In Depth

Majority of inmates at women’s prison ‘have signs of brain injury’

New study links prevalence of severe head injuries to offending rates

Prison

A study of female prisoners has found that 65% of inmates at one women’s prison displayed signs of brain injury, raising questions about the link between traumatic brain injuries and criminal behaviour.

Researchers from the Disabilities Trust and London’s Royal Holloway university worked with inmates at HMP Drake Hall between 2016 and 2018.

The participants were assessed with the Brain Injury Screening Index, a system developed by the Trust consisting of 11 questions about medical history and past head injuries.

Of the 173 inmates assessed,“64% reported a history indicative of brain injury, and of those, almost all (96%) reported a history indicative of traumatic brain injury (TBI)”, according to a report outlining the findings, entitled Making the Link.

The report suggests a causative link between the disproportionately high number of female inmates who are survivors of domestic violence, and the high rates of brain injury.

Almost two-thirds of the women who reported a brain injury said it was the result of domestic violence.

Nearly half of inmates with a TBI had been in an adult prison five or more times, and a third said they sustained their first such injury prior to their first offence.

“The work adds to a growing body of research on the over-representation of people with brain injuries in the prison population,” says The Guardian.

2010 study found that 60% of inmates at a men’s prison reported having experienced head injuries. The researchers found that “adults with TBI were younger at entry into custodial systems and reported higher rates of repeat offending”.

Data shows that TBIs are linked to “increased risk of violence, earlier age of first incarceration, a greater number of convictions, re-conviction, mental health problems and a greater number of attempts at suicide”, says The Independent.

Rachael Mcnulty, the clinical supervisor for the study, said that people who have suffered brain damage “may be more prone to being impulsive and have less emotional resources to deal with anxiety or anger”, putting them at a higher risk of criminal offending.

“The research clearly demonstrates the link between life trauma and offending, violence, and victimisation,” she said.

The Disabilities Trust is calling for all prison inmates to be screened for brain injuries before beginning their sentence, so that those who need it can be offered appropriate support. 

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