Psychological profiling of hostage takers in prison

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When attempting to resolve the conflict between parties, it is important to understand the motivations and psychological characteristics of those involved. This article takes a brief look at the psychological profiles relevant to the law enforcement community: those of incarcerated individuals who engage in violent or otherwise disruptive behavior, namely, hostage-taking.

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 cellmate hostage and was threatening to kill him unless he was placed in a cell by himself. The inmate had somehow managed to tie his cellmate up to the bunk bed frame with torn sheets and had several razor blades taken from disposable razors given to him to shave. As far as hostage negotiations go, this one was pretty straightforward. After demonstrating such proclivity for violence and extreme measures, this inmate would likely remain celled alone for the remainder of 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 in that it occurs in a secured correctional institution. Contrary to what the average person may believe based on 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 Barricade 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, or 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 over time 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:

  • Characteristics
    • Tend to lack empathy
    • Are cold, cynical, and arrogant
    • Charming, well-groomed, and articulate
    • Impulsive
    • Irresponsible and exploitative in personal relationships
    • May have spent many years in prison
  • 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

  • Characteristics
    • Undermine themselves as they near a goal
    • The completion rate of suicide is higher than the 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
  • 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
    • The 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

  • 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

  • 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 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

  • Characteristics & Common Behaviors
    • Slurred speech
    • Rapidly changing emotions
    • May exhibit psychotic symptoms
    • Impulsive
    • 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.

Dr. Jerry D. Smith Jr.

Dr. Jerry D. Smith Jr. is a seasoned clinical psychologist with a focus on forensic psychology. As a consultant and the founder of Breakthrough Psychological Solutions PLLC, he brings a wealth of expertise in correctional and personnel management, as well as corporate leadership. Skilled in crisis communication, conflict resolution, behavioral analysis, and the assessment of violent tendencies, Dr. Smith is well-equipped with both Doctoral and Master's degrees in Clinical Psychology and Professional Counseling.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Ferha Azeez

    Dear Jerry,
    As stated in your article, the issue of hostage taking is of a concern for sure.It is giving a great insight into the different aspects of hostage taking and it’s associated interests. The causes for it should be reviewed in a early stage and there should more bounding between the prison staff and the hostages . The fact that the inmates of the prison are from different backgrounds with varied mindset creates a wide array of difference between them. There should be a regular interaction with the inmates and they should be monitored on a regular basis, more recreational activities can be conducted which will enable them to be interactive and also approachable.

  2. Maria Alvanou

    Dear Jerry,
    Very informative article, thank you for giving us the oportunity to deal with such an issue. You have already mentioned other approaches according to the situational context. It would be very interesting to see how this proposed approach can help negotiators in terrorism hostage cases and what can be any special characteristics about the hostage taker there.

  3. Bernadette Bain

    Hello Jerry,

    Your article provides an interesting examination of psychological profiling of hostage takers in prison. In this regards, fear and frustration lend itself to the situational context. The importance of psychological assessment in conflict situations is significant because of the environmental setting as stated by Daniel. The mediator should consider the common behaviors, where they are usually ‘unstable with stress related feelings.’ This would facilitate resolution of the conflict.

  4. Daniel Erdmann

    Dear Jerry,

    thank you very much for your time and insights. Such a structured toolset for psychological profiling builds a good starting point from where we may start our professional action. Additionally, we need to consider the quantitiy of diverse influences that co-build a hostage situation per se. It is not only the unique HT’s psychological development that counts in, but also the pressure and stress caused by the environmental setting that often can not be predicted and strongly influences the process of hostage taking, specially when it was not planned to take any hostage. Would you say that there is a specific type of person (1 – 5) that finds itself closely related to HT, and that could understand HT more easily as a convenient ‘last-exit-strategy’?

    Best regards, Daniel Erdmann

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