Childhood Abuse and Incarceration Outcomes Among Young Women and Men

Deborah Kacanek, Harvard School of Public Health
Angela Browne, Harvard School of Public Health

This paper examines the association between violent victimization histories during childhood and incarceration outcomes among 18-25 year-old women and men incarcerated in the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institution, the sole facility for awaiting trial and sentenced inmates in the state. In this cross-sectional study, interviews were conducted from July 1999-October 2000 with a random sample of 18-25 year-old men (n=135) and women (n=69). While the 90-120 minute interview focused on HIV risk and sexual and drug use behavior, detailed questions also assessed physical and sexual abuse history during childhood and adolescence, socioeconomic and family characteristics, history of incarceration as an adolescent and young adult, and interpersonal violence victimization and perpetration. Over three-quarters -76%-of women and 60% of men had been sexually and/or severely physically assaulted during childhood. Interestingly, the proportions of women and men who experienced severe physical attacks by a parent or caretaker during childhood were similar: 54% and 55%, respectively. In contrast, significantly more women than men experienced child sexual abuse (58% vs. 11%). Fewer women than men had been incarcerated as juveniles (22% vs. 52%) or had been incarcerated more than once (68% vs. 90%). Among both women and men, neither sexual nor physical abuse was associated with being incarcerated as a teenager. Among women, being sexually abused during childhood was positively associated with being incarcerated more than once (OR=5.3, 95% CI=1.2, 22.7), whereas being severely physically assaulted by a parent or caretaker was not. Conversely, for men, being severely physically abused during childhood was associated with being incarcerated more than once (OR=4.2, 95% CI=1.1, 15.4) but being sexually abused was not. For both women and men, associations between physical and sexual abuse and prior incarceration history held after adjusting for age, race/ethnicity, education and family characteristics. Among women, multivariate analyses additionally adjusted for hard drug use, which was also associated with multiple incarcerations for women only (OR= 7.5, 95% CI=1.1, 50.3). The positive association between sexual abuse history and multiple incarcerations among women remained after further adjusting for hard drug use.

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Updated 05/20/2006