Traumatic Journey – Project Addresses Traumatic Brain Injury Among Inmates

Too often, the combination of disability due to a brain injury with a limited knowledge of support resources may add […]

Too often, the combination of disability due to a brain injury with a limited knowledge of support resources may add up to significant jail time. In 2006, over eighty percent of Minnesota inmates were reported to have Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Lisa’s story is sadly typical.

Lisa entered the Minnesota Corrections Facility in Shakopee in May of 2007, after nearly seventeen years of domestic abuse and over 100 instances of head trauma with six confirmed brain injuries. From the beginning of her marriage in 1991 to her incarceration, Lisa endured having her head put through windows, being punched, slammed into cupboards and pushed down stairs. Throughout that time, she lost consciousness on several occasions and made many trips to the emergency room. The resulting impact to her memory was enormous.

“I can read a book and not remember what I’ve read when I’m done,” Lisa says. “So, I don’t read anymore. It’s sad, because I used to remember. You could tell me a phone number and I’d remember it for years and now I can’t.”

Lisa also experienced drug abuse at the urging of her husband. “My husband used to make me do drugs because he didn’t want me calling the cops,” she says. “But, what could I do? If I fought him, it got worse. I just recently became very addicted. I’m hoping it’ll get better.”

Until recently, incoming Minnesota inmates were not screened for traumatic brain injury. This began to change in April of 2006 when Minnesota was awarded a state grant from the Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA) to identify incidences of brain injury in correctional facilities, build awareness of brain injury among correctional facility staff and all persons working within the legal system, and address a system of release planning that would assist a smooth transition back into the community.

Among the first efforts of this new TBI in Correctional Facilities project were inmate screenings in the fall of 2006; the results were astounding. 82% of 998 male inmates were reported to have TBI. These rates were consistent with findings from studies done in New Zealand (86%), U.S. county jails (87%) and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (88%). In the summer of 2007, 100 female inmates were screened with 96 percent reporting a TBI. A screening of fifty juvenile males at the Red Wing facility resulted in 98% reporting a TBI.

One of the goals of the TBI in Correctional Facilities project is a re-evaluation of the intervention strategies used in situations involving prisoners with TBI. By identifying offenders with TBI like Lisa at the time of entering the corrections system, the potential for recidivism is decreased. Offenders with an understanding of their disability and the services available to them may develop a sense of self-determination that makes the possibility of returning to past behaviors that much smaller. Corrections staff equipped with the training and resources needed to work with individuals with TBI will be able to develop intervention strategies and systems that decrease the potential for infractions among the prison population.

The TBI in Minnesota Correctional Facilities project is using its findings to supplement the already effective systems the Department of Corrections and Department of Human Services have for working with offenders who have serious and persistent mental illness. The project’s developers, headed by the Interagency Leadership Council, include the Department of Human Services, Minnesota Department of Health, Department of Education, Department of Employment and Economic Development/Vocational Rehabilitation, Disability Law Center, Department of Corrections and the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota. As part of this grant, these departments have been collaborating to develop educational programs for correctional staff and presentations for correctional administrators. So far, the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota’s educational service has conducted thirty trainings.

Lisa faces an upcoming release this month. Previous attempts at a work release program proved problematic as she was forced to return to prison after less than a month. Lisa cites her brain injury as a reason she finds it difficult to hold a job. “I can’t even tell why I left some really good jobs,” she says.

With her husband now in jail, no home and her family having cut ties, Lisa faces a difficult road. Housing is hard to come by for an ex-offender, and memory and impulsivity issues only exacerbate the problem. But, she has a goal.

“I want to get my kids back,” she says, referring to her four children who are currently in foster care. “I have business skills. I’d like to go back to school. Get a degree.”

One of the first contacts Lisa will have on release is the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota. Her assigned resource facilitator will help her identify the services and programs in her area to achieve her goals. She also wishes to increase her understanding of her brain injuries by participating in the association’s classes.

The author is on staff at the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota.