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People struggling with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and other types of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are reportedly more likely to commit violent crimes. This is because some of the problems associated with the aforementioned conditions can include anger, aggression, depression, impaired judgment, and poor impulse control which can lead to committing crimes. Moreover, sustaining a brain injury early in life tends to make people more aggressive when they grow older.
According to Wayne Gordon, a professor of rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, a hard blow — whether that’s via a car crash or a sports injury— to the frontal lobe which processes emotions and behavior, can cause the same sort of degradation in brain performance as dropping a computer. “If something went wrong with the central processing unit, it might be slower – you couldn’t save documents as easily – but it might chug along,” he reportedly explained.
And when it comes to prisoners, who experience TBI at rates many times higher than the rest of the population, the implication is clear. According to Peter Klinkhammer, associate director of services at the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota, “If we don’t help individuals specifically who have significant brain injuries that have impacted their criminal behavior, then we’re missing an opportunity to short-circuit a cycle.”
However, prisoners are often unaware of any link between past head trauma and their current problems, and not to mention prison officials find it less costly to ignore TBI diagnoses and treatments. Because as Elisabeth Pickelsimer, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, notes: “It’s cheaper for them to just lock them up.”
As highlighted by Minnesota Department of Corrections neuropsychologist Adam Piccolino, the failure to address TBI-related problems means they are “apt to provide challenges to the offender post-release as they attempt to reintegrate into their respective communities.”
Prison Legal News posed the example of a jail prisoner in Denver, Colorado, identified only as “Scott,” who suffered TBI at age five at the hands of his foster father. Since then he has been struck on the head by a baseball bat, a crescent wrench, and by gang members who assaulted him while incarcerated. As a result, he deals with constant agitation, restlessness, sweats and seizures. Scott is reportedly enrolled in a new treatment program for prisoners with TBI, in which jail staff take extra time explaining things to him and allowing him to process the information. He also attends cognitive training courses, and while there are no drugs approved specifically to treat CTE/TBI, he augments his therapy and cognitive training with psychiatric medication.
Research by the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado revealed that 54% of Denver prisoners and probationers between 2013 and 2018 had a history of TBI. A 2007 study in federal prisons found a high percentage of TBI among female prisoners, with many revealing 10 or more incidents that left them unconscious, usually involving a violent encounter with someone else. Another 2007 study conducted in Minnesota found the incidence rate of TBI among prisoners was almost 83%.
The Minnesota research identified the most common causes of TBI prior to incarceration as assaults, vehicle crashes, and sports injuries. Once incarcerated, prisoners are at risk of TBI resulting from encounters with other prisoners and self-inflicted head trauma, especially among those placed in solitary confinement.
Contrasted with the numbers outside the criminal justice system, that rate drops to 8% among the general U.S. population – about 24.6 million people – according to a 2012 study.
As recognition of the link between crime and TBI spreads, advocates are reportedly working to increase TBI screening for prisoners. Yet a diagnosis can be extremely difficult, with similar traumas resulting in different brain injuries. Advocates also hope to establish a comprehensive and reliable set of guidelines for TBI-related cases that address culpability as well as punishment and/or treatment for people who commit crimes due to the lasting effects of brain injuries for judges and juries.