'It's pretty scary': life in jail with an acquired or traumatic brain injury

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'It's pretty scary': life in jail with an acquired or traumatic brain injury

ABC Radio National
Damien Carrick
Jeremy Story Carter
February 20,2016
Image: Prison can be a confronting place for inmates with acquired brain injuries. (Getty Images/ Peter Macdiarmid)

People with acquired brain injuries are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Once they're incarcerated, it can be challenging for sufferers to navigate their way through prison and often they're at risk of reoffending. What can be done?

'It's a standover world in there. It's pretty vicious. A lot of people take advantage of you if you are a bit slow, you know?'

If you are a high-standing member in a little community of blokes, the next minute you could not be their friend and they want to bash you or stab you because they think you're not right, you're not the norm.

Johnny*, former prisoner

The thought of prison is a terrifying prospect for most, but former inmate Dave* says that's only amplified by having an acquired brain injury (ABI).

Dave was involved in a head-on car crash five years ago. He pauses for a moment when asked how old he is.

'Good question... 53. Yeah, 53.'

The last time he was in prison was for armed robbery.

'It wasn't really meant to be an armed robbery, it was meant to be a repossession of a car, and the person that was with me had a rifle and I didn't know nothing about it.'

Prison, he says, is hard.

'It's pretty scary. I been in jail at different times, all different times, but this time it with the ABI after the head-on crash, for sure, it was totally different. Scary. I forgot all my skills more or less.'

Dave says he was targeted on the inside and asked for help from prison authorities.

'I was asking for help every day, every, every day and just saying, look, there's something wrong with me. I had a head-on crash, I've got a brain injury.

'Some helped, some don't, some couldn't really give a shit.'

Dave is part of the Enabling Justice Project, a collaboration between Jesuit Social Services and RMIT's Centre for Innovative Justice. It aims is to address the overrepresentation of people with acquired brain injuries in the criminal justice system.

Around two percent of the population have an acquired brain injury, but a 2011 Victorian study found 42 per cent of male and 33 percent of female inmates have an ABI.

Living with ABI on the inside

Johnny* is part of that statistic, having developed an acquired brain injury as a result of long-term serious drug use. When he was sentenced to 10 years jail for armed robbery, he used a number of strategies to try and hide his ABI from other prisoners.

'I'd run 10 kilometres every day just to keep away from people,' says Johnny.

'If you are a high-standing member in a little community of blokes [in prison], the next minute you could not be their friend and they want to bash you or stab you because they think you're not right, you're not the norm.

'Once you are in the yard and there's no officers around, hell can break loose, just because you've got an ABI.'

And it wasn't just dealing with other inmates that was challenging.

'They send you up to a medical to get your meds or whatever [and] I'd just go wandering because I wouldn't even know what they let us out for.

'You wander around and you don't even know where you are, you've got to be back with everyone else. If you're not back, well, where are you? And that's the ABI that's acting up on you.'

After several months of adjustment, Johnny found a routine between his exercise and his job as prison cook, which helped to manage the impact of his ABI.

However, Johnny wasn't able to replicate or achieve that sense of routine on the outside and after being released, soon broke his parole.

'I was having drama with people on the outside then with the ABI. I didn't know where my safe place was.

'I couldn't really relate to my wife and my little boy didn't know, I just had to pick a safe place.'

Brigid Henley, who is involved in the Enabling Justice Project, believes acquired brain injuries are poorly understood in the community.

'ABI is not well understood in the community and it's not well understood probably by a lot of police members as well,' she says.

'An ABI doesn't impact on everyone in exactly the same way, that's part of the complexity. However, memory loss, particularly short-term memory loss and poor concentration are a feature of having an acquired brain injury.

'Difficulty absorbing new information is a struggle, and lack of consequential kinds of thinking is also really common, depending on which area of the brain has been affected.'

Given the overrepresentation of people with ABIs in prison, Henley says there is a clear need for greater understanding of why they offend.

'Those experiences of social disadvantage and repeated and early trauma through childhood and into adulthood put you at greater risk of acquiring a brain injury, and they also put you at greater risk of offending,' she says.

'Regularly it is those issues that move into adolescence and mental health issues in adolescence. They result in depression and anxiety as a result of that early and ongoing trauma.

'Then what often happens is that people move into escapism or self-medicating those mental health outcomes and move into substance abuse, and then that leads often into offending behaviour and incarceration.'

Henley says there is a strong argument for better ABI support and services, given how much these prisoners cost the government.

'We need better support for people as they go through the criminal justice system and we need better support for and accommodation options for people as they leave prison that help them to live as independently as possible in the community.

'If we don't provide them with that support, we are really consigning them to a life of homelessness, substance abuse, offending and incarceration and that revolving door.

'It does sound expensive, but it's probably not as expensive as the $100,000 a year we spend on incarcerating prisoners, and I think there are benefits in terms of our own safety and of community safety.'

*Names of participants in the Enabling Justice Project have been changed.