Training the Brain to Stay out of Jail

The Marshall Project

By Eli Hager

Growing up in public housing in North Charleston, S.C., in the 1970s, David Hayward was familiar with poverty, violence and loss. His mother, grandmother and brother all died when he was young, and his father was in prison. He became addicted to alcohol and cocaine and occasionally lived under bridges and in abandoned buildings, he says. Over the years, his rap sheet grew: At least 15 arrests, mostly for minor crimes like driving with a suspended license and possession of drug paraphernalia but twice for armed robbery, leading to six stints in jail.

In other words, Hayward is a typical “repeat offender.”

Crime statistics make clear that in the U.S., a handful of young men are responsible for an outsized share of crime. Like Hayward, they are often exposed as children to violence and trauma, parental incarceration, addiction, and poverty, all contributing to a lifelong inability to stay out of prison.

Yet experts in the burgeoning field of prisoner re-entry, which supports former inmates, don’t agree on what—short of addressing systemic issues such as poverty and unemployment—can prevent this hard-to-reach group from committing more crimes.

A small but ambitious nonprofit organization in Charleston called the Turning Leaf Project is taking the one approach that research seems to suggest actually works: It’s training habitual offenders to change how they think, and therefore how they act, with cognitive behavioral therapy. During CBT, patients learn to identify antisocial thoughts and then replace them with healthier ones; for years, this popular form of talk therapy has been used to treat depression, post-traumatic stress, eating disorders and other psychological problems.

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