale that measured experiences of harsh punishment at home; each punishment a youth experienced was 1 point on the six-item scale.5 The second scale addressed the youth’s grades in his or her worst class (ranged from 1—mostly As and Bs to 4— mostly Fs). Finally, we created a composite noxious school strain variable using six measures of problems at school. Like harsh punishment, this was a summed scale with each item representing 1 point (scores ranged from 1 to 6).
Removal of Positively Valued Stimuli. The number of foster/group home placements was the first variable measuring this construct; we used a 10-point scale ranging from no placements to 50 or more placements.6 The second variable was the length of time the youth stayed away from home after running away; values ranged from never (coded as 1) to often (coded as 6). The final variable used for this construct included the number of times the youth changed schools, other than for a grade change, which for the majority of the sample was the result of moving or being expelled; this represented a powerful strain impacting the youth’s stability and educational attainment. This scale ranged from never (coded as 1) to 20 or more times (coded as 8).
Vicarious Strain. The vicarious strain measures were related to members of the young offender’s immediate (i.e., mother, father, sibling, step-parent, and step-sibling) and extended (i.e., uncle/ aunt, grandparent, cousin, and other) family. We created three summated eight-item vicarious strain scales based on the dichotomous yes/no responses to the questions: “Thinking about all the members of your family…, does anyone have a drinking problem? …has anyone been the victim of physical abuse?, and …does anyone have a criminal record?” Each “yes” response about a family member resulted in 1 point.
We used a comprehensive latent measure of negative emotionality. We developed this construct based on questions from the MAYSI-2 and measured offenders’ anger, depression, and anxiety.7 Each response in the affirmative resulted in 1 point.
Anger. The questions we used to assess youths’ recent feelings of anger included the following: “Have you lost your temper easily, or had a ‘short fuse’?; Have you been easily upset?; Have you felt angry a lot?; Have you gotten frustrated a lot?; Have you hurt or broken something on purpose, just because you were mad?; Have you had too many bad moods?; Have you thought a lot about getting back at someone you have been angry at?”8
Depression. The questions we used to assess youths’ recent feelings of depression included the following: “Have you felt lonely too much of the time?; Have you given up hope for your life?; Have you felt like you do not have fun with your friends anymore?; Has it been hard for you to feel close to people outside your family?; Have you felt too tired to have a good time?”9
Anxiety. The questions we used to assess youths’ recent feelings of anxiety included the following:
“Have nervous or worried feelings kept you from doing things you wanted to do?; Have you had nightmares that are bad enough to make you afraid to go to sleep?; Have you had a lot of trouble falling asleep or staying asleep?”
Institutional adjustment initially consisted of five manifest indicators we identified as important in the aforementioned adjustment literature; however, after preliminary assessments, we ultimately measured institutional adjustment using two final composite measures. The variables we used to measure the institutional adjustment constructs of institutional victimization and environmental stress were taken from a study that examined adjustment using inmate offending (see Hochstetler & DeLisi, 2005).
General Institutional Adjustment. This initial variable comprised several measures of custodial experiences found to influence youth in custody (Cesaroni & Peterson-Badali, 2005; Ireland, 2002; Kupchik & Snyder, 2009), including impressions of serious discrimination, assaults among residents, absence of privacy, noise, and program availability. We asked youth whether they strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed that these items were a serious problem in the institution. Due to this measurement model’s weak results, we developed two modified adjustment- related constructs.
Institutional Victimization. This final variable measured young offenders’ institutional perceptions related to the treatment of others while in custody, including the incidence of heated arguments, serious discrimination, assaults among residents, and bullying. We assessed these perceptions based on youths’ responses to questions asking whether they were aware of any of these problems within the custodial setting.
