Brain Trust

Research by a University of Denver professor on the connection between traumatic brain injury and crime is bringing change in how inmates are screened and treated

Photography By Jensen Sutta

WHEN KIM GORGENS walks into a room, people notice. It is not just that she stands 6 feet tall, but her strong voice, confident projection and, most of all, the subjects she talks about command an audience.

Gorgens, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, has spent the last 30 years studying human behavior, most recently at the University of Denver, where she is a professor in the graduate school of professional psychology, a behavioral health specialist and an expert on the brain. This summer, she stood next to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and he signed into law a bill prompted by her research that expands brain injury screening for people in the criminal justice system.

Gorgens’ career and her fascination with human behavior began when she was an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University. In her first job, she worked at Menard Psychiatric Prison, part of a maximum-security correctional facility in Illinois, where she evaluated inmates. “I immediately liked working with this population and exploring how the brain worked,” she said. She was hired by Denver Health Medical Center in 1997 and moved to Denver to work with patients who had substance abuse issues and were in psychiatric crisis.

In addition, Gorgens taught at Arapahoe Community College and Metropolitan State University of Denver, and now at the University of Denver. She discovered a love for working with graduate students and for researching and evaluating those who suffer from brain trauma.

In 2010, Gorgens gave her first TED Talk, discussing the brain’s response to injury in athletes, and she made a compelling case for putting helmets on kids. While this is a common topic of discussion today, her research and findings were groundbreaking. She went on to help draft and support the 2011 Colorado concussion law, which requires coaches of organized youth sports for children ages 11-18 to complete annual concussion recognition education.

Fast-forward a few years, to the day that Gorgens sat with friends at The Pioneer, a favorite happy hour location near DU. Gorgens and her colleagues wondered if trauma in the brain had an impact on crime. If tested, would they find that inmates suffer from more brain trauma than the average person? With this initial thought, the team put together a plan and started screening inmates in the Denver County Jail’s Mental Health Transition Unit.

Their initial results were staggering.

More than half of the inmates screened had suffered moderate or severe brain trauma, and almost all the females who under-went the TBI screening had brain injuries suffered both before entering the system and/or once they arrived. To put that in perspective, approximately 8% of the non-incarcerated population suffers from TBI. Since 2013, Gorgens and her team have conducted neuropsychological screenings on individuals in county jails and have determined that overall, between 50% and 80% of the population in Denver County jails have traumatic brain injuries. That number jumps to more than 90% in the more vulnerable female population, where domestic violence is common. Trauma to one’s brain can make the organ look like those of retired NFL players who have experienced multiple concussions.

“The most important thing we did was send the report from our findings, one to the jail and one to the inmate, helping them both understand how to manage the brain injury. Empowering the inmate to take charge of their own mental health was critical,” Gorgens said.

This information was life-changing for Marchell Taylor, who went to prison in Denver for aggravated robbery in 2016. Taylor was suicidal and had landed in jail three times in a two-year period. He said he was hearing voices and couldn’t make sense of the world. And then he was screened for, and found to have, a traumatic brain injury.

TBI, Gorgens said, affects impulse control, making basic tasks like keeping a calendar or making mandatory check-ins a challenge. If people on probation miss their check-ins, they can land right back in jail. In 2018 Gorgens gave her second TED Talk, in which she discussed the high rates of TBI in the prison population and the revolving door of brain injury and crime.

Her research is changing the outcome for many. On Gorgens’ recommendation, a judge sentenced Taylor to eight years on mental health probation. He now successfully manages his mental health and runs a nonprofit organization called Rebuild your Mind. During the 2021 Colorado legislative session, he helped write–with input from Gorgens and sponsorship by State Sen. James Coleman, D-Denver—a bill that will screen inmates in the Department of Corrections for TBI. Gov. Polis signed the bill into law in July. Gorgens is hoping that the pilot program created by the new law will begin by screening inmates in the Denver Women’s Prison because of that population’s exceptionally high rates of TBI.

Gorgens’ work with brain trauma is so revolutionary that it is easy to lose sight of her other qualities; the ones that take her beyond being an expert on the brain to an inspirational teacher and friend. It is her sisterhood of solid female friends that Gorgens said keeps her going through all of the heavy work. As a professor, she advises her students not to focus so much on the goal but to live in the moment. She tells them to “nurture your brain, sleep and eat well, and find good friends and keep them close.”

After a day of screening inmates, identifying brain injuries and teaching students about neuropsychology, she goes home to her family: a husband of 21 years and a 19-year-old son, who is now studying biology at the University of Denver. A good book or a zombie movie is what helps Gorgens turn off her brain at the end of a long day. Gorgens said she could talk about zombie, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi films all day long, with her favorites being Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later and “Black Summer.” “What’s not to love?” she asked.

But it is Gorgens’ love for helping the most vulnerable identify and overcome brain trauma that is changing lives. And she said her efforts in this area have only just begun. Gorgens will start working on the Colorado pilot program mandated by the new law, then she hopes to train people in other states in the Colorado TBI model. She was just awarded a grant to work on concussion research for young and retired athletes, and she plans to write a book.

And, yes, she is aware that her to-do list probably makes most normal brains spin.

Lindsey Schwartz is an award-winning television producer and writer, having produced for “48 Hours,” “Dateline NBC,” and CBS News. In 2020, she wrote and produced two episodes of a series for MSNBC called “What’s Eating America.”

Categories: Community/Society