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Traumatic brain injuries and criminals: Changing perceptions and saving lives

A researcher believes there’s a clear connection between their choices now and TBIs in the past

DENVER, Colo. (Ivanhoe Newswire) – When you hear the words traumatic brain injury, or TBI, you think of professional football players. Hit after hit on the playing field damaging their brain, affecting their memory, their behaviors, and their ability to make decisions. But one researcher says there’s another part of our population who is at risk — criminals. She believes there’s a clear connection between their choices now and TBI’s in the past. This new research is completely changing how people are thinking about the criminal justice system and the people in it.

“I’ve got into a bad car accident when I was nine. I was a ten-year-old alcoholic and drug addict. I became very violent,” said Marchell Taylor, a convicted felon who went on to spend the next 40 years in and out of prison.

“I was simply a 47-year-old male with a brain of a 10-year-old child,” explained Taylor. C.A. Shively met Marchell in prison. He also was suffering from a TBI. “I was really, really short tempered and snappy,” said C.A. Shively, a convicted felon. Neither man knew their rage and anger were caused by their injuries.

“The folks with traumatic brain injury history and our group relative to a control sample of like 44,000 people have more significant felony conviction histories,” said Kim Gorgens, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Denver.

Fifty to 80% of people in the criminal justice system have a TBI. Professor Kim Gorgens says 97% of women in the criminal justice system have been exposed to violence and abuse. More than half have been exposed to repeated brain injuries. “These women’s brains look like the brains of retired NFL players,” said Gorgens in a Ted Talk.

The professor says her research helps the person understand and work with their underlying behavioral problems. “You would be so stunned at how basic our suggested accommodations are and how mind-blowingly effective they are,” said Gorgens. She and her team write two reports. One report goes to the system with specific recommendations on how to manage that inmate. They also write a detailed letter to the inmate. “Here’s the things that you don’t do well at all, but here’s the one thing that you do relatively well. And here’s how we’re going to capitalize on that thing,” said Gorgens.

Marchell knows exactly where he would be without professor Gorgens' research. “I would be in prison for the rest of my life right now,” said Taylor. And now he’s working to get other inmates the help they need.

Using Gorgens' recommendations and acknowledging Marchell’s work with other inmates, a judge sentenced him to eight years on mental health probation. Professor Gorgens' research began with 4,500 inmates and probationers. Now she’s looking to expand that to thousands of more inmates.

Marchell Taylor and C.A. Shively have started the Rebuild Your Mind Challenge — asking people to openly talk about the mental health challenges they have faced or are facing right now. You can find out more about the challenge at www.rebuildyourmind.org

Contributor(s) to this news report include: Marsha Lewis, Producer; Rusty Reed, Videographer; Roque Correa, Editor. To receive a free weekly email on Smart Living from Ivanhoe, sign up at: http://www.ivanhoe.com/ftk

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