Institutional Environmental Stressors. This second and final latent adjustment construct comprised youths’ responses to questions measuring whether they perceived the absence of privacy in custody as stressful, the boredom in custody as stressful, or the noise in custody as stressful.10
Cronbach’s alpha assessed the internal consistency, or reliability, of these scales and provided acceptable values for all but one construct: presence of noxious stimuli (α = 0.20); removal of positively valued stimuli (α = 0.50); vicarious strain (α = 0.66); negative emotionality (α = 0.62); institutional victimization (α = 0.56); and institutional environmental stressors (α = 0.70).11
Following descriptive statistics, correlations, and crosstabs, we conducted multivariate principle component analysis (PCA) using varimax rotation to evaluate Agnew’s three categories of strain. In addition, we used PCA to evaluate a factor measuring negative emotionality (comprising anger, depression, and anxiety), and a factor measuring institutional adjustment. SEM then permitted close examination of the hypothesized relationship between general strain variables and institutional adjustment. We used multi-item measures of strains, paying careful attention to directionality and variable associations, both critical for general strain theory (Agnew, 1992).12
The mean age of youth in this study sample was 16 years old, which is representative of young offenders incarcerated for serious crimes in Canada. The sample was predominantly male (82.6%) and White (53.9%). Approximately onehalf (46.8%) of the sample had been in three or more care placements. Almost 60% had a history of abuse or harsh punishment at home. Almost the entire sample of incarcerated youth had been in trouble at school for serious problem behavior (95%) and a similar percentage (90.5%) had experimented with polysubstance use, a potential mechanism for coping with or responding to experiences of strain. Of those in the sample, 62.1% met the criteria for the caution range on the MAYSI-2 anger scale (see Grisso & Barnum, 2000). A number of incarcerated young offenders also experienced vicarious strains. In addition, institutional adjustment problems and stressors affected a number of young offenders in this sample (see Table 1).
Table 1. Sample of Serious Incarcerated Youth, Burnaby and Victoria, B.C., Canada 1998-2001 Descriptive Statistics
|Youth Profiles||Incarcerated Young Offenders
|Three or more care placements||46.8|
|Ever left home (yes)||88.2|
|In trouble at school for serious behaviors||95.0|
|Worst grades in school – Mostly Fs||50.0|
|Family drinking problem||64.5||2.39||1.25|
|Family physical abuse||57.1||2.12||1.18|
|Family criminal record||74.2||2.52||1.18|
|Serious discrimination was a probleme||51.3|
|Assaults among residents was a problem||43.5|
|Bullying was a serious problem||72.6|
|Absence of privacy was stressful||47.9|
|Boredom was stressful||74.0|
|Noise level was stressful||50.0|
|Not enough educational programs||31.6|
Bivariate crosstabulations enabled us to assess whether there were significant differences in the institutional experiences of young offenders of different genders and ages (youth aged 12 to 15, and youth aged 16 to 19). The results showed no significant differences between female and male young offenders, or between younger and older youth. The very small number of females in the sample may explain why there were no significant differences among them. Results also revealed no significant differences based on ethnic group identity. These findings suggested that multigroup SEM analysis was not necessary for this sample.13
To assess the validity of the measures, we examined correlations among the strain variables, negative emotionality, and institutional adjustment (see Table 2). Many of the correlations, although weak, were significant and indicated possible underlying connections between the related strain, emotion, and adjustment measures.
Principle Components Analysis (PCA)
The PCA with orthogonal varimax rotation generated four factors and produced three types of strain, consistent with Agnew’s theory, which encourages the focus on types—rather than sources—of strain. The PCA resulted in a statistically significant model containing the following factors: one representing the presence of noxious stimuli (comprising abuse/harsh punishment, school behavioral problems, and worsening school grades); a second representing the removal of positively valued stimuli (encompassing having left home, the number of care placements, and the number of times changed schools); a third representing vicarious strain (including family drinking problems, family physical abuse, and family criminal records); and, finally, a fourth representing negative emotionality, with anger, anxiety, and depression all loading together well. A second PCA also loaded the institutional measures on to one factor. The eigenvalue for the four-factor model was 3.21 and explained 57.75% of the variance.14
Table 2. Correlations between Strain, Negative Emotionality, and Institutional Adjustment Measures
Confirmatory Factor Analysis (CFA)/Measurement Model
The initial full CFA institutional adjustment model (M1), which included the presence of noxious stimuli, removal of positive stimuli, vicarious strain, and negative emotionality, presented only a fair fit to the data [X2(109) = 205.54, X2/df = 1.89, SRMSR = 0.05, RMSEA = 0.05, CFI = 0.90, NFI = 0.82] and coefficient concerns. Due to measurement and model concerns, we developed two final models that included removal of positively valued stimuli, vicarious strain, negative emotionality, and two modified constructs for institutional adjustment measures. The first of these models was institutional victimization, which comprised serious resident discrimination, resident assaults, and institutional bullying; the second was institutional environmental stressors, which comprised the absence of privacy as stressful, boredom as stressful, and noise as stressful. These models presented excellent measurement model fit, and acceptable/high and statistically significant path coefficients (p < .001) (see Table 3).
