Colorado Jail Helps Inmates Who Have Suffered Traumatic Brain Injuries

 Casey Leins

BOULDER, Colo. — From 2007 to 2008, Kevin Leeper was a soldier in the U.S. Army, stationed in Iraq. Now, at age 31, he wears a different uniform: a tan jumpsuit and a barcode around his wrist.

Leeper has been serving time at Colorado's Boulder County Jail since March, on charges of menacing and attempted murder.

Before he left for Iraq, he says he was "a pretty stable kid." Leeper was in a band, was an avid skateboarder and lived what he calls a pretty normal lifestyle. After his return, he started using heroin and OxyContin, causing him to fail his urinalysis tests for the Army. Leeper had already fulfilled his required six years of service, but this ended his military career.

He says he also joined a motorcycle gang, got into fights and became an alcoholic.

Leeper attributes some of his behavior to the traumatic brain injury and the post-traumatic stress disorder he developed while overseas.

The Department of Veterans Affairs diagnosed him with a traumatic brain injury, which Leeper believes he sustained during daily mortar attacks on the Army base. He believes the injury makes it difficult for him to concentrate, causes him to "space out" during conversations and contributes to his long-term memory issues. The attacks also probably contributed to his PTSD, which he says "pretty much rules my life." It makes him anxious, and leads him to interpret situations as threatening, even when they are not.

He says his VA counselor told him he was "kind of recreating the war scene" by participating in gang activities and fighting once he was home.

"(I was) keeping the adrenaline high by being in risky situations," Leeper explains, "because that's what was natural for me."

He received some treatment for his PTSD through the VA and was involved in a traumatic brain injury program, but says he dropped out because of his alcoholism.

Now, though, Leeper is benefiting from Boulder County Jail's efforts to help inmates who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and reduce their recidivism rates, which are higher than those of the general population. It's part of a state-funded project led by Judy Dettmer, director of the state-run Mindsource - Brain Injury Network.

Through the project, facilities such as Boulder County Jail are able to better identify inmates with a history of a traumatic brain injury and teach them how to cope with their cognitive deficits. Leeper's memory and concentration issues are classic symptoms of traumatic brain injury survivors, according to Dettmer. Other common symptoms include lack of impulse control and sensory overload.

Jail staff identify brain injury survivors by asking screening questions; those who test positive are then given a symptom questionnaire to pinpoint their cognitive deficits or neuropsychological impairments. The jail uses those results to help them learn coping mechanisms.

Leeper, who tested positive for a traumatic brain injury, says the diagnosis has helped him to better understand his injury and how it has changed his cognitive abilities.

"(Now that) the memory loss and the mental slowness have been diagnosed, it's just kind of freeing in a way. I don't judge myself as bad," Leeper says.

Additionally, inmates who are found to have had traumatic brain injuries are connected with the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado (BIAC), a partner in Dettmer's project. BIAC assigns the inmates case managers, who help them reintegrate into society during their probation period.

Boulder County Jail also recently implemented a psychoeducation course, which a few sites working with Mindsource - Brain Injury Network have tested so far. The course is facilitated by Christopher Heins, who supervises the facility's Jail Education and Transition program, and two of his colleagues.

Cells are seen at the boulder county jail

Through the Mindsource - Brain Injury Network, facilities such as Boulder County Jail are able to better identify inmates with traumatic brain injuries and teach them how to cope with their cognitive deficits. (BRETT ZIEGLER FOR USN&WR)

The curriculum is designed to help inmates better understand their condition, how it impacts their life, and how they can overcome the obstacles they face, Heins says. The classes are structured in a way that keeps the students focused, using traditional teaching methods as well as videos and interactive exercises. In one part of Heins' first class, which was on emotional regulation, participants were able to share their own experiences.

"(There were) men from various modules (parts of the jail), who don't see each other that often, all openly sharing about their experiences," Heins says.

There are 10 participants in the course, which includes seven weeks of once-per-week classes, and there are already inmates on the waitlist for the next go-round, according to Heins.

Leeper, who was chosen to participate, says the class has helped him better understand how his cognitive issues are related to his traumatic brain injury.

"It's just raising my awareness of it all," he says, adding that he has learned a lot of research surrounding traumatic brain injuries, including how prevalent they are in the jail population.

Inmates aren't the only ones taking classes at the jail. In early June, the facility's deputies started a course, taught by Dettmer and BIAC's Corrections Program Manager Jaime Horsfall, to learn about traumatic brain injuries.

Heins says the deputies are now aware of how prevalent traumatic brain injury survivors are in jail and probation populations and are learning how to better identify and work with inmates who are affected by these injuries.

Matt Marostica, a deputy at the jail who was interviewed before the classes started, says he doesn't know exactly which inmates have experienced a traumatic brain injury, but the more acute cases are pretty evident. Some of these inmates have very slow response times, he says.

"We really break (directions) down one step at a time," Marostica says, adding that he has also purchased earplugs for inmates who suffer from sensitivity to noise, or sensory overload, due to their injuries.

Gregory Clem, a deputy who has worked at the jail for 23 years, says he can also usually identify traumatic brain injury victims. He's noticed that many of them seem very confused when they first enter the jail.

"A lot of (working with them) is just patience and understanding," he says.

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