Brain injuries contribute to criminal behavior, or are they a side effect?

prison clip art 3 prisoners hands through bars black and white.JPG
For decades researchers have attempted to fathom how the "criminal mind" differs from that of the average citizen. Now it appears there's often one critical physiological difference -- a significant percentage of convicted felons may be suffering from impaired thinking because of banged-up brains.

A report published this week in Scientific American, drawing on surveys of prisoners in various states, finds a history of traumatic brain injury (TBI) that's about seven times higher than that of the general population. In fact, the figures suggest that more than half of American inmates -- close to 60 percent -- have reported at least one incident of a bad knock on the noggin in their lives, from sports concussions to car accidents to physical altercations.

Compare that to the rate of TBIs among non-incarcerated adults, 8.5 percent of whom have had at least one brain-rattling episode in their medical history. Most such incidents involve mild concussions and result in full recovery in less than a year, but it's estimated that 2 percent of Americans are currently disabled to some degree by such an injury.

It's hard to say if getting your head thumped is merely a byproduct of the criminal lifestyle -- all those bar fights and gang initiations, drunk-driving collisions, the occasional dispute with a baton-wielding police officer or pistol-whipping coke dealer -- or a contributing cause to such bad behavior. Research has shown that TBI can lead to impulse control issues, memory and processing difficulties, increased irritability and even outbursts of violence.

But such injuries can be difficult to diagnose, even in the best of medical circumstances (see the feature "Hidden Damage" for more on that point). Prison isn't the best of anything, medically speaking. Add TBI to the list of largely undiagnosed mental and behavioral problems that have led to an increasing use of solitary confinement to deal with prisoners who "act out." It's estimated that four out of every ten prisoners in solitary in Colorado is either developmentally disabled or mentally ill, a figure that's been rising steadily over the past decade.

The pioneering research on TBI in a corrections setting may ultimately lead to better alternatives to dealing with head-injured felons, rather than simply locking them down. In the meantime, though, it's not out of the question that the rough treatment some of the badly behaving inmates receive -- including the occasional head-jarring "cell extraction" procedure -- could just be adding to the problem.

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Crowley prison riot: New details of unheeded warnings emerge in epic lawsuit."

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6 comments
office stair accidents
office stair accidents

A person suffering a problem a stair accident. Get a proper treatment and go for a good lawyer discuss the problem.

ForlornW
ForlornW

TBI can cause reduced inhibitions and more overwhelming emotion.  However, the impulse to harm others must still be there.I am a survivor of domestic abuse, I have had repeated brain injuries.  I cry more than I'd like, and my house is a mess - but I do not harm people.

Livia
Livia

Hi Alan,

Excellent article...  I think we hit the nail on the head here. The data that Scientific American supplied leaves a little of a chicken-or-the-egg paradigm hanging around regarding causation of injury. I've looked at a couple of outcome studies from traumatic brain injury facilities like BrookHaven Hospital (see "Living in the Community with a Severe Brain Injury" here: http://www.brookhavenhospital.... and have noticed that sufferers of TBI also have to cope with more legal issues than the average person. Another study proves (and this may seem obvious) that access and integration into their community is diminished - sometimes 5 - 10 years after the injury manifested itself. This data is not specific to incarceration, but may lend credence to the theory that a TBI can increase likelihood of illegal behavior in general.

just sayin...
just sayin...

Everyone I know has had " a bad knock on the noggin" sometime in their life. I got knocked out cold with a metal bat when I @ 8 during pin the tail on the donkey. My brother fell down a full flight of stairs onto his head on a concrete floor. Everyone I know has some story of getting knocked out or seeing major stars but not one of them (that I know of) is a criminal.

Bobbi
Bobbi

Wow, maybe this explains OJ Simpson - he got his bell rung in football and went into a life of crime.  

Light Rail Tattler
Light Rail Tattler

It is kind of interesting you brought up O.J. Simpson.The study here was actually done as part of O.J. Simpson's criminal defense Dream Team and a forensic psychologist in case O.J. Simpson was found guilty to argue for a lenient sentence. The O.J. Dream Team forensic psychological study of the concusions O.J. endured while playing football and a real bad concusion O.J. suffered while running through an airport and tripping over someone's Samsonite luggage is often quoted in Modern Day Criminal Defense Lawyer magazine as being used as the number one criminal defense tool used for arguing for a lesser sentence in plea-bargain agreement cases.The sad truth about concussions and brain injuries however, is not an increase in criminal activity, but a shorter life expectency and reduced quality of life.Not reported by the media there was a collision between a Light Rail Train and an ambulance here in Denver, that the crew of paramedics all suffered multi-trauma injuries including Traumatic Brain Injuries. It sure would be neat if someone at the Westword did a feature story on that accident and how the paramedics are doing. I photographed the accident scene.  Please Google: RTD Light Rail Train Derailment

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