Table 3. Measurement Model Path Coefficients—Strains, Negative Emotionality, and Institutional Adjustment (N = 380)
|Parameters||Initial Full Strain Model||Final Model Victimization||Final Model Stressors|
|Loadings on the Noxious Stimuli Dimension|
|School behavioral problems||.50***||–||–|
|Worst school grades||0.12||–||–|
|Loadings on the Removed Positive Stimuli Dimension|
|Ran away from home||.57***||.57***||.56***|
|Number of care placements||.43***||.47***||.48***|
|Number of times changedschools||.53***||.51***||.50***|
|Loadings on the Vicarious Strain Dimension|
|Family drinking problem||.61***||.61***||.61***|
|Family physical abuse||.80***||.80***||.80***|
|Family criminal record||.70***||.69***||.69***|
|Loadings on the Negative Emotionality Dimension|
|Loadings on the Institutional Adjustment Dimension|
|Serious resident discrimination||.53***||–||–|
|Absence of privacy was stressful||.52***||–||–|
|Noise was stressful||.55***||–||–|
|Lack of education programs||.13*||–||–|
|Loadings on the Institutional Victimization Dimension|
|Serious resident discrimination||–||.67***||–|
|Loadings on the Institutional Environmental Stressors Dimension|
|Absence of privacy was stressful||–||–||.66***|
|Boredom was stressful||–||–||.52***|
|Noise was stressful||–||–||.58***|
SEM—Structural Models and Path Diagrams
Final Model Results
The fit indices for the first of the final SEM strain models measuring institutional victimization (M2) were as follows: [X2(51) = 120.07, X2/ df = 2.35, SRMSR = 0.09, RMSEA = 0.06 (90% CI = 0.046 – 0.074), CFI = 0.92, NFI = 0.90]. For the second final SEM strain model measuring institutional environmental stressors (M3) the fit indices were: [X2(51) = 111.61, X2/df = 2.19, SRMSR = 0.08, RMSEA = 0.06 (90% CI = 0.042 – 0.070), CFI = 0.93, NFI = 0.90]. The RMSEA, CFI, and NFI values were acceptable. The factor loadings for all of the constructs were significant (p < 0.001) and in the expected directions, as were the path coefficients to the indicator constructs. The paths were also highly significant (p < 0.001); the path models’ coefficients are shown in Figure 1 and Figure 2, respectively. The results indicate that preexisting general strains, including the removal of positively valued stimuli and vicarious strain, influenced feelings of anger, anxiety, and depression among young offenders incarcerated for serious crimes; furthermore, the results indicate that these negative emotions influenced young offenders’ negative perceptions of institutional victimization (i.e., the prevalence of assaults, discrimination, and bullying), as well as their custodial stress levels based on noise, boredom, and lack of privacy.
