Study finds more than half of prisoners have TBI


Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) have been associated with memory problems, behavioral issues, and difficulty controlling anger. So, it might not be surprising to hear a UK study has found more than half of prisoners have experienced a TBI.

While it is currently believed this high rate of brain injury may fuel violent crimes in the prison system, it also reveals an “opportunity” to screen individuals for brain injury.

The researchers say screening and providing treatment to prisoners with TBI may reduce the chance of repeated, potentially more violent offending. The team – consisting of experts from the universities of Exeter, Manchester, Oxford, Glasgow, and Sheffield, and the Centre for Mental Health – says young prisoners with TBI were particularly at risk for early, more violent offending.

These individuals were also more at risk for self-harm and suicidal behavior, which the experts suggest reflects the ways TBI affects neurological functions related to social behavior and increases the risk for behavioral or psychiatric disorders.

“Addressing TBI offers a means to not only improve the lives of those who offend, but also to reduce crime,” said lead author Professor Huw Williams, of the University of Exeter.

“A range of measures could reduce the risk of crime following TBI.

“These could include any form of neurorehabilitation, and better links between emergency departments, community mental health services, GPs and school systems that might lead to early identification and management of TBI in children and young people, particularly in areas of socioeconomic deprivation.

“On a person’s entry into the justice system, there is an opportunity to deliver routine screening for TBI and provision of treatment options.

“Another beneficial step could be brain injury link-workers in prisons to enable screening and support for those with TBI.”

For the study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, the team analyzed data from numerous past studies. Thus, they say they could only draw limited conclusions with rough estimates. However, they estimate the overall risk for “earlier, more violent, offending” more than doubles in individuals with TBI.

The findings of the report indicate that 10-20% of people in custody in the UK have “complicated mild TBI or moderate to severe head injury” while an additional 30-40% may have mild TBI.

The report also notes that:

  • TBI is linked to poor engagement in treatment, infractions when in custody and reoffending
  • Histories of abuse, neglect, and trauma appear particularly elevated in those with TBI versus those without, as are ongoing mental health and drug and alcohol problems.

While this particular study focused on individuals in the UK, there is plenty of evidence suggesting America sees similar rates of TBI in prisoners. So, it is fair to assume that TBI may be contributing to violent crime or violence in prison. It also means we are presented with a similar opportunity to screen individuals entering the prison system and provide treatment that could reduce future offending.

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