Hitting prisoners hard: Traumatic brain injuries, including previous concussions, affect a disproportionate segment of incarcerated adults--and might be to blame for behavioral issues and many cases of re-arrest. Image: iStockphoto/LOUOATES
A car accident, a rough tackle, an unexpected tumble. The number of ways to bang up the brain are almost as numerous as the people who sustain these injuries. And only recently has it become clear just how damaging a seemingly minor knock can be. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is no longer just a condition acknowledged in military personnel or football players and other professional athletes. Each year some 1.7 million civilians will suffer an injury that disrupts the function of their brains, qualifying it as a TBI.
About 8.5 percent of U.S. non-incarcerated adults have a history of TBI, and about 2 percent of the greater population is currently suffering from some sort of disability because of their injury.
In prisons, however, approximately 60 percent of adults have had at least one TBI—and even higher prevalence has been reported in some systems. These injuries, which can alter behavior, emotion and impulse control, can keep prisoners behind bars longer and increases the odds they will end up there again. Although the majority of people who suffer a TBI will not end up in the criminal justice system, each one who does costs states an average of $29,000 a year.
With more than two million people in the U.S. currently locked up—and millions more lingering in the justice system on probation or supervision—the widespread issue of TBI in prison populations is starting to gain wider attention.
A few pioneering programs offering rehabilitation to prisoners—and education to families and correctional staff about TBI—are underway around the country. And several studies aim to ascertain the best ways to handle this huge population. "It's not as cut-and-dry as a lot of people think," says Elisabeth Pickelsimer, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. Some of the best options so far include cognitive therapy for prisoners and education for the people around them.
The kicker seems clear to many researchers: "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," says Peter Klinkhammer, associate director of services at the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota.
One hard knock
Concussions are the most common type of brain injury, and about 85 percent of people who suffer one will more or less fully recover within a year. But for those who do not, lingering symptoms, such as headaches or increased irritability, can get in the way of everyday functioning.
Many of the behavioral issues that result from a TBI are due to the nature of the impact itself. In an accident or altercation, the brunt of the blow is often borne by the front or top of the head—right around the frontal lobes where behavior is regulated.
Interactive by Ryan Reid
This sort of injury can be loosely compared with a computer glitch: "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," says Wayne Gordon, a professor of rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Traumatic brain injury can lead to attentional and memory deficits as well as increased anger, impulsivity and irritability—which make for a poor match with the corrections world.