Teaching Prison Inmates about Their Own Brain Trauma Could Help Them Rehabilitate; A Startling Number of Convicted Criminals Have a History of Traumatic Brain Injury-But Neither They nor Their Doctors nor Law Enforcement Knows It

By Hayasaki, Erika | Newsweek, July 8, 2016 | Go to article overview

Teaching Prison Inmates about Their Own Brain Trauma Could Help Them Rehabilitate; A Startling Number of Convicted Criminals Have a History of Traumatic Brain Injury-But Neither They nor Their Doctors nor Law Enforcement Knows It


Hayasaki, Erika, Newsweek


Byline: Erika Hayasaki

A hairless, pale-pink scar runs across the back of 35-year-old Bryce Mickelson's buzz-shaved head, an inch-long reminder of just one of the many brain injuries he's had in his life. At 3, he ran in front of a car and woke up from a coma in the hospital. At 7, a kid threw a rock at his face, ripping it open. At 12, he crashed his bike, his helmetless skull slamming into concrete. Mickelson's noggin has been banged, bruised and split open so many times he can't remember every injury. But he never considered the long-term impact of them until he ended up in jail.

Mickelson has served time for theft, domestic violence, distributing narcotics and possession of a weapon and drugs. His most recent stint inside of the Denver County Jail came after a trespassing charge. "Hey, maybe I'm just stupid," says Mickelson, sitting in a courtyard outside of his cell, his blue eyes droopy and his gray inmate's uniform shapelessly draped like nurse's scrubs over his 6-foot-2-inch frame. He seems to have always had trouble with learning, memory, anxiety and impulsivity. He could have been born this way--or, he admits, it could be due to drugs, which he started using at the age of 8. He's tried everything from marijuana to heroin, to LSD and cocaine. Or, he says, it "could be from a brain injury."

For the first time in his life, Mickelson has been learning about the brain and the many bad things that happen when it's hit over and over again. It all started when a graduate student working under Kim Gorgens, a neuropsychologist and clinical associate professor at the University of Denver, visited him in jail last December. The student interviewed Mickelson about his head injury history and put him through several hours of oral and computer-based tests. Two weeks later, Mickelson received a copy of his neuropsychological report, which showed evidence of repeated blunt force brain trauma. The report outlined his cognitive and behavioral challenges and suggested strategies that could help him cope.

It also qualified him for a traumatic brain injury class for inmates, led by a psychologist. In the weekly sessions, attended by a half-dozen men with many stories of being pummeled in the head with fists and baseball bats, the inmates discuss prompts like: Does having a traumatic brain injury change who we are? What triggers symptoms? And what aids or services can help?

This approach to quantifying a possible connection between brain injury and criminal behavior--and using that data to aide in inmate rehabilitation--arose three years ago. One evening in 2013, Gorgens met up with Judy Dettmer, director of the Colorado Brain Injury Program, and Jennifer Gafford, a staff psychologist for the Denver County Sheriff's Office. After spending some time talking, the women decided to collaborate to measure brain injury rates among the incarcerated and try to provide inmate support programming and services.

Within two weeks, Gorgens had assembled a team. Over a two-year period, her graduate students assessed 80 inmates in the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in Denver, which houses arrestees as they await sentencing. The findings from the pilot study were staggering: Ninety-six percent of inmates screened had suffered moderate or severe brain trauma. It was a sharp contrast to the estimated 6 percent of the general population with similar brain injuries, but it did match up with previous, similar studies from the past two decades. A 2008 study of 990 Minnesota inmates found a rate of 80 percent; a 2006 analysis of 200 Australian prisoners found 82 percent; and a 2007 survey of 107 male and 118 female inmates from six federal prisons found 87 percent.

After the pilot study, the team expanded its traumatic brain injury research to 15 correctional sites, probation programs and courts across the state. The researchers are now screening 1,200 adult inmates and probationers, as well as 500 juvenile offenders, a smaller segment of sex offenders and a separate cohort of veterans who pass through specialized courts. …

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