The Imprisoned Brain: Psychotherapy with Inmates in Jail

The Imprisoned Brain: Psychotherapy with Inmates in Jail

by Sudhanva Rajagopal
Sudhanva Rajagopal, a clinical psychology graduate student, ponders our animal nature as he relates the poignant complexity of working with inmates in jail.


Get Endless Inspiration and
Insight from Master Therapists,
Members-Only Content & More


Officer Smith

There’s a strange smile I get from one of the correctional officers at the county jail where I do psychotherapy with inmates. The correctional officer?—?let’s call him Officer Smith?—?presides over the maximum security wing where one of my clients is housed. Officer Smith is not a talker. None of the small-town, yessir/nossir politeness or the jocular workaday chit-chat of some of the other COs. Just that smile?—?every time he buzzes my client out of his cell, shackles him up, escorts him to the multipurpose room where we do therapy, right up until he locks us in and steps away.

It’s an iceberg kind of a smile?—?the only visible portion a slight jut at the corner of the mouth; the rest of it looms somewhere beneath. And it conveys something different to me every day?—?anything from benign fascination to good-humored skepticism to impatience, disapproval, or even outright disdain for what I do (some COs refer to the jail counseling program as the Hug-A-Thug program). When Officer Smith smiles, I find myself smiling back, and I find myself feeling those same things?—?ranging from fascination to disdain?—?for what he does too.

Every week Officer Smith and I smile at each other across Mario. And Officer Smith’s smile is saying “You think you can change him, but you can’t.” And my smile is saying “You think he can’t change, but he can.”
It occurs to me that Officer Smith and I have been smiling at each other for months now across some kind of unbridgeable rift, and I’ve gotten to thinking about what that rift might be. We are alien to each other in so many ways. But strip away titles for a moment, his of Correctional Officer, mine of Psychologist-in-Training. Strip away disparities in age and physical stature. Strip away hierarchy and authority. Strip away every other superficial difference and I’ve realized that what really stands between officer Smith and me is this:


My client. His inmate. We’ll call him Mario. A lifelong addict who nearly killed a cyclist during a meth-induced paranoia. A man facing 25 to life for a third strike offense. A survivor of horrific, repeated, unchecked sexual and physical abuse since the age of four. A gentle, remorseful, introspective man who would almost certainly use and hurt someone again if he were to be let out of prison. A man who has sought professional help since his teens to no avail. A criminal and a victim who embodies the saying “Hurt people hurt people.”

And this is the rift: Every week Officer Smith and I smile at each other across Mario. And Officer Smith’s smile is saying “You think you can change him, but you can’t.” And my smile is saying “You think he can’t change, but he can.”

And my intractable fear is that Officer Smith may be right.

During a recent session Mario presented me with a thick document compiled by his public defender. The document presents a detailed, chronological account of the sexual and physical abuse Mario endured as a child, as well as his early exposure to drug-use by his own mother. Mario wanted me to read it because he didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. He sat there as I flipped the pages and I don’t know if my expression changed when I read the phrase “screws and bolts forcibly inserted into the anus,” or any of a dozen other phrases like it in the document. And then there were the accounts of his own crimes. His addiction and extreme aggression. The police report describing the raw and bloodied face of his ex-wife. The abject deeds done to support his habit.

Beautiful and Precious

Sometimes life just boggles the mind. It can so quickly overload our meaning-making engines?—?“hope” is one of these meanings, just like “justice”?—?that we are left slack-jawed and blank. During so many sessions Mario talked about what he would do if he got out?—?how things might be different for him. But at the end of each session Officer Smith would be there to unlock the door, and his smile would be there too, saying, “This guy?—?he’s gotten out before. He’s used again, hurt someone again, and gone to prison again. You think talking is going to change that? Talking?”

He has a point. And after reading Mario’s file I’ve felt the searing truth of that point?—?the cold, hard biology that I believe is the real mass beneath Officer Smith’s iceberg smile: that the human cerebral cortex doesn’t stand a chance against the reptilian brain. Reason, Abstract thought, symbolism, language, complex planning and executive function?—?the mainstays of talk therapy, and the very things that we insist set us apart from and above the rest of the animal kingdom?—?are imperfect and meager evolutionary tools in the context of our animal condition. My inability to make sense of the horrors of Mario’s life; Mario’s repeated relapses into drug use and violence. Inevitably?—?Officer Smith’s smile would surely insist?—?the higher brain fails to explain the world, and it fails to legislate our behavior in it.

