There are many reasons a person may grow up to commit a crime. Some are rooted in their childhood; physical or sexual abuse or an incarcerated parent are two common correlates with adult criminal behavior. It’s well known that children who grow up with a parent in prison carry burdens other children don’t, but new research by Kathleen Brewer-Smyth of the University of Delaware’s College of Health Sciences suggests girls who have a family member behind bars have an increased risk of lifelong neurological problems, which in turn contribute to their own criminal behavior.

The findings, published in Health Care for Women International, show that female inmates who had at least one adult family member incarcerated during their childhood were more than twice as likely to have neurological abnormalities than those who had no family members in prison. Inmates who had family members in prison while they were children also experienced greater sexual and physical abuse during childhood.

Brewer-Smyth said the implications of the study are internationally significant, since knowledge of the challenges these children face can help researchers, public health advocates, and policymakers discover better ways to support them in the future.

“We’re good at identifying problems,” Brewer-Smyth said in a statement, “but we haven’t figured out the best ways to fix them.”

Brewer-Smyth has spent seven years researching the neurological function and high-risk behaviors of female inmates, during which time she conducted a series of thorough interviews focusing on the difficulties many of the women faced during childhood. Of the hundreds of inmates she studied, she found neurological abnormalities in a whopping 95 percent of the women. The issues Brewer-Smyth saw most were traumatic brain injuries, but some women had been exposed to lead or other toxins, or experienced seizures, stroke, loss of consciousness due to choking, and various central nervous system abnormalities.

“These conditions can lead to behavior and numerous other problems that can result in a prison sentence,” Brewer-Smyth said.

She observed neurological deficits in many of the inmates, the most common of which included cranial nerve deficits, extremity weakness, memory deficits, cranial facial scars, and palpable evidence of skull injuries. Many of the women told Brewer-Smyth that they had never been abused, only to shrug off scars and other signs of physical injury. She then asked other questions meant to assess abuse, and the women would say, “Oh, yeah.”

“As if it was a normal part of life,” Brewer-Smyth recalled.

For some inmates, childhood trauma began before they were even born, with their mothers exposing them to illegal drugs while in utero. Others shared common stories, such as being sexually abused by a boyfriend of their mother, being in and out of foster homes, or not knowing who their father was. One woman told Brewer-Smyth she had stopped going to school because she was ashamed of her bruises.

“Without resources, that could have been any of us,” Brewer-Smyth said. “I worry that any of us could be just one brain injury away from a prison sentence due to the very limited neurological rehabilitation resources for long-term follow-up after brain injuries.”

She said that it’s iaqmperative to find the best ways to disrupt what could become intergenerational cycles of physical and emotional abuse, neurological deficits, and lifelong neurological impairment. Child advocates, mental health workers, and prison health providers could all lend support to help females recover and avoid further decline.

Source: Brewer-Smyth K. Women Behind Bars: Could Neurological Correlates of Past Physical And Sexual Abuse Contribute To Criminal Behavior? Health Care For Women International. 2016.