Psychological profiling of hostage takers in prison

It was a sunny Tuesday morning when the call came over the two-way radio: “Special Housing to Dr. Smith.” “Go for Dr. Smith,” I replied. “Phone 20?” requested the voice over the radio. After providing my phone extension I received the call informing me that my presence was needed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) where an inmate had taken his cell mate hostage and was threatening to kill him unless he was placed in a cell by himself. The inmate had somehow managed to tie his cell mate up to the bunk bed frame with torn sheets and had several razor blades taken from disposable razors give to him to shave. As far as hostage negotiations go, this one was pretty straight forward. After demonstrating such proclivity for violence and extreme measures, this inmate would likely remain celled alone for the remained or his time in SHU. The event was brought to a peaceful resolution with the inmate submitting to restraints.

In many ways this event was typical of hostage situations. In other it was not. Most hostage situations are spontaneous with the hostage taker making an impulsive decision out of fear or frustration. Additionally, the majority of hostage situations are resolved within minutes to a few hours. While we don’t know whether the SHU incident was planned or spontaneous, where it does differ from the normal hostage situation is that is occur in a secured correctional institution. Contrary to what the average person may believe based on a limited knowledge of what really goes on inside prisons, the occurrence of inmates taking hostages, whether they be staff or other inmates, is quite rare. According to the FBI’s Hostage and Barricaded Database System (HOBAS), a data collection research instrument, it is more likely that a hostage incident will occur in a barn than a prison.

Early literature focused on the situation profile of hostage events. In other words, training resources for negotiators discussed the situational context of the incident rather than the characteristics of the hostage taker (HT). For example, the “psycho” HT included all mentally ill inmates who took hostages while in the midst of some delusional/psychotic/emotionally unstable episode and those who pretend to be mentally ill to meet some desired end. Other contextual profiles included the “situational” HT in which an inmate impulsively takes a hostage in an attempt to solve a problem or escape some particular situation, the “grievance airer” who takes a hostage to call attention to some grievance, the “escape plan” HT who takes a hostage as part of a preplanned escape plot, the “riot-related” HT who takes a hostage in the violent upheaval of a riot, and the “terrorist” who takes hostage as part of a plot to create fear and disruption. (Prison Hostage Situations, 1983)

While recognizing the situational context that hostage situations are likely to occur in is important to the preparation and ultimate resolution of the crisis, much attention has to be paid to the psychological profiles of HTs. This has been the focus of more recent literature as overtime it has been demonstrated that the strategies for responding in hostage situations are more successful when accounting for psychological characteristics of HTs than the situational context.

Expanding on the standard psychological profiles taught by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (and based on those taught by the FBI), a colleague and I proposed the following psychological profiles (Combs & Smith, 2009): 

1)      Antisocial Personality:
a.       Characteristics
Tend to lack empathy
Are cold, cynical, and arrogant
Charming, well groomed, and articulate
Irresponsible and exploitative in personal relationships
May have spent many years in prison
b.      Common Behaviors
In jail or prison often
Cons others for profit
Impulsive, irritable and aggressive
Displays reckless behavior
Engages in high-risk sex and drug abuse
Indifferent to having hurt, abused, or mistreating someone else
2)      Emotionally Unstable
a.       Characteristics
Undermine themselves as they near a goal
Completion rate of suicide is higher than general population
History of self-inflicted injuries
Experience psychotic-like behavior during times of stress
Recurrent job losses, interrupted education, and broken marriage are common
Childhood histories may include physical and sexual abuse, neglect, early parental loss
b.      Common Behaviors
Exhibit violent or agitated behaviors to avoid real or imagined abandonment
A pattern of unstable relationships
Undergo identity disturbances
Impulsive in areas that can be self-damaging
Mood is unstable and unpleasant
Difficulty controlling their anger resulting in outbursts and physical fights
Stress related feelings and beliefs that they are being harassed or treated unfairly
3)      Seriously Mentally Ill: Schizophrenia
a.       Characteristics & Common Behaviors
Presence of hallucinations and delusions
Social isolation or withdrawal
Peculiar behavior
Decrease in personal hygiene and grooming
Unusual speech patterns
May exhibit paranoia
May have poor treatment (medication) compliance
4)      Seriously Mentally Ill: Depression
a.       Characteristics & Common Behaviors
Moods are depressed, sad, hopeless, or down in the dumps
Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
Reduction in sexual interest
Mood may be irritable rather than sad in children or adolescents
Weight loss and sleep problems
Feels exhausted or lack of energy
Diminished ability to think, concentrate, or make decisions
Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide are common
More often barricade situation than hostage taking
5)      Substance Intoxication
a.       Characteristics & Common Behaviors
Slurred speech
Rapidly changing emotions
May exhibit psychotic symptoms
Superman complex
The above psychological profiles are by no means an exhaustive, one-size-fits-all collection. They are simply a means of developing a practical understanding  and strategies for negotiating with HTs.

Combs, M. &  Smith, J. (2009). Hostage Taker Profiles – Revised. Federal Correctional Complex, Beaumont, TX.
National Institute of Corrections. (1983). Corrections Information Series: Prison Hostage Situations.

This article is authored by Jerry D. Smith Jr., Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist and CEO at Breakthrough Psychological Solutions, PLLC.

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