We are distinctly human, yes. But far more damningly than the human condition, we inhabit the Animal Condition.
Of course as a therapist, I’m trying to give Mario an emotional experience, not just a cerebral one. But it doesn’t change the fact that my tools for doing so are words and gestures. Mario’s own limbic system has far more potent tools?—?tools that can make even our highest, most uniquely human endeavors seem trifling. We revel in the fact that art can move us to tears, churn our stomachs, increase our heart rates, make us laugh, fill us with desire. But the limbic system can evoke these sensations with less effort and a great deal more intensity. A breathtakingly attractive person could walk by. A spider could scurry from beneath the blanket. You could be beaten, isolated, drugged, fed, fucked. Threat, reward, pain, appetite?—?art is nothing compared to this. Art is the neocortex trying desperately to emulate its older, more successful sibling. In the process it squawks and hollers about truth and meaning and humanity. But what do we generally know about the loudest ones in the room? They’re usually the weakest. The mammal in us is a quiet, ancient, powerful force. Our cortex is a small, yipping dog, ever making threats and pronouncements it can’t back up.

“Life is precious,” it insists. But I’d guess Mario has had a decidedly more animal experience of it; to the criminal justice system, to his community, to his own family?—?life was and is cheap, violent, and appetite-driven. “Life is beautiful,” our meaning-making machine cries. But it is also ugly and terrifying and senseless and painful. Nor, as we would sometimes like to believe, is even ugliness the sole domain of human behavior. Reading about Mario’s childhood, I was tempted to think, “Only humans are capable of such atrocities.” But this is just another way of setting humans apart, of maintaining our own centrality in the tapestry of life. Copernicus might have warned us of the unfolding truth?—?that the great discoveries have been a series of decenterings, of dethronings. The Earth is not the center, nor is the sun. The possibility of life beyond this planet is now a probability. And everywhere there is life, there are atrocities. Sea otters rape baby seals to death for sport. Chimps kill and dismember their own kind. Infanticide, gang rape, and physical and sexual abuse of the young and helpless are practiced?—?in the complete absence of any threat to survival or territory?—?by all manner of mammals including lions, dolphins, penguins, and meerkats. Put a rat in a cage with a lever that dispenses an opiate, and the rat will choose that lever over food, family, and ultimately, survival. We are distinctly human, yes. But far more damningly than the human condition, we inhabit the Animal Condition.

That is what Officer Smith’s smile tells me. “Let it go. They’re animals. We all are.”

And I’m almost convinced.

Except that when he smiles, I’m smiling too. And what’s that about? Defiance? Wishful thinking?

The validity of Officer Smith’s skepticism of psychotherapy is not lost on me?—?and in fact it’s helpful. When we attempt to impose the will of the higher brain, we should know what we’re up against. Any addict in recovery will tell you: taming the mesolimbic pathway?—?the brain’s reward system?—?takes a cortical feat of immense, sustained, almost unbelievable proportions.

And yet people do it.

In the overwhelming majority of significant battles, the animal brain may win; but every now and then, for some reason, it doesn’t. A torture victim finds a life beyond nightmares and flashbacks. A serial abuser tames the animal urge to hit, to hurt, to maim, and talks instead. An addict finds a way to stay sober in the face of blaring environmental and emotional cues to use.

Call it what you want: attachment, safety, nurturing, connection, love. This is not a higher function. It is basic and mammal and ancient and powerful and adaptive, just like fear and aggression.
But the thing is, the vast majority of these people?—?the ones I know of anyway?—?were only able to pull off their supermammalian feats in the context of relationships. Healthy, loving relationships. And that is what Officer Smith is missing?—?that therapists bring something decidedly animal to the table, something that a man like Mario has likely never experienced, not even from his own parents. Call it what you want: attachment, safety, nurturing, connection, love. This is not a higher function. It is basic and mammal and ancient and powerful and adaptive, just like fear and aggression.

And this, I hope, is why I smile back at Officer Smith. Because at the end of that session with Mario, after I’d finished reading his file, it so happened I had to inform him that I would be missing the next week’s session due to a medical procedure. And he’d responded, “You gonna be okay, man?”

And I’d said, “Yeah, Mario. Nothing serious. I’ll be back in two weeks.”
And just as Officer Smith opened the door to let us out, Mario said, “Well, shit, take care of yourself, brother. I’ll be sending you good thoughts.”

And in that fraction of a second?—?it was just a flicker?—?I saw Officer Smith’s smile falter.

Note: I have grossly simplified the structure of the human brain in service of clarity and meaning. And of course, personal details have been altered to protect confidentiality.

© 2016, LLC.
Sudhanva  Rajagopal Sudhanva Rajagopal is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA. His clinical and research interests include trauma, political psychology, and the development of culturally responsive assessment and treatment protocols. Sudhanva is also a freelance writer, musician, and filmmaker. As a flamenco musician, he has performed throughout Europe, Asia, and the US, including a 2015 appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He also has a masters degree in film producing from the University of Southern California. His 2006 documentary film, Panihari: The Water Women of India detailed social issues faced by women of the Thar Desert in northern India. The film was an official selection of the 2006 UN International Film Festival in Rome, Italy.