Executive cognitive functioning abilities of male first time and return Canadian federal inmates.

AuthorRoss, Erin H.

Historically, societies have attempted to reduce criminal activity through the use of offender punishment, most notably imprisonment. Unfortunately, evidence from large populations of offenders support the notion that longer sentences (Gendreau, Goggin, and Cullen 1999) and harsher confinement conditions (Chen and Shapiro 2007) have little to no effect on likelihood of reoffending and may actually increase recidivism rates (McGuire 2002; see also Lipsey and Cullen 2007). Continued high rates of reoffending have demonstrated that imprisonment alone is insufficient in preventing future crime (Andrews, Zinger, Hoge, Bonta, Gendreau, and Cullen 1990; Gendreau et al. 1999). As a result, many countries have moved away from subscribing exclusively to a punishment model; instead, various types of rehabilitation programs have been implemented in hopes of reducing recidivism rates (Gendreau et al. 1999).

Over the past decade evidence supporting the relationship between forensic rehabilitation programs and recidivism reduction has emerged from studies of incarcerated adult males in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. Correctional programs have been reported to reduce recidivism by 7% to 14%, typically at one- to two-year post-release follow-up (Aos, Miller, and Drake 2006; Dowden and Andrews 2000; Friendship, Blud, Erikson, Travers, and Thornton 2003; McGuire 2002; Tong and Farrington 2008). However, others have failed to report significant results after correctional rehabilitation programming (e.g., Anstiss 2003).

Recidivism reduction variability has been attributed to several methodological issues, such as employing inappropriate comparison groups (Hollin et al. 2008; Wilkinson 2005), and to varying definitions of the term recidivism (Nouwens, Motiuk, and Boe 1993; Wormith, Althouse, Simpson, Reitzel, Fagan, and Morgan 2007). There is also literature suggesting that small or variable recidivism reductions are not due to methodological errors but are, instead, due to correctional rehabilitation not adequately considering specific offender characteristics (Dowden and Andrews 2000; Wilkinson 2005). One such characteristic that has received less attention but may influence an offender's recidivistic activities is executive cognitive functioning (ECF). Psychological researchers, many based in neuropsychology, define ECF as a higher order cognitive construct involved in the planning, initiation, and regulation (maintaining or altering) of goal-directed behaviour (Luria 1980; Roberts, Robbins, and Weiskrantz 1998). Specific cognitive skills that underlie the broader cognitive construct of ECF include cognitive flexibility (also referred to as set-shifting and set maintenance), strategy formation, attention, working memory, response monitoring, and inhibition (Blud, Travers, Nugent, and Thornton 2003; Lezak, Howieson, and Loring 2004; Olvera, Semrud-Clikeman, Pliszka, and O'Donnell 2005; Pennington and Ozonoff 1996; Petrides 1990).

ECF is said to involve several brain regions, most notably the prefrontal cortex (Paschall and Fishbein 2002), and several sub-cortical pathways (Koechlin, Corrado, Pietrini, and Grafman 2000; Monchi, Petrides, Strafella, Worsley, and Doyon 2006). Much of what is known about the manifestations of ECF deficits came out of the neuropsychological literature exploring brain injury or abnormality (e.g., Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, and Anderson 1998; Koski and Petrides 2001; Marsh and Martinovich 2006). Many individuals with lesions to the prefrontal cortex exhibit difficulties in the general areas of planning and decision making as well as deficits in social behaviours, impulsivity, and emotional dysregulation (Masterman and Cummings 1997; Tateno, Jorge, and Robinson 2003; Wood 2003). A review of neuropsychological, neurological, EEG, and neuroimaging studies suggests that there is an association between aggression and frontal lobe dysfunction (Brower and Price 2001). Regardless of brain injury or abnormality status, there is sufficient evidence to support the notion that antisocial behaviours are associated with ECF deficits, as seen in the large body of research conducted on adolescents and adults. Meta-analytic work suggests that there is a medium to large effect of ECF deficits and anti-social behaviour (Morgan and Lilienfeld 2000). Populations of male and female incarcerated young offenders (Enns, Reddon, Das, and Boukos 2007; Olvera et al. 2005), as well as non-incarcerated aggressive adolescents (Giancola, Mezzich, and Tarter 1998; Seguin, Pihl, Harden, Tremblay, and Boulerice 1995), and aggressive children (Raaijmakers et al. 2008), demonstrate inferior ECF performance. For instance, deficits in cognitive flexibility were evidenced by inferior performance on the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), while deficits in strategy formation and associative learning were demonstrated by weaker performance on the Non-spatial Conditional Association Task (Seguin et al. 1995), even after controlling for intelligence (Seguin, Nagin, Assaad, and Tremblay 2004). Incarcerated male and female adults also display a range of ECF deficits (Hoaken, Allaby, and Earle 2007; Marceau, Meghani, and Reddon 2008; Yechiam, Kanz, Bechara, Stout, Busemeyer, Altmaier, and Paulsen 2008), including deficits of inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and the ability to predict future consequences (Broomhall 2005). Other studies with offenders, while not explicitly using the term ECF, have demonstrated impairments in aspects of cognition relevant to that construct, such as cognitive flexibility and impulsivity as measured by the WCST (Cohen, Rosenbaum, Kane, Warnken, and Benjamin 1999) and the Go/No-Go Task (Cohen, Brumm, Zawacki, Paul, Sweet, and Rosenbaum 2003).

