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Traumatic brain injuries can negatively influence behavior later in life.
Photo by Naeblys on iStock

Robert Shaver, a prisoner at East Jersey State Prison, has been on an odyssey to understand why he has suffered from fits of anger, aggression and poor impulse control. More importantly, he has been seeking help to prevent him from acting out violently in the future.

Experts agree that there is a strong link between brain trauma and criminal behavior.

“There have been a number of high-quality studies showing an increased risk of crime after brain injury — usually about twice the risk compared to the non-injured,” said Huw Williams, co-director of the Centre for Clinical Neuropsychology Research at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, a University of Denver research study found that incarcerated people suffered from psychiatric and substance use disorders at a significantly higher percentage in most categories compared to the general population.

In the interview below, Shaver, who goes by Rhino, spoke about his experience with TBI, as well as his frustration with the courts and the prison system. Rhino is serving a 25-year sentence. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: First of all, thank you for agreeing to sit down with me to discuss such a personal matter. Can you give me a brief summary of your history of brain injuries?

Rhino: According to the doctor’s report, in 1976, at the age of eight months, I fell out of a shopping cart and hit my head on the floor. The report stated that I was unconscious for 10 minutes with both my hands shaking, indicating the possibility of seizures. I also had numerous other documented head injuries that resulted in unconsciousness in my early childhood and later on in life.

Q: Can you tell me a little about your behavior growing up?

Rhino: Growing up, my behavior was not normal. I was very aggressive. I did not have empathy or an awareness of the fact that I was doing wrong. I was placed in behavior modification classes and isolated. About the time of ninth grade, I was sent to a special school for kids with behavioral problems, called the Archway [Lower School] in Atco, New Jersey.

Q: Do you have any siblings? How did they behave compared to you?

Rhino: Yes. A brother and a sister. They were normal children attending regular school.

Q: What can you tell me about your criminal history?

Rhino: I have 23 juvenile arrests and appeared before Judge [Albert J.] Garofolo over a hundred times.

Q: When did you learn about your head injuries?

Rhino: At the age of 30, sitting in the county jail. I read a statement in the newspaper by my aunt Barbara saying it is a shame that I never grew to live a proper life due to the head injuries I suffered as a child.

Q: Were you evaluated after committing the crime that led to your current incarceration?

Rhino: I was evaluated by Dr. Daniel Greenfield on order by the Atlantic County public defender’s office. But they refused to follow through with their expert’s recommendation for more in-depth tests.

Q: One of the men on the tier with us has been involved with a state case focused on juvenile sentencing. It follows up on the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions in recent years that have placed some restrictions on juvenile sentencing based on brain development science.

Rhino: Yes. He explained that the use of brain science has advanced a lot in recent years to illustrate the rate of development of the juvenile brain. I have referenced his case in my appeals.

Q: What steps do you think the courts should take that would be helpful to you and others in your predicament?

Rhino: The courts should add mitigating factors, specifically for individuals with documented traumatic brain injuries.

Q: Finally, what help have you sought to deal with your issues?
Rhino: I have completed anger management and “Cage Your Rage” programs and also researched as much as I could about the effects of trauma. I also tried to get help from the medical department, but there is no neurologist or program available to deal with trauma issues. I hope they stop incarcerating the broken man, and heal the broken mind.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

M. Yayah Sandi is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey. He requested that his first name be withheld.