Consistent with general strain theory, this study supports the hypothesis that young offenders’ disposition, or negative emotionality, is influenced by a number of strains identified in Agnew’s theory, which leads to concerns about the institutional adjustment of incarcerated youth. The best fitting SEM models were two separate models of adjustment and included the following constructs: removal of positively valued stimuli, vicarious strain, and negative emotionality. The exclusion of noxious stimuli was not indicative of the unimportance of this strain in institutional adjustment, but instead was likely due to the inability to achieve such a suitable latent construct for this sample (see also the weak, unstable correlations). The variables that represented this strain (e.g., poor grades) were pervasive among youth in the sample and led to problems with the model. Variables that could have better represented this construct include adverse peer relationships and problems in the community.
Figure 1. Model 2 Path Diagram—Strain, Negative Emotionality, and Institutional Victimization.
Figure 2. Model 3 Path Diagram—Strain, Negative Emotionality, and Institutional Environmental Stressors.
Although the present study accounted for multiple strain-related emotions that are important for both males and females, we found no significant differences between male and female offenders in relation to the study’s key measures (see Broidy & Agnew, 1997; Hay, 2003). While these findings may be explained by the small number of girls in the sample, this is not the only study to have such outcomes. Research has utilized mixedgender samples to compare experiences of strain, as well as custodial misconduct, and found that certain forms of strain had a similar influence on both males and females (Cauffman, Piquero, Broidy, Espelage, & Mazerolle, 2004; Hoffmann & Su, 1997; Neff & Waite, 2007). Additional research shows that aggression may be similarly expressed by males and females (see Odgers & Moretti, 2002). This finding may be readily applicable to those incarcerated females in Canada who are the most serious/violent young offenders.
The results of the SEM, which produced two separate models to measure institutional adjustment, were unexpected. We hypothesized the need to distinguish institutional misconduct and related adjustment problems from general institutional adjustment; however, our findings further indicated that while studying the latter, it is important to examine distinct types of correctional adjustment. These findings demonstrate a complex relationship among adjustment, importation, deprivation, strain, and likely coping measures, and highlight the value of exploring these intricate relationships.
One potential explanation for finding two separate institutional measures in this study is that each one measured distinct experiences—exposure to institutional victimization (e.g., being exposed to bullying and fighting) and institutional environmental stressors (e.g., noise and lack of privacy). Not only are these distinct experiences, but it is likely that some young offenders were more susceptible to one type of adjustment problem than another. Within custody, youth are divided into living units and programs based on their physical and emotional characteristics, as well as their offending profiles (e.g., violent versus property offenses); those with diverse offender profiles are likely to be affected differently by various strains, emotions (e.g., anger versus depression), and ensuing adjustment factors.
Other researchers have recognized the multidimensionality of institutional adjustment. Van Tongeren and Klebe (2010), who studied the differences in adjustment among female offenders, presented an overview of the approaches used to assess adjustment and proposed that research examining institutional adjustment would benefit from using expanded definitions and operationalization. Van Tongeren and Klebe’s (2010) study highlighted the importance of further exploring these differences and more closely assessing typologies of young offender adjustment; these distinctions are also likely to lead to varying outcomes in custody and once released. Such notions support studies such as the present one, which demonstrates the need to distinguish types of offenders and offender characteristics, coping mechanisms, and protective factors.
In line with the multidimensionality of adjustment, the results of this study support the examination of young offenders’ daily experiences and perceptions of the prison environment, rather than their institutional infractions alone. The latent outcome measures representing adjustment mirrored variables that are often employed as deprivation measures and suggest that general strain theory is a useful extension of the importation and deprivation models in the study of prison adjustment. Offenders who have experienced early strains are more likely to be susceptible to problems in custody, which is worsened by the preexisting negative emotionality; poor coping skills and the limited avenues available in custody to manage this exigent combination can only intensify the problem (Cesaroni & Peterson- Badali, 2010; DeLisi et al., 2010b; Houser, Belenko, & Brennan, 2011; Taylor et al., 2007).
This study’s findings are notable because youth may have difficulties adjusting to custody, yet they may never induce staff interference. While it is important to know which young offenders are more likely to cause problems or “offend” in custody, it is also important to determine factors that may contribute to general institutional experiences, which may also interfere with rehabilitation readiness and program matching for the young offenders serving extended sentences in custody. Moreover, Andrews and Bonta’s (2010) risk-need-responsivity model demonstrates the enormous impact of correctional programs that incorporate not only criminogenic needs, but also offender strengths, such as strong family relationships or high educational level.
