‘People being in violent relationships can be the cause of a brain injury and brain injuries can make people offend among other factors,’ says clinical neuropsychologist
Brain injuries suffered at the hands of a violent partner could be leading women prisoners to commit more crimes, a study has suggested.
The research, which is the first of its kind, found two-thirds of female prisoners who have a brain injury say it was carried out by an abusive partner.
The study, conducted by The Disabilities Trust and Royal Holloway University, also discovered 64 per cent of incarcerated women had experiences or symptoms linked to brain injuries.
Researchers worked with 173 women at HMP Drake Hall, a women’s prison in Staffordshire, who were screened using the Brain Injury Screening Index.
While there are far higher numbers of people with traumatic brain injuries in the prison population than in the general population, the study found the prevalence of such injuries to be slightly higher in female rather than male prisoners.
Data has shown such injuries are known to lead to an increased risk of violence, earlier age of first incarceration, a greater number of convictions, re-conviction, mental health problems and a greater number of attempts at suicide.
Researchers said the lack of understanding and identification of a brain injury results in a higher risk of custody and reoffending.
Dr Ivan Pitman, a clinical neuropsychologist who was involved in the report, said the proportion of women who had a history of domestic violence was unknown before this report and was “shockingly high”.
“People being in violent relationships can be the cause of a brain injury and brain injuries can make people offend among other factors,” he told The Independent.
“Some women who have acquired their injury through domestic abuse have a change in their behaviour and cognition. When you elucidate women to the fact an injury they had aged 21 when they were knocked around is still affecting them at 48, they are shocked.”
Dr Pitman said it was “mindboggling” professionals were not asking whether prisoners had a brain injury as a standard matter of protocol.
“It is alarming to see there is such a high rate of brain injuries but then also to understand that the services are not doing the basics,” he added.
The study found 62 per cent of 100 women who had brain injuries at Drake Hall prison reported their brain injury was caused by domestic violence. Some 29 per cent of women attributed their brain injury to road traffic incidents.
Of the 100 women given specialist support, there were 196 reports of severe blows to the head, with some women having sustained multiple injuries.
Half of those women with brain injuries had been in an adult prison five or more times and a third sustained their first injury prior to their first offence.
Rachael Mcnulty, the clinical supervisor for the study, said that when an individual’s brain development is disrupted, it affects their behaviour, emotion and cognition.
She said: “The brain does everything. If at some point your brain is disrupted, it has an effect an all elements of your life. People may be more prone to being impulsive and have less emotional resources to deal with anxiety or anger.
“The research clearly demonstrates the link between life trauma and offending, violence, and victimisation. It showed women with brain injuries were more vulnerable and had more mental health issues.”
Jocelyn Gaynor, head of The Disabilities Trust Foundation, noted the study’s findings would be likely to have an impact on those working in the domestic violence and women’s sector and even the government.
“It is not just the number of women who have experienced domestic violence, but also the accounts from women that are distressing,” she said.
The report called for people to be screened for brain injuries when entering prison or probation services and for all prison and probation staff to receive basic brain injury awareness training. Researchers also demanded studies to be carried out to examine the potential effect of brain injury on re-offending behaviour.
The female prison population is highly vulnerable – with charities warning they are often victims of much more serious offences than the ones they have been convicted of.
The vast majority of female offenders are handed short sentences of six months or less for minor crimes, with a quarter imprisoned for under a month. However, the jail sentence can still be profoundly disruptive – causing people to lose their jobs, homes and contact with children.
Factors said to drive women to turn to crime include poverty, drug and alcohol problems, mental health issues and coercive relationships with men.
Some 60 per cent of female offenders have experienced domestic abuse, an estimated 24 to 31 per cent have dependent children and those in jail or on probation are more than twice as likely to suffer mental health issues as men.
But the figures on domestic abusive are likely to be an underestimate because many women fear disclosing abuse. Previous research by charity Women in Prison shows 79 per cent of the women who use their services have experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse.
Almost half of all female prisoners in England and Wales say they committed their offence to support the drug use of someone else, according to Ministry of Justice data, while many more are substance abusers themselves.