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Study paints grim picture of inmates

Almost half the female inmates and 13 percent of jailed men have been abused sexually or physically at least once in their lives, according to a profile of the nation's local jail inmates released Sunday.

More than a quarter of the women _ 27 percent _ and 3 percent of men said the abuse included rape. Large numbers of the inmates grew up in single-parent homes, were children of dissolute parents or spent at least part of their childhood in homes on welfare or in public housing. More than a third _ 36 percent _ said they were unemployed before their most recent arrest.

The study by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics paints pictures of broken lives and gives clues to why more than half a million people ran afoul of local authorities last year.

"The tragedy is that people who have been victimized often become victimizers themselves," said Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington. "It's a cycle we could break, but it involves some expense. As a society, we haven't put our resources there."

Raymond Bell of Pennsylvania's Lehigh University said the study probably understates the proportion of inmates who have been abused.

"One of the things coming out in the juvenile courts is, more and more boys are reporting sexual abuse and incest in ways that 10 years ago they weren't," Bell said.

In the study, the bureau said that during the month before their arrest, 20 percent of inmates were seeking work, 16 percent were not looking, and almost half reported income of less than $600 a month.

By mid-1997, 567,079 inmates were lodged in the nation's 3,328 local jails, up 43 percent from 395,554 in mid-1989. The jails hold convicts awaiting sentencing and people serving sentences of a year or less.

The report's findings were extrapolated from a survey of more than 6,000 randomly selected inmates from 431 jails.

About 90 percent of the inmates were male. Thirty-seven percent were white, 41 percent black, 19 percent Hispanic and 3 percent were from other groups, including Asians, Pacific islanders and American Indians. The Census Bureau reports that blacks make up 12.7 percent of the nation's population, Hispanics 11 percent. The other groups are less than 5 percent.