University of Denver studying the effect of brain injuries on inmates and repeat offenders

DENVER, CO - One of the challenges in the criminal justice system is helping people not become repeat offenders when they're released from prison.

We hear all the time about the need to treat mental illness among inmates. But new research suggests something new to consider when it comes to the brain -- an actual brain injury.

Identifying inmates with brain damage can give them an entirely new chance of turning their lives around.

When you see Vinny Zecchino at work as a mover, it may look as though he's simply moving boxes. But with each one, he's moving his life in a different direction.

"I get to prove to myself that I'm capable you know?" Zecchino said. "That I know no matter what I'm not going to give up. And you know, I'm always going to find a way."

At the age of seven, a drunk driver crashed into him as he walked with his family.

"I remember him hitting me and the next thing it was black," Zecchino said. "I remember waking up. There was snow everywhere. So the first thing I saw was the blood on snow."

He had a traumatic brain injury, and after a disagreement with a relative years later, had another one.

"He beat me and my brother with a bat really bad and busted my head open again," Zecchino said.

The injuries took a toll, and at the age of 12, Zecchino began what would be years spent in and out of jail and on parole.

"I started giving up really young you know?" Zecchino said. "And I started getting to a lot of trouble. And you know, once I got older I started using drugs to cope with it."

It's a pattern that would have continued, he believes, had he not connected with a group at the University of Denver studying the effect of brain injuries on inmates.

"It really helped me understand it a lot better," Zecchino said. "And it, just them believing in me. It really motivated me like I had finally kind of like somebody that. You know was trying hard to help me."

The team studied people in jail and on parole and found anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of them had a history of traumatic brain injury. Once they determined what a person's specific issues were, the team worked with the Brain Injury Alliance to develop workshops to help them develop skills to address them in practical ways.

"So what do you need to ask an employer for?" University of Denver Professor Kim Gorgens said as an example. "What do you need to ask during a job interview? What do you need to ask during a probation meeting?  What do you need to ask the judge for the next time you appear in court?"

The program's goal is multifold: to help judges, probation and corrections officers identify and better work with people who have traumatic brain injuries, in order to keep them from re-offending.  Researchers hope this program can be used nationwide, because nearly 60% of people with traumatic brain injuries are likely to get rearrested, compared with around 30% of the general population.

But the primary goal is self-advocacy.

"This is really a way to empower someone and give them the opportunity to take responsibility for their outcomes," Gorgens said.

Zecchino says it has done that for him, and more. He's not only working but off probation, off drugs and playing guitar again. It's a skill he taught himself again after the crash.

"Music is the biggest thing in my life," Zecchino said. "It's my passion. It's what keeps me going."

Zecchino says he is proof that nothing can stop anyone from living a different life.

"Never give up on anything," Zecchino said. "If they want to do something they could most definitely do it."

Tapping into and releasing the power of the mind.

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