American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Special Populations: Prison Populations - 2004 Edition

Studies of the relationship between communication disorders and delinquency, violence, and incarceration date back to the 1920s. In the years that followed, a limited number of investigators continued to explore this relationship. What has generally been found in the literature is that there is a high level of speech, language, and hearing impairments, as well as learning disorders, present in the juvenile detention and state prison populations (1). The relative lack of attention to this topic may have several causes, including lack of awareness of the fundamental importance of adequate communication skills, general societal disinterest in the welfare of incarcerated persons, and a paucity of funding sources for further research (2).

General Demographics

  • Although representing a small proportion of the general United States population, individuals incarcerated in correctional institutions represent a neglected group with respect to receiving speech, language, and hearing services (3).
  • Some relationships have been implied between the presence of communication disorders and other variables, such as I.Q. and cultural or economic deprivation in the prison population (4).
  • Prevalence data on specific communication disorders varies widely within available sample studies. One factor that may contribute to this variation is limited diagnostic capability of the screening measures. For example, different criteria for defining an impairment and differences in conducting screenings could contribute to the variability (4).
  • Although the reported incidence of speech, language, and hearing impairments among adult male prisoners is significantly higher than that for the general population, very little research concerning the occurrence of communication disorders among female prison inmates has been published (5).
  • It is clear that more research is needed to understand the impact of disability on delinquent behavior. A number of hypothesized relationships exist but empirical evidence is scarce (6).

Speech/Language/Voice Disorders

  • The prevalences for articulation and fluency disorders are comparable to prevalence figures in the general population (8).
  • While few studies have investigated the language abilities in prison populations, one study suggests that the incidence of deficient language skills is considerably greater in that population than in noninstitutionalized adult groups. The results of this study indicate a considerable potential deficiency of receptive vocabulary skills (7).
  • According to one study, the incidence of language and communication problems among female juvenile delinquents is approximately three times the figures cited for adolescents in the general population (9).
  • A high prevalence rate of voice disorders among offender populations has been reported in the literature (8, 10). This may be attributed, in part, to the interaction of a variety of factors such as chronic upper respiratory infection, allergy, smoking, and substance abuse (11).
  • A typical vocal pattern noted in studies of the prison population included excessive breathiness, perceived lowered pitch, excessive vocal tension, throat clearing, and coughing. Of individuals identified with abnormal vocal quality in one study, almost 66% were noted to have physical characteristics of vocal abuse (e.g., swelling, inflammation, nodules, or polyps) (4, 8).

Hearing Disorders

  • The majority of studies report the incidence of hearing loss in prisoners to be approximately 30% (2).
  • Variability in reported incidence ranges may be attributed to the limited nature of screening measures and different assessment criteria used in various studies. Other factors may include testing environment, sensory distraction, ambient noise, and hearing screening levels (11).
  • The type and degree of hearing loss found in prison populations is diverse, with middle ear abnormalities yielding the highest incidence, followed by sensory and nonorganic hearing loss (11).
  • One explanation for the high incidence of hearing loss among inmates is that early loss can cause poor language skills, frustration, academic problems, and inadequate social skills. These in turn may lead to school drop out, juvenile delinquency, and eventual criminal behavior (14).
  • Research designs for further study of hearing disorders in offender populations might address various subgroups within the populations (e.g., juveniles, females, federal penitentiary inmates) in order to specify the nature and etiologies of hearing problems in the prison population and the contribution of hearing loss to offender behavior and substance abuse (15).

Learning Disabilities/Literacy

  • The relationship between learning disability and juvenile delinquency has been more closely examined than that between communication disorders and violence. However, learning disabilities and communication disorders are closely intertwined; thus the numerous studies of learning disability in juveniles are pertinent to communication disorders. Many individuals diagnosed with learning disabilities have one or more communication disorders (2).
  • Approximately 80% of prison inmates are reported to be functionally illiterate (12).
  • Although recent studies have focused on reading and writing disabilities among inmates in prisons and juvenile institutions, little attention has been paid to different types of reading and writing difficulties (13).


  1. ASHA. (1973). Task force on speech pathology and audiology service needs in prisons . Unpublished technical report.
  2. Zingeser, L. (1995, July). Communication disorders and violence (Technical information packet, item #0111978). Rockville, MD: ASHA.
  3. U.S. Bureau of the Census. (1997). Statistical abstract of the United States: 1997 (177 th ed.). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
  4. Sample, M.H., Montague, J.C., & Buffalo, M.D. (1989). Variables related to communicative disorders in an adult prison sample. Journal of Criminal Justice, 17 , 457-470.
  5. Wagner, C.O., Gray, L.L., & Potter, R.E. (1983). Communicative disorders in a group of adult female offenders. Journal of Communication Disorders, 16 , 269-277.
  6. Quinn, M.M., Rutherford, R.B., & Leone, P.E. (N.D.). Students with disabilities in correctional facilities. ERIC Digest (Pub. No. ED461958). ARC Professional Services Group, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education.
  7. Bountress, N., & Richards, J. (1979). Speech, language, and hearing disorders in an adult penal institution. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 44 , 293-300.
  8. Belenchia, T.A., & Crowe, T.A. (1983, July). Prevalence of speech and hearing disorders in a state penitentiary population. Journal of Communication Disorders, 16 (4): 279-285.
  9. Sanger, D.D., & Decker, T.N. (1999, Sept./Oct.). Communication behaviors of female juvenile delinquents: Has auditory sensitivity been overlooked? Hearing Health, 15 (5): 30.
  10. Crowe, T.A., Walton, J.H., & Burnett, W.J. (1990). Voice disorders in a state penitentiary. Corrective and Social Psychiatry and Journal of Behavior Technology, 36 , 8-12.
  11. Jacobson, C.A., Jacobson, J.T., & Crowe, T.A. (1989). Hearing loss in prison inmates. Ear and Hearing, 10 , 178-183.
  12. Moody, K.C., Holzer, C.E. III, Roman, M.J., et. al. (2000, June). Prevalence of dyslexia among Texas prison inmates. Texas Medicine, 96 (6): 69-75.
  13. Svenson, I., Lundberg, I., & Jacobson, C. (2001, April/June). The prevalence of reading and spelling difficulties among inmates of institutions for compulsory care of juvenile delinquents. Dyslexia, 7 (2): 62-76.
  14. Zingeser, L. (1999, Sept./Oct.). Communication disorders and violence. Hearing Health, 15 (5): 26-30.
  15. Wylde, M.A., Crowe, T.A., Walton, J.H., et. al. (1989). Hearing disorders in a state penitentiary. Corrective and Social Psychiatry and Journal of Behavior Technology, 35 , 65-68.

Compiled by Andrea Castrogiovanni * American Speech-Language-Hearing Association * 2200 Research Boulevard, Rockville, MD 20850 *

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