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Kim Gorgens: Traumatic Brain Injury Effects on Prisoners

When it comes to criminal justice, there can always be a different way. Recent years have seen an increase in talk of restorative justice, the psychological effects of solitary confinement, and the inhumanity of private immigrant prisons. But, have you heard about the high prevalence of traumatic brain injury effects on prisoners?

Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury (TBI), as defined by the Mayfield Clinic, is “the sudden damage to the brain caused by a blow or jolt to the head.” You might have heard the phrase before in relation to sports. Most of us associate TBI with football players or athletes in other high-intensity, high-impact sports. While TBI impacts athletes a disproportionate amount, there is another demographic that experiences TBI at an alarming rate: prison inmates. (Many inmates arrive in prison with TBIs, though some experience TBIs in prison.)

In her TEDxMileHigh talk, Dr. Kim Gorgens exposes a shocking statistic, “50 to 80 percent of people in criminal justice have a traumatic brain injury.” This is in comparison to “less than 5 percent” in the general public. For women inmates, it’s even worse. 

“Almost every single woman in the criminal justice system has been exposed to interpersonal violence and abuse. More than half of these women have been exposed to repeated brain injuries.” – Dr. Kim Gorgens

To clarify, Dr. Gorgens points out that these are not casual injuries, “these are the kinds of injuries that require hospitalization.” 

Traumatic Brain Injury Effects

These injuries make the inmates’ brains resemble those of retired NFL players, and mean they experience the same risks of dementing diseases as these players. It also means it makes it difficult for the inmates to do something we all take for granted: think.

Traumatic brain injury effects on inmates are substantial. It can make it more difficult to process information, make good decisions, and show up on the right dates for court appearances. They experience poor judgment and poor impulse control. For many prison inmates, it means an endless cycle in the criminal justice system. It’s what makes criminal justice, for some, “a revolving door.”

A colleague of Dr. Gorgens calls this: “Serving a life sentence 30 days at a time.” 

How to Change the System

Dr. Gorgens and her team have made it their mission to “disrupt this cycle” and “jam the revolving door.” The Mindsource Brain Injury Network, in partnerships with the University of Denver, Brain Injury Alliance Colorado, Adams County Colorado, and the Colorado Courts, among others, focus on how each individual’s brain works. This way, they can recommend changes to the system that make it safer and more effective for the prisoner.

The group does fast neurological screening tests to assess the way each inmate’s brain functions. They identify the weaknesses and strengths of their thought processes. With this information, they generate two reports. The first report is instructions on how to most effectively manage the inmate. These are for the employees of the criminal justice system. The second report is for the inmate, giving them tools for how to better handle the issues that arrive due to their traumatic brain injury. 

For example, Dr. Gorgens explains that if test results come back showing that a probationer has a hard time remembering things auditorily, they will recommend the probationer to carry around a notebook and write important things down. They will also instruct the courts to give the probationer information on pieces of paper, rather than speaking it to them.   

The Benefits of This New System

Dr. Gorgens and her colleagues believe this process is beneficial for all involved parties. The inmates can learn to take responsibility for their actions by better understanding how their brains work and developing skills to complement their unique qualities. Inmates and probationers, once they have identified the problem, develop agency and a sense that they have the ability to do something about their own behavior. 

Court officers, lawyers, and prison guards will have fewer problems interacting with inmates and probationers when the prisoners are able to make better and clearer decisions. Officers will also be able to better understand the actions of inmates. 

Instead of seeing their shortcomings as something they won’t do, they can understand that there are certain things they cannot do. 

At the end of the day, there are prison inmates and probationers that want to improve and change their lives. Understanding their brain injuries can give them the agency to achieve this. Using tools like alarms or the notes function on their phones can mean the difference between missing a court date or showing up on time and not going back to jail. It makes all the difference for the inmates, their loved ones, the justice system, and society. 

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