Because ECF is involved in the planning, initiation, and regulation of goal-directed behaviour, deficits are said to contribute to poor behavioural self-regulation, social skills, and judgement (Paschall and Fishbein 2002). The latter group of abilities has been the primary focus of correctional rehabilitation programming within Canadian, American, and European correctional institutions (Friendship et al. 2003; Correctional Service Canada 2004), likely as a result of the overt difficulties in social behaviours' being more easily identifiable and more salient compared to the less overt executive dysfunctions. However, ignoring deficits in executive functioning may actually impede an offender's ability to benefit from programming, especially when such interventions involve learning new skills (de la Higuera Romero 2003) or incorporating feedback such as responding to reinforcements and punishments within program curriculum (Tranel and Damasio 1995). While it remains empirically unclear, the theoretical understanding of rehabilitation programming is such that decreased program benefit is likely to affect recidivism and possible re-incarceration. At present, there is little knowledge as to the relationship between re-incarceration and ECF impairments.

To help address this gap, the current study measured ECF in inmates serving their first federal penitentiary sentence (referred to as first timers) and inmates who had served one or more prior federal penitentiary sentences (return inmates). The primary goal of the study was to examine the relationship between executive impairment and regularity of incarceration; specifically, to investigate whether particularly severe impairment might predispose an individual to multiple periods of incarceration. As such, the current study aimed to uncover differences between return inmates and first timers on various executive cognitive abilities, with the hypothesis that return inmates would demonstrate poorer performance on measures of ECF.



A convenience sample of 95 males from two medium security Canadian federal prisons, one within the Atlantic region and one within the Ontario region, participated in the current study. Fifty-six inmates were categorized as first timers as a result of their lack of prior incarceration within Correctional Service Canada (CSC), while 37 inmates had at least one prior federal incarceration sentence and thus were categorized as return inmates. Categorization of two participants was not possible. Based on index and past convictions, inmates were classified as not violent (e.g., convicted of non-violent crimes such as fraud; n = 18, 18.9%), mildly violent (e.g., crimes such as robbery; n = 32, 33.7%), moderately violent (e.g., crimes such as assault; n = 23, 24.2%), or highly violent (e.g., crimes such as murder; n = 19, 20.0%; see Table 1). These data were obtained using an algorithm created to incorporate number of index and past offences as well as severity of index and past offences as obtained from institutional records.

On the whole, participants ranged in age from 19 to 61 years of age (M = 34.81, SD = 9.85), with the highest proportion being single (n = 41, 43.2%) and identified as Caucasian (n = 65, 68.4%; see Table 1 and Table 2 for complete demographic information). The majority of inmates (n = 48, 50.5%) did not report previous brain injury conditions, while 31.6% (n = 30) endorsed at least one condition and 17.9% (n = 17) at least two possible conditions of concussion or serious head injury. The mean years of education among the sample was 11.20 (SD = 2.57) ranging between 5 and 17 years. Participating inmates had served a mean of 783.92 days (SD = 1468.67) of their current sentence, with a range of 14 to 10,352 days. In addition, return inmates had been previously incarcerated for a mean of 1,781.73 days (SD = 1915.81) with a range of 150 to 9,380 days. All data were obtained during a five-month period spanning June to October 2006.

Measures of ECF

Non-spatial Conditional Association Task (NCAT)

The NCAT used was a computer analogue (Peterson, Pihl, Higgins, and Lee 1997) of the six-abstract design, six-colour Non-spatial Conditional...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT