Prison and the brain: What we know about deficits in executive functioning among inmates

The results of a study published in Frontiers in Psychology earlier this year suggest that the executive functioning of prisoners may be impaired — especially that of recidivists, or repeat offenders.

According to the study, more than 11 million people are currently imprisoned and recidivism rates in the United States are at an all-time high. The most recent statistics from the National Institute of Justice report that 76.6% of released prisoners were rearrested within 5 years. At a time when many are pondering explanations and solutions for the prison epidemic, researchers at VU University Amsterdam look to psychology for clues.

The study, conducted at the university’s Department of Clinical Neuropsychology, is a meta-analysis of seven other studies. Researchers compared the data for both prisoners and control groups in six different areas of executive functioning: set-shifting, planning, working memory, inhibition, attention and problem-solving.


According to Jesse Meijers, the principal investigator, set-shifting is “the ability to change perspectives […] to think of new solutions for persisting problems, or switch from dysfunctional behavior to more functional behavior.”  Prisoners scored significantly lower on set-shifting tests than control groups, especially violent offenders.


Four different studies that measured planning were reviewed, with mixed results.  Findings seem to suggest that planning tasks with high ecological value, or “real-world” items and examples, show the most significant differences between offenders and non-offenders.  Meijers and associates also suggest that recidivists, or repeat offenders, show more deficits in planning than first-time offenders.

Working Memory

Working memory is the part of short-term memory that temporarily holds information for immediate processing and problem-solving.  Researchers found that both violent and non-violent offenders scored significantly worse on these tasks than the control groups.


Though the results were mixed, researchers found that prisoners generally scored significantly lower than control groups on tasks regarding inhibition. One study found no significant difference between groups; however, the group in this study contained prisoners who committed acts of instrumental—or planned—violence, rather than impulsive acts. Meijers suggests that prisoners who have a history of this type of violence already show less impulsiveness, which could affect scores on the tasks.


One study regarding attention was examined. The results determined that prisoners had significantly more difficulty with attention tasks than non-offenders.


Meijers and his team reviewed one study that measured problem-solving. They found that prisoners did not score significantly lower than the control group, but they needed significantly more time to complete the tasks.

The research team asserts that these findings expose a significant problem with prison conditions and the treatment of offenders.  Historically, cognitive-behavioral interventions and enrichment have been more effective for reducing recidivism than other tactics (sanctions, for example).  However, according to Meijers, prisons are rife with conditions that reduce enrichment, activity, and independence for offenders.  The team suggests that further research is needed to highlight these issues and to guide programs aimed at rehabilitating prisoners.