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Childhood abuse prevalent among Canadian prisoners, but more research needed: study

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More research is needed to better understand the association between a history of childhood abuse and incarceration, according to a McMaster University researcher.

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Claire Bodkin helped lead a study on the prevalence of childhood abuse among prisoners.

“We need to know the health status of people in prison, in order to improve health care and other services within correctional facilities, and to develop strategies to prevent further criminal justice system involvement,” said Claire Bodkin, first author and a medical student of McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.

Bodkin developed the research with Fiona Kouyoumdjian, who is an assistant professor in the department of family medicine.

The McMaster team found that through research spanning 31 years, the abuse was all-encompassing (physical, sexual, and emotional) and included neglect.

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Based on these studies, the prevalence of a history of child abuse affected 65.7 per cent of women compared with 35.5 per cent of men.

Sexual abuse was far more prevalent in women prisoners (50 per cent) than it was men (22 per cent).

Neglect, meanwhile, affected 52 per cent of women and 42 per cent of men.

“Prisons should incorporate trauma-informed approaches, to recognize that most people have a history of child abuse, and to prevent further trauma,” Bodkin said. “But at the end of the day, prisons are an inherently distressing environment. People in prison have minimal control over their daily activities or interactions, and are isolated from their coping mechanisms and support systems. A trauma informed approach only goes so far.”

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The prevalence of childhood physical abuse was 48 per cent and the prevalence of childhood emotional abuse was 52 per cent, with no significant differences between men and women.

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“We have a health equity issue on our hands, and we need to talk about how to reduce rates of incarceration in the first place,” Bodkin said. “We need to ask why this population has such a high prevalence of exposure to childhood abuse, and how to ensure people have access to the health and social services they need in community.”

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Bodkin added that since most people who experience childhood abuse do not go on to be imprisoned themselves, research should also be done to explore what protects those people from doing so.

Researchers on the paper were from the McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine and its department of family medicine, the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, St. Michael’s Hospital, and the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.

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