ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - It might sound like science fiction, but a new study by a University of New Mexico professor claims to be able to predict which convicted criminals will reoffend after they're released from jail.
"We can assess impulsivity by interviewing you and talking to you and finding out how many bad decisions you've made in the past," said Dr. Kent Kiehl, a UNM psychology professor who spearheaded the study. "All we did was we went and measured what happens inside your brain while you're doing the same types of tasks.
"And that's more predictive of whether or not you're going to come back to prison rather than just talking to you."
Kiehl used a mobile Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine to scan and study a part of the brain--the anterior cingulated cortex known as the ACC--which controls impulsive behavior. He scanned the brains of 96 inmates between the ages of 20 and 52 at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants about six months before they were set to be released.
To stimulate that part of the brain the inmates were given a simple test asking them to press a button when the letter "X" appeared on a computer screen but to refrain from pressing the button when a "K" appeared. The scientists were particularly interested when an inmate made a mistake.
That's because scientists found that those inmates who made mistakes and exhibited low brain activity in the ACC afterward had a harder time controlling their impulses and were more prone to apathetic or aggressive behavior, Kiehl said.
"What they're doing is pressing a button as fast and as accurately as they can," Kiehl said. "It's that response of, 'Argh, I know I just made a mistake,' that we're studying."
Kiehl's team then followed up with the same inmates four years later.
They discovered that those in the top 10 percent of low brain activity in the ACC were back in jail within a year of release. About half of the inmates who participated in the study were back within prison four years after release.
But Kiehl's study is far from over.
He now wants to know if treatments can be developed to increase brain activity in the ACC. He said he thinks the ACC can be exercised just like regular muscles.
"We know that there are certain, what are called cognitive behavior therapies or different types of meditation even, that increase activity in those areas," Kiehl said. "The next thing we want to do is take inmates that are high-risk and have them do treatment studies to see if they can fix those problems."
The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque has already implemented programs that might be able to stimulate that area of the brain including yoga classes, fitness classes and book clubs. Inmates said they have noticed a difference in their behavior inside jail walls.
"Like the fighting, I stop before I react," said MDC inmate Mark Martinez. "Instead it used to be like, 'Hey, let's do this.' Now it's, 'Wait. I don't want to do this. I don't want that life no more.' "
MDC inmate Diego Rascón has had a similar experience.
"I felt like I would jump straight into something, like an impulse reaction," Rascón said. "Now I'm feeling calm. I feel like I'm in the present."
Added MDC inmate John Jones, "It's changed my thinking in so many different ways. (It) makes me stop and think about the consequences of things."
How these gains made inside jail and prison walls will translate once inmates are released to the outside world is uncertain, jail officials said. But with New Mexico's recidivism rate at 50 percent and the cost of jailing an inmate in New Mexico prisons at more than $100 a day, Corrections Deputy Secretary Joe Booker said studies like Kiehl's are worth it.
"The cost of reincarceration is worth doing studies, whether for medical or mental health or any of those types of things," Booker said.
The mobile MRI unit cost about $2 million. The research is funded through federal and state grants. Kiehl takes the mobile MRI unit to prisons in New Mexico and Wisconsin.
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