The Compassion Prison Project (CPP) is spearheading a campaign designed to help bring awareness to the connection between traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and incarcerated people.
“When people are committing crimes and when they’re harming others, more often than not, it’s a brain injury or brain impairment, rather than that they’re a bad person,” said Fritzi Horstman, founder of CPP.
On her podcast, “Compassion In Action,” Horstman spoke with Dr. Kim Gorgens, a University of Denver professor of neuropsychology, who has been studying brain injuries in prisoners for almost a decade.
According to Dr. Gorgens, 40% to 80% of incarcerated people suffer from a traumatic brain injury, and for incarcerated women that number may be as high as 97%.
Melissa Bickford is one of those women. In an article published by the Marshall Project, she talks about how a brain injury from domestic violence got her caught up in the criminal justice system. Bickford was also introduced to Marchell Taylor, who served more than 20 years in prison before he learned he had a brain injury.
Taylor told Dr. Gorgens that he had felt impulsive and easily agitated for most of his life. He committed several crimes before learning about his brain injury. Taylor has since been pushing for legislation to get neuropsychological exams for people in prison.
Colorado legislatures have answered this call by passing a law in 2021 that authorized a pilot program aimed at improving support for incarcerated individuals with a brain injury.
A TBI is defined as an insult to the brain caused by an external force that results in an altered state of consciousness and one or more impairments of brain function. The effects may be temporary or permanent.
Mild brain injuries can result from interpersonal violence such as being jumped into a gang, having one or more fights, being strangled, experiencing domestic violence, or experiencing sexual or child abuse.
Horstman believes that many prisoners have four or more TBIs and some as high as 12, which are directly related to the impact of adverse childhood experiences.
Michael Moore, age 62, is a resident of San Quentin who suffered abuse at the hands of his father. Starting at the age of four until age eleven, Moore suffered physical, emotional, and psychological abuse that caused him to have an unnatural fear of men.
“I never saw the connection between traumatic brain injury and childhood trauma,” Moore said. “I thought of it as someone having a deformed head. But now I see it can also be a deformed perception. I definitely had a deformed perception.” Moore said his life of crime came from trying to overcompensate for his unnatural fears, although he didn’t know it at the time.
Jerry Maleek Gearin, another SQ resident, read several books on trauma and brain injury on his path to rehabilitation. “I now see TBI as causing a distorted perception,” said Gearin. “When people are racist or prone to violence or criminal deviancy, I see them as having a traumatic brain injury.” Gearin believes most incarcerated people had a TBI at one time or another which led to poor decision-making.
TBIs can affect our ability to reason, control our emotions, walk or speak. They also affect our senses of sight and hearing. Brief changes in consciousness or loss of consciousness are associated with milder injuries and memory loss.
The physical effects of TBIs include headaches, difficulty speaking, blurry eyes, trouble hearing, loss of energy, changes in taste or smell, dizziness and imbalance. The behavioral effects include acting without thinking and becoming angry or easily frustrated. These same effects have led many incarcerated people to substance abuse, which causes further brain damage.
“If we look at the larger body of neuroscience research on childhood trauma and traumatic brain injury, they both result in loss of volume in one structure of the brain in particular, the hippocampus,” Gorgens said.
The hippocampus is a complex brain structure embedded deep in the temporal lobe. It plays a major role in learning and memory. It is a vulnerable structure that can get damaged by a variety of stimuli. Studies have shown that it also gets affected in a variety of neurological and psychiatric disorders.
“The hippocampus not only responds to physical changes in the brain itself, especially after injury, but it’s also very vulnerable to damage from seizures,” said Gorgens. “It’s responsive to changes in the larger environment, so exposure to stress or traumatic experiences, for example.”
The hippocampus is one of the areas in the brain where researchers have determined, just in the last 15 or so years, that we grow new neurons. “You can restore hippocampal volume; elevating your heart rate for 60 seconds at a time can help restore hippocampal volume,” said Dr. Gorgens. Aerobic exercise training increases gray and white matter volume in the prefrontal cortex.
Increased hippocampal volume is associated with greater serum levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a mediator of neurogenesis, according to Dr. Gorgens. The BDNF gene promotes the survival of nerve cells (neurons) by playing a role in the growth, maturation and maintenance of these cells.
Exercising, controlling stress, prioritizing social connections, a high protein diet and fasting all help boost BDNF.
“When the prefrontal cortex is offline, we’re unable to have morality, have wisdom, have understanding of consequences, empathy, things like that,” Horstman said at the end of her podcast.