Half of New York City Teens Behind Bars Have A Brain Injury, Study Finds


About half of teens between the ages of 16 and 18 suffered a traumatic brain injury before being locked up in a New York City jail, a new study finds.

Traumatic brain injuries can cause mood and behavior changes that vary depending on the nature of the injury, but often include impulsiveness, emotional volatility, and slowed brain processing speeds. These factors not only contribute the likelihood of individuals ending up in jail; they also affect the proper treatment while there and their likelihood of returning once released.

“Two of the most common features of TBI, emotional dysregulation [mood volatility] and processing speed, may be linked to criminal justice involvement as well as problems while in jail,” according to the study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Ohio State University professor John D. Corrigan, a national expert on head injuries, told the Associated Press that inmates with head injuries are more likely to break jailhouse rules, engage in substance abuse, and have difficulty re-entering society after release.


Individuals 16 and older are treated as adults in New York City’s criminal system, meaning the teens in this study were serving time at the adult jail, where their ongoing development, vulnerability, and particular potential for rehabilitation are not accounted for. In jail, many of these teens have been charged but not yet convicted or sentenced for a crime.

Past studies have suggested that about 60 percent of adults in prison have had a traumatic brain injury — more than seven times that of the general population by some estimates.

This study aimed to assess those rates among juveniles. Behavioral changes are particularly common among those who experience a TBI at a younger age, according to previous studies of boxers. Screening of some 300 male teens and 84 female teens entering New York City jails in 2012 found that 50 percent of males and 49 percent of females reported at least one severe head injury that led to an altered mental state — either loss of consciousness or and/or post-traumatic amnesia. It does not assess symptoms resulting from the injuries.

Researchers also found that more than a quarter of the inmate participants were placed in solitary confinement while in jail and that individuals were more likely to incur new injuries while in confinement, raising the “concern that these environmental and personal variables may interact to heighten risk new TBI while in jail.”

The findings also relate to increased evidence that prisons are becoming de facto asylums for the mentally ill. Those with TBIs have increased rates of psychiatric illness, and would benefit from treatment that addresses the root cause of behavior.


Head injuries can be incurred in any of a number of ways, but are often associated with sports and military combat. An analysis by medical experts at the National Academy of Sciences found that high school athletes are even more likely to suffer concussions than those at the collegiate level. But in this study, the greatest number of injuries were caused by assaults.

Several researchers for the study work for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and intend as a result of this research to educate adolescents and jail staff about head injuries.