The present study builds on the young offender prison adjustment research, first by assessing young offenders’ perceptions of institutional victimization and environmental stressors compared to the commonly used measure, institutional misconduct (e.g., Blevins et al., 2010; DeLisi et al., 2011; MacDonald, 1999; Morris et al., 2012) and, second, by using self-report data. Unlike incident reports, which may not account for all misbehavior and in which there is often an absence of context (for example, why the youth acted out, the youth’s behavior and experiences leading up to the misconduct, and the response of the correctional staff ), this approach minimized limitations found in earlier studies (Cesaroni & Peterson-Badali, 2005). Finally, this research provides support for the inclusion of general strain variables in prison adjustment research.
The identification of young offenders with a high number of pre-custody strains may enable correctional staff to help youth adapt with greater ease and provide specific supports (e.g., programs that address historical experiences of trauma, neglect, rejection, familial issues, and that can assist in the development of coping skills and anger management). Such supports can help minimize the impact of earlier external strains, alleviate some of the stress of custody, and encourage a positive environment and rehabilitative experience (see Trulson et al., 2010). This may be critical, since prior prison conduct problems have been linked to future custodial problems among adult prisoners (Drury & DeLisi, 2010).
This approach could also extend to the community, since highly strained young offenders who have perceived their custodial experience as negative are likely to have extensive problems with community reentry; this is especially true if youth return to situations in which the strains are present. Research has also examined the impact of custodial strains on recidivism, and although some studies have suggested that custodial behaviors (i.e., misconduct) are not related to post-release recidivism (Trulson, DeLisi, & Marquart, 2011), other studies have found significant support for this relationship (Lattimore et al., 2004; Listwan et al., 2012; Mears et al., 2008; Trulson et al., 2005). One study found that the probability of continued antisocial activity (e.g., having antisocial peers) was reduced when offenders’ perceptions of the institutional climate were positive (Schubert, Mulvey, Loughran, & Losoya, 2012). As misconduct can indicate underlying problems and the need for interventions to promote positive institutional adjustment and post-release success (Trulson et al., 2011), the perceptions of victimization and stress levels on the part of young offenders incarcerated for serious/ violent crimes may be equally important to explore.
This study focused on incarcerated high-risk, predominantly male young offenders in British Columbia, Canada, and is not necessarily generalizable to other institutions in Canada or internationally. The research included a comprehensive application of general strain theory; however, it did not control for variables that can be important in criminological research on young offenders, such as age, gender, and ethnicity; similar limitations have been acknowledged in strain research (see Agnew, 2002). There were, in addition, no peer strain variables, which have been found to influence delinquency (Agnew & White, 1992) and adjustment (Ireland, 2002). The present study also concentrated on the impact of negative factors. Current research on the risk-need-responsivity model and the good lives model, however, encourages inclusion of prosocial factors present in an offender’s life (e.g., self-concept, stability of relationship[s], suitability of educational and social supports, and coping models and mechanisms), which may be critical to better institutional adjustment (French & Gendreau, 2006) and intervention outcomes for offenders (see Fortune, Ward, & Willis, 2012).
The use of self-report data in this study offers a valuable perspective; however, it can also be considered a limitation, since youths’ accounts can be distorted—intentionally for protection, or unintentionally as a result of faulty memory or impression-management. This study also relied on cross-sectional data, which raises concerns about the causal order of the study’s measures; contemporaneous and reciprocal effects of the variables on one another are likely. For example, victimization increases the likelihood for engaging in delinquency, and engaging in delinquent conduct also increases individuals’ probability of being victimized (Agnew, 2002).
