We rely on your tax-deductible donations to support our mission. Donate online →
Most Policy Initiative logo
Browse Research TOPICS

Prison Misconduct

Categorized under
Download pdf
Written by Dr. Sarah Anderson
Published on July 9, 2024
Research Highlights

Prisons with work release and substance use treatment programs have less contraband.

Inmates die of higher rates of cancer, suicide, and homicide compared to adult U.S. residents.

In MO prisons, half of sexual harassment and assault is committed by staff.

Staff conduct and the ratio of staff to inmates impacts inmates’ health and safety.

Prisons require a variety of staff to run (DOC):

  • corrections officers
  • operations staff (e.g. food service workers, maintenance staff)
  • classification staff (e.g. case managers),
  • clerical staff
  • medical staff

Larger staff-to-inmate ratios increase the likelihood of assaults on prison staff and inmates and decrease the likelihood of contraband recovery (Peterson 2024; Lahm 2009).

In prisons with less staff, inmates spend more time locked up to maintain security and have less access to educational programs, vocational training, drug treatment and faith-based reentry programs due to wait lists when there are not enough instructors (GAO 2012). In MO, there are about 2,000 unfilled positions in the DOC which includes staff in prisons, probation and parole, and administration (MO OA 2024, 2023).

A small study of interviews with people who had been incarcerated in prison in the past year found that prison staff impacted violence, access to healthcare, and contraband availability (Novisky 2021). Men reported that staff would at times perpetrate physical violence or be slow to respond to fights.

Female respondents gave examples of sexual violence where staff would sexually assault inmates. In MO, there were 677 allegations of sexual abuse and harassment (DOC 2022). Eighty-one of the allegations were substantiated with half of the perpetrators being other inmates and half being staff.


Some contraband perpetuates crime, addiction, and violence.

Contraband is any material or item unauthorized by the prison administration (e.g. drugs, cigarettes, or tools taken out of a work area; Peterson 2021). A survey of 300 prisons from 6 states found that the most common contraband items are weapons, cell phones, and drugs.

In prison, cells phones are primarily used for contacting friends and family and for conducting criminal activity (e.g. planning an escape, threatening witnesses, facilitating gang activity; Fitzgerald 2010). There are no U.S. studies quantifying how many crimes have been carried out with a contraband cellphone. However, prison staff perceive cell phones as a major security threat.

These contraband items are more likely to be found in prisons that are maximum security, male, have industry work, have a higher ratio of staff to inmates, and have a higher number of contraband screening interventions (Peterson 2024). There are fewer reports of contraband in prisons with work release programs and substance use treatment programs.

It is unclear why a higher ratio of staff to inmates results in more contraband being recovered. One idea is more staff to search for contraband results in more contraband being found (Peterson 2024). However, former inmates report that staff are a primary source of drugs in prison (Novisky 2021).


Many inmates do not have access to quality healthcare.

The prison mortality rate rose from 2.50 per 1,000 to 3.30 per 1,000 from 2001 - 2019, nationally, and in MO the rate rose from 3.4 per 1,000 to 5.6 per 1,000 from 2019 - 2022 (BJS 2021, 2023, 2022, 2021a). While there has been an increase in suicides, drug/alcohol intoxication, and homicide during this time most deaths in prison are due to illness, mainly heart disease and cancer (Figure 1). However, inmates die of higher rates of cancer, suicide, and homicide compared to U.S. residents (BJS 2021).

Among inmates from 2001-2019, cancer deaths increased 56%, suicides 85%, and homicides 267%. Prior inmates report medical neglect as the most common form of prison staff misconduct (Novisky 2021). Inattention and lack of urgency to health-related problems was the rule rather than the exception.

These interviews are supported by survey results (Wilper 2009). A large survey of state inmates found that

  • 20% with a persistent medical problem had no medical care since incarceration
  • 25% taking prescription medication for an active medical problem stopped following incarceration
  • 12% who had a serious injury while incarcerated were not seen by medical personnel

A journalist investigation found that jails that used privatized healthcare services had death rates 18% - 58% higher than jails whose healthcare was managed by public agencies (Reuters 2020). There are no studies or investigations if this trend is the same in prisons.

Read our Memo Prison Standards to learn about the rights of MO inmates and the rules and regulations in MO prisons.


