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

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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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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