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Prison Promotes Executive Dysfunction and Fosters Criminal Behaviour: Review

Posted January 21, 2015

A few months ago, Peter Sunde, co-founder of the file-sharing website The Pirate Bay, who got prison time for copyright law infringement, told The Guardian how being locked up feels:

“What is most difficult to cope with is the boredom, Sunde says. The days in prison merge into a grey mass, indistinguishable from each other. Sunde has trouble sleeping at night. “You become brain-dead in here,” he says. “A guy who has been here a long time said it best: what I miss most are new memories.”

While keeping dangerous criminals away from society, prisons may actually increase the risk of recidivism. Image credit: Luis Argerich via Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0.

While keeping dangerous criminals away from society, prisons may actually increase the risk of recidivism. Image credit: Luis Argerich via Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0.

According to a group of researchers from VU University Amsterdam and the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, prison does actually damage the brain, thereby decreasing the likelihood of inmates re-integrating into civil society.

For their paper, they pored over the scientific literature for studies that compared the cognitive functions of inmates to those of the general population.

An extensive search on PubMed, Embase, Web of Science and PsychINFO (using such keywords as “detained”, “detention”, “offenders”, “executive function” and “neuropsychological”) turned up 1236 results, which the team trimmed down to 7 articles that met all of the inclusion criteria.

“Only studies that contained at least one group of adult prisoners and one group of controls (i.e. persons without a history of criminal behaviour), which were compared in at least one test of executive functioning, were included,” wrote the authors.

The relevant tests were described as “tests that measured one or more of the following functions: planning, working memory, attention, set-shifting, inhibition/impulse control and problem solving.”

After reviewing the articles, the team concluded that all of the examined prisoners showed an impairment in all of the above, except for planning, which yielded inconsistent results.

In light of previous research linking executive function deficits to criminal behaviour, the researchers argued that prisons should be transformed into “richer” environments that are more conducive to building new habits and encouraging pro-social ways of thinking.

“Out of various treatment strategies, e.g. sanctions and supervision, rehabilitation treatment and cognitive behaviour interventions, cognitive behaviour interventions focusing on improving specific cognitive skills (e.g. inhibition) were found to be the most effective in decreasing recidivism.”

Despite the research, these strategies are rarely used, with most disciplinary institutions simply locking up their offenders and making sure they don’t misbehave.

“Prison… is currently a clear example of an impoverished and sedentary environment. Prison life is characterised by a lack of demand on self-regulating functions, e.g. prisoners are barely confronted with choices to make and have little control over their daily activities,” noted the authors.

“… the current impoverished prison environment may diminish executive functions and, indirectly, lead to increased recidivism rates. At the same time, an enriched environment may be beneficial to these functions and, in the end, enable successful re-entry in society.”

For further research, aimed at making sure that executive function deficits are due to prison, rather than previous life experiences of the inmates, authors of the paper advise measuring new detainees as they arrive in prison and then reassessing them within a certain timeframe.

Sources: study,,

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