Figure 1. Number of deaths in state prisons separated by cause from 2001 – 2019. The chart shows the total number of deaths each year (e.g. 3,853 deaths in 2019) and what was the cause of those deaths (e.g. in 2019 311 deaths from suicide and 1,038 from heart disease). Data from Bureau of Justice Statistics 2021.


Works Cited

Carson, E. A. (2021, December). Mortality in State and Federal Prisons, 2001 - 2019 - Statistical Tables. Retrieved from Bureau of Justice Statistics: https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/msfp0119st.pdf

Carson, E. A. (2021, December). Prisoners in 2020 - Statistical Tables. Retrieved from Bureau of Justice Statistics: https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/p20st.pdf

Carson, E. A. (2022, December). Prisoners in 2021 - Statistical Tables. Retrieved from Bureau of Justice Statistics: https://bjs.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh236/files/media/document/p21st.pdf

Carson, E. A., & Kluckow, R. (2023, November). Prisoners in 2022 - Statistical Tables. Retrieved from Bureau of Justice Statistics: https://bjs.ojp.gov/document/p22st.pdf

Fitzgerald, Erin, Cell 'Block' Silence: Why Contraband Cellular Telephone Use in Prisons Warrants Federal Legislation to Allow Jamming Technology (December 2010). Wisconsin. Law Review, Vol. 2010, p. 1269, 2010, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1614444

Lahm, K. F. (2009). Inmate Assaults on Prison Staff: A Multilevel Examination of an Overlooked Form of Prison Violence. The Prison Journal, 89(2), 131-150. https://doi.org/10.1177/0032885509334743 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0032885509334743

Missouri Department of Corrections. (2022). 2022 PREA Annual Report. Retrieved from Missouri Department of Corrections: https://doc.mo.gov/media/pdf/2022-prea-annual-report

Missouri Department of Corrections. (n.d.). New Staff. Retrieved from Missouri Department of Corrections: https://doc.mo.gov/divisions/human-services/staff/welcome

Missouri Office of Administration. (2023, June 30). State of Missouri Annual Comprehensive Financial Report. Retrieved from Missouri Office of Administration: https://acct.oa.mo.gov/media/report/annual-comprehensive-financial-report-fiscal-year-ended-june-30-2023

Missouri Office of Administration. (2024). The Missouri Budget Fiscal Year 2025. Retrieved from Missouri Office of Administration: https://oa.mo.gov/sites/default/files/Budget_Summary_%28all%29_FY_2025_updated_3-4-2024.pdf

Novisky, M. A., Narvey, C. S., & Piquero, A. R. (2022). The Keepers: Returning Citizens’ Experiences With Prison Staff Misconduct. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 49(7), 1010-1030. https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548211028895 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00938548211028895

Peterson, B., Kizzort, M., Kim, K., & Shukla, R. (2021). Prison Contraband: Prevalence, Impacts, and Interdiction Strategies. Corrections8(5), 428–445. https://doi.org/10.1080/23774657.2021.1906356 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23774657.2021.1906356

Peterson, B. E., Dim, K. D., & Shulka, R. (2024). The Sociology of Contraband: Examining the Correlates of Illicit Drugs, Cellphones, and Weapons in U.S. Prisons. The Prison Journal, 404–422. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/00328855241240143

Smith, G., Eilser, P., So, L., Parker, N., Heath, B., & Szep, J. (2020). Dying Inside: The Hidden Crisis in America's Jails. Retrieved from Reuters Investigates: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-jails-graphic/

United States Government Accountability Office. (2012). Burearu of Prisons Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure. Retrieved from https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-12-743.pdf

Wilper, A. P., Woolhandler, S., Boyd, J. W., Lasser, K. E., McCormick, D., Bor, D. H., & Himmelstein, D. U. (2009). The Health and Health Care of US Prisoners: Results of a Nationwide Survey. American Journal of Public Health, 666-672. Retrieved from https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/epdf/10.2105/AJPH.2008.144279

Most Policy Initiative logo
238 E High St., 3rd Floor
Jefferson City, MO 65101
© 2024 MOST Policy Initiative | Website design and development by Pixel Jam Digital
Privacy Policy
chevron-down linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram