Traumatic Brain Injuries Common among Female Prisoners

Sunlight pours into a prison cellAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2 million people visit the emergency room with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) every year. Traumatic brain injuries contribute to 50,000 deaths in the Unites States annually. TBI, which is caused by a forceful blow to the head, can undermine intelligence, change personalities, and alter the way people with such an injury experience and react to emotions. According to one recent study, these brain injuries may also play a role in incarceration.

TBI and Incarceration

The study surveyed male and female prisoners in Ontario, Canada. Forty percent of female respondents had suffered a traumatic brain injury, compared to only about 2% within the general population. Half of the women who had suffered a TBI sustained the injury prior to committing their first crime in contrast with the men in the study who generally sustained a TBI sometime after their first crime. Researchers also found that the rates of childhood sexual and physical abuse were higher among female TBI sufferers. Overall, the rate of sexual or physical abuse among Canadian female inmates is 85%.

The study only looked at Ontario inmates, so results can’t be generalized to the entire prison population. Likewise, the study’s authors did not evaluate whether or how TBI might affect a woman’s likelihood of committing a crime.

How TBI Endangers Female Inmates

Traumatic brain injuries can affect a sufferer’s ability to think clearly, respond quickly, or follow directions. Consequently, the symptoms of a TBI—failure to respond to correctional officers’ instructions, for example—may look like defiance. This can subject female inmates to unnecessary punitive measures or to abuse from correctional officers.

Most incarcerated women are in prison for nonviolent offenses, and the overwhelming majority will eventually be released. The study’s authors emphasize that their results point to the need for early detection of symptoms of TBI, as well as appropriate medical care for women afflicted with the condition. Women with TBI may need additional help to re-integrate into society, gain job skills, and avoid breaking the law again.


  1. University Health Network (UHN). (2014, July 17). Forty percent of Ontario female prisoners enter correctional system with a traumatic brain injury. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from
  2. Incarcerated women [PDF]. (September). Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project.
  3. TBI statistics. (n.d.). The Brain Trauma Foundation. Retrieved from
  4. Traumatic brain injury in the United States: Fact sheet. (2014, June 02). Center for Disease Control. Retrieved from

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  • Catherine


    July 23rd, 2014 at 11:35 AM

    This is a real eye opener as so much research into the prison population I think naturally focuses on male offenders and not females because of the numbers differential. This is clear proof that there is a lot of differences between the female and male prison populations and that these differences have to be paid close attention to. Guards need to be trained that this can be a possibility and that what they may initially think is defiance could actually stem from something else.

  • Kevin C.

    Kevin C.

    July 23rd, 2014 at 3:10 PM

    I’m sorry the title of this really confused me. I thought that this would be about that females in prison suffered more injuries while in jail that led to traumatic brain injuries, but for reading it seems lie what you are getting at is that more females who are in prison had actually suffered from this type of injury prior to incarceration.

    So the question for me now becomes does this type of health problem then lead to a greater chance that you would then commit a crime and would be placed in jail for that? Or could this just be an unusual coincidence?

  • Butch


    July 24th, 2014 at 6:14 AM

    Good luck ladies.

  • whitt b

    whitt b

    July 26th, 2014 at 3:17 PM

    My concern would be that this detection of TBI would not be soon enough to save them from the trouble that could lie ahead within law enforcement and subsequent incarceration.
    I truly feel like this could go even deeper than the results like criminal behavior and could actually again point out problems in the healthcare system whereas these women are not receiving proper treatment for the injury when it occurs.
    Not to make this even more political but there just seems to be something about criminal behavior that can always come back around and point back to the overwhelming inequalities faced by so many in society today.

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