Why Prison Doesn’t Work for Many Violent Offenders

On the late 1940s  radio cop show “This is Your FBI,” there is an  episode — originally broadcast in 1948 – in which the narrator says that more than half of the people who go to prison end up getting into more trouble and winding up behind bars again. The narrator speculates that it may  be that offenders who are incarcerated can’t get jobs when they get released or maybe they get sent back to prison because they are not accepted back in the community.

This may have been relatively new information for the radio audience back in 1948, but we all know today that the recidivism rate is high. Former prisoners re-offend and get sent back to prison at an alarmingly high rate. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68 percent of felons are returned to prison within three years and 77 percent go back within five years. But there is still speculation about the reasons for this. Many people – including some criminal justice experts – believe a major reason has to do with the lack of vocational and educational opportunities for inmates.

However, some recent research suggests a different answer.

Research that has just been announced says that brain research on offenders indicates that those inmates diagnosed as psychopaths don’t experience punishment as you and I might.

If you or I were punished by a prison sentence, we would be strongly motivated to change our lives so we would never risk returning to prison. Our brains operate in such a way that we would regard incarceration as a negative reinforcer that would obligate us to take some corrective action.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work. It’s also why we call the consequences aspect of community justice corrections. It is supposed to lead to people correcting their behavior.

But psychopathic violent offenders have abnormalities in a part of their brain related to learning from punishment. This is according to just-released research based on MRI studies. Professor Sheilagh Hodgins of the University of Montreal, one of the scientists who conducted the MRI studies, says that their research shows that while regular criminals are hyper-responsive to threat, quick-tempered, and aggressive, psychopaths have a very low response to threats, are cold, and their aggressiveness is premeditated. Hodgins and several others did MRIs on 12 violent offenders with antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy, 20 violent offenders with antisocial personality disorder but without psychopathy, and 18 healthy non-offenders.

The scientists point that an estimated one in five violent offenders are psychopaths. The makings of a psychopath emerge early in life – usually when young people show conduct problems. The typical way parents handle misbehavior in kids works well for most children. That is, most moms and dads use a combination of rewards and punishments to socialize their kids.

While the discipline employed by parents helps children to control their urges and learn to follow rules, some children don’t learn these valuable lessons. Children who have conduct disorders or serious behavior problems don’t respond well to the discipline regime of rewards and punishment. For these few kids, punishment doesn’t work; punishment just doesn’t change their behavior.

Why not?

That’s what the researchers – Gregory, Blair, Ffytche, Simmons, Kumari, Hodgins, and Blackwood – try to explain  in “Punishment and the Psychopath: An fMRI Investigation of Reinforcement Learning in Violent Antisocial Personality Disordered Men,” published this month in Lancet Psychiatry. The researchers found reductions in grey matter volumes in psychopathic offenders with differences in anterior rostal prefrontal cortex and temporal poles. These are the parts of the brain involved in empathy, the processing of prosocial emotions such as guilt and embarrassment, and moral reasoning.

Also, the researchers discovered abnormalities in white matter fiber tracts in the dorsal cingulum – also associated with a lack of empathy, which is usually seen in psychopaths.

Given these differences in conduct disordered and psychopathic men, it suggests that imprisonment is unlikely to change their behavior – no matter how long they are incarcerated or how harsh the conditions. They will not learn because they don’t respond to any kind of punishment as we would expect. However, it also suggests that different approaches need to be developed and used early in the life of kids who seem headed for a conduct disorder. Waiting until they get into trouble for a serious violent offense in their teens will usually mean that if there was an opportunity to change their life – and maybe their brain – that opportunity has come and gone.


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