Future studies on general strain theory and institutional adjustment should control for standard demographic variables commonly used in criminological research, especially age, gender, and ethnicity. It would be especially useful to test this study’s main hypothesis on a larger sample of incarcerated female young offenders only, as they may be influenced differently by certain types of strain (Blackburn & Trulson, 2010). Since this study was primarily exploratory, researchers should also control for additional variables that are likely to have an impact on institutional adjustment, such as variables from the importation and deprivation models as proposed by Blevins et al. (2010), as well as factors that may mediate the influence of experienced and vicarious strains (Agnew, 2002).
The role of situational versus trait-based emotions and their relationship to strains and institutional adjustment should also be assessed in future research (see Mazerolle et al., 2003). Following this, research that explores the dynamics of adjustment at varying times during a young offender’s custodial term would also help us to understand the impact of lengthier stays in custody on young offenders’ stress levels, well-being, program participation and success, and overall adaptation, as well as on potential outcomes once released from custody.
About the Authors
Adrienne M. F. Peters, MA, is a doctoral candidate in the School of Criminology and project director for the Study of Specialized Community Case Management of Young Offenders, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada. Her research interests include serious/violent and mentally disordered young offenders; young offender treatment, programming and rehabilitation; and youth justice policies and legislation.
Raymond R. Corrado, PhD, is a professor in the School of Criminology and the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University and a visiting professor in the Faculty of Law, University of Bergen, Norway. He has written books, journal articles, and book chapters on a variety of policy issues, including juvenile justice, violent young offenders, mental health, adolescent psychopathology, Aboriginal victimization, and terrorism.
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Appendix: Description of Measures
- Have your parents ever punished you by—Hit me with hand/fist? Hit me with an object? Have your parents ever punished you by—Locked out of home? Have your parents ever punished you by—Lock me in closet or other room? Have you ever left home for more than a day by your own choice?
- Thinking about your worst class in school, what kind of grades did you usually get? (mostly As, mostly Bs, mostly Cs, mostly Ds, or mostly Fs)?
- School behavior—Have you ever been taken out of regular classes to go to an alternative school that could focus on your specific needs? Have you ever been in trouble at school for intimidating or bullying other students? Have you ever been in trouble for physically fighting with another student at school? Have you ever been in trouble at school for striking or hitting another student? Have you ever been in trouble at school for striking or hitting a teacher?
Removal of positively valued stimuli
- How many different foster placements have you had?
- How many times have you changed schools other than when required for grade changes?
- How many times have you left home for longer than 24 hours by your own choice?
- Thinking about all the members of your family, does anyone have a drinking problem? If so, who?
- Thinking about all the members of your family, does anyone have a drug problem? If so, who?
- Thinking about all the members of your family, has anyone been the victim of physical abuse? If so, who?
- Anger—Have you lost your temper easily, or had a “short fuse”? Have you been easily upset? Have you felt angry a lot? Have you gotten frustrated a lot? Have you hurt or broken something on purpose, just because you were mad?
- Depression—Have you felt lonely too much of the time? Have you given up hope for your life? Have you felt like you don’t have fun with your friends anymore? Has it been hard for you to feel close to people outside your family? Have you felt too tired to have a good time?
- Anxiety—Have nervous or worried feelings kept you from doing things you wanted to do? Have you had nightmares that are bad enough to make you afraid to go to sleep? Have you had a lot of trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? Answer using strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree.
Institutional adjustment (strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree)
- There are not enough education programs available to meet my needs at this institution.
- Residents at this institution have been seriously discriminated against by other residents based on their religion, race, or sexual orientation.
- The number of assaults among residents is a problem in this institution.
- Thinking of prison, I found the absence of privacy to be stressful.
- I found the noise in prison to be stressful.
Institutional victimization (strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree)
- The number of heated arguments is a problem in this institution.
- Residents at this institution have been seriously discriminated against by other residents based on their religion, race, or sexual orientation.
- The number of assaults among residents is a problem in this institution.
- There is a lot of bullying in this institution.
Institutional environmental stress (strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree)
- Thinking of prison, I found the absence of privacy to be stressful.
- Thinking of prison, I found the boredom to be stressful.
- I found the noise in prison to be stressful.