Opinion Columns & Blogs

Treating inmates’ ADHD could reduce recidivism

As the saying goes, “You do the crime, you do the time.”

That said, during my first five years at the jail (working, folks) I saw a lot of inmate behavior that reminded me of ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder).

About 10 years ago, a grad student studied two large-city jails back East. That writer thought 75 percent of those incarcerated were adults with undiagnosed or untreated ADD and ADHD. He conceded that sample was too small to be statistically valid, but thought it was an interesting statistic, nonetheless.

Researchers estimate that 12 percent of males and 5 percent of females in this country under the age of 18 are diagnosed with ADHD. (Apparently, that ratio is pretty consistent in other countries, too.) A lot of kids seem to “outgrow” it, eventually. ADD brains just take longer to mature, I guess. One lecturer observed that insurance companies have known this for years: Rates go down after age 25.

In the over-18 set, however, 5 percent of males and 3 percent of females continue to take the scenic route through the rest of their lives (yours truly being a case in point). If this is true, how come research also estimates (conservatively) that at least 25 percent of those in the correctional system have ADHD of one flavor or another?

“ADHD and the Criminal Justice System,” by Patrick J. Hurley and Dr. Robert Eme, makes a good case for this, citing their experience and current research. Hurley is a retired cop and probation officer, and Eme specializes in ADHD.

Many inmates at the jail say and do things daily that exemplify ADD/ADHD traits. Their behaviors reflect the negative self-image and poor self-esteem that go with the criticism dished out by the rest of the world.

Unless you learn to advocate for yourself, at the end of the day you often internalize messages like “I’m just lazy.” “I’m no good.” “I’m a loser.” “I’m a fraud.” “I’m stupid.” In turn, you act to fulfill those judgments — unless you got a lucky draw in the parent or teacher lottery. Throw into this mix poor health care and nutrition, bad parenting and role models, and/or abuse, and we easily churn out generations of incarcerated people.

Do not misunderstand. Nothing — not even ADHD/ADD — absolves anyone of responsibility for and consequences of their choices. There are too many successful people who also have ADD/ADHD (actor Will Smith, comedian Howie Mandel, designer Ty Pennington and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, among others).

A brief Internet search reveals successful business executives and entrepreneurs with the same issues. Many report they, too, had had one foot on the path leading to jail or prison. Experiencing an epiphany, however, they chose a different path.

Studies abound that link the tell-tale signs of ADHD (impulsivity, restlessness, defiance, poor judgment and problem solving) with the “frequent flier program” of jail. While I may recognize inmates who likely have undiagnosed/untreated ADD, their problems are compounded by a lifetime of bad habits.

So it’s not enough to identify and treat them. They also need what the shrinks call cognitive behavioral training, essentially life coaching. According to the authors of “ADHD and the Criminal Justice System,” the United Kingdom has reduced recidivism 30 percent by doing so.

Would it not be cheaper — and better for society in the long run — to assess, treat and coach people, especially in early contacts with the criminal justice system, than to incarcerate them forever on the installment plan?

It is possible to change one’s life. In order to do that, one must, of course, change choices. To do that, however, one has to change the way one thinks. If you have an ADHD brain, that’s like trying to build a house missing some of the materials and most of the nails to hold it together.

Deborah Morton, a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, is a corrections deputy at Pierce County Jail. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Email her at tntwriter12@gmail.com.