Michael Vick

by Siegfried Othmer | August 17th, 2009

Two events coalesced recently in my mind; the rehabilitation of Michael Vick and the riot at Chino prison in California.Two events coalesced recently in my mind—the rehabilitation of Michael Vick and the riot at Chino prison in California. The second of these is tied to a third, namely the directive under which the State of California finds itself to reduce its prison population by 43,000 inmates in short order. Michael Vick hails from my alma mater, Virginia Tech, which for some reason makes his criminal behavior more my issue than it would be otherwise. He has attempted to express contrition about his past behavior, but the statements might well have been prepared by his lawyer. He said everything that he might be expected to say, and he’ll no doubt go forth with his cue cards and speak on behalf of the Humane Society as he promised.

It is unconvincing. Most of us would be incapable to taking a dog and killing it by hurling its body against a wall, or by drowning it. On the other hand, if one is among those people who are capable of doing that and moving on, then that status is not altered by conviction in court, by spending 20 months in prison, or by talking with Tony Dungy for three hours. Tony Dungy’s capacity for forgiveness is to be lauded here, not necessarily Michael Vick’s ostensible transformation.

Foot Fungus

Of course a transformation might indeed have occurred; I can’t rule that out. But it is unlikely. Ever since McNaughton, our Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence has recognized that a man of diminished intellectual capacities should not be judged criminally in the way we judge others. We don’t make that allowance for diminished emotional capacities. Whereas a man cannot be held responsible for failed intellect, we have no choice but to hold a man responsible for moral failings and for coldhearted disregard for life. We have to treat the accused as being capable of making choices in this realm, or else the whole system of justice craters. If any accused could declare that he ought not to be held responsible by reason of diminished emotional faculties, leaving the court to sort things out, the judicial apparatus would dissipate in dysfunction.

Given what we now know about how initial attachment bonds are reinforced in our early upbringing, however, we know that early neglect or abuse is a pathway toward emotional as well as intellectual dysfunction. One is just as biologically rooted as the other. So if the McNaughton rule is good for what we think of as left-hemisphere function then one ought to exist for right-hemisphere function as well. That can never happen, of course, because the system of justice is incapable of making the adjustment. What is possible, however, is to assign a more diminished role to the judicial process. In this diminished capacity, the jury in a criminal trial would simply be asked to resolve the issue of whether sufficient evidence exists to convict the accused of the crime, but it would not be asked to parse the crime for levels of moral culpability or of moral depravity. A conviction would then entitle the state to intervene in the life of the convict to effect either removal from the society, or recovery and readmission. Sentences would be open-ended, and the state would have the right to monitor the person for the rest of his life after release back into society.

Prison wardens and prison officials take a dim view these days of the rehabilitation potential of major criminals. We who are involved in neurofeedback, however, know that diminished emotional capacities such as the lack of empathy or the capacity for remorse, are software issues in the brain that are perfectly susceptible to remediation at any age. This may not be sufficient to allow the release of a leader of the Arian Brotherhood back into the wild, but it might very well be sufficient to give Michael Vick a genuine sense of remorse about what he was involved in. Most criminals are released back into society sooner or later. Better that they be reinforced in their emotional capacities before that happens, for whatever that may be worth.

The Chino Prison Riot
The Chino prison riot, in which some 175 prisoners were injured and six dormitories were damaged or destroyed was a clear consequence of prison crowding, on the one hand, and of the wholesale abandonment of rehabilitation strategies on the other. Some years ago Sue and I were invited to present on neurofeedback by the Chief of Psychiatry of the Women’s prison in Chino. I lectured enthusiastically about our results with Oppositional-Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder in children. I presented the work of Douglas Quirk in the Canadian prison system with violent offenders, and the work of Eugene Peniston on his work with alcoholic Viet Nam veterans.

During a break in the proceedings, however, one of the staff psychiatrists drew me aside. He could see where I was going with my lecture. His message was that when inmates suffer from migraines, or PMS, or AIDS or even ADHD, then of course they need to be helped with the resources available. If neurofeedback could be helpful in that regard, that would be wonderful. But with respect to the inmates’ criminal character, they are regarded as bad people who simply need to be punished. There was no use in my shaking that foundational premise of the prison system. Those who were on staff there had bought into that premise and weren’t about to be dislodged from it. So my talk was essentially wasted, and nothing ever came of our effort there.

We were able to get our system into Vacaville, the mental health facility for the California prison system, but its use there was limited to the ADHD population. The same occurred when our system was first introduced into the Federal penitentiary in Fairton, New Jersey, many years ago. Curiously, the same phenomenon appeared to be at work at CRI-Help, the addictions treatment center here in North Hollywood that sponsored the large-scale addictions treatment study in which we replicated Peniston’s findings.

It had always mystified me why the utilization of neurofeedback wasn’t extended to the entire patient population at CRI-Help after that successful study. It turns out that the study never succeeded in altering the belief system of those who work there, despite the solid evidence. Addiction continues to be seen as primarily a moral and character issue. If patients come in with ADHD or panic or other conditions, then they are referred for neurofeedback. For plain old addiction, they get the standard CRI-Help treatment. So, technology transfer is tough, and old belief systems are tenacious.

The California Prison Crisis
The financial crisis in California is a manufactured one, but by now it is real enough. Finally, a Federal judge ordered the State to relieve prison over-crowding, so wholesale early release of inmates is being planned in response. If that occurs, non-violent offenders will be favored, and these tend to be either drug users or those involved in the drug trade. Would it not be nice if all of those could get the benefit of neurofeedback before they were released? The recidivism rate in California is running at 70% here these days, so early release will mostly result in cost-shifting to other parts of the criminal justice system that have to deal with the fallout—re-apprehension, retrial, and recommitment—with a predictable net increase in cost to the society overall. The solution to all of this is standing by.

Siegfried Othmer, Ph.D.

One Response to “Michael Vick”

  1. Dave Davis says:

    I heartily agree with your viewpoints. I think inmates in all categories should be offered consideration for probation sooner than would otherwise be offered/considered as an incentive to gain their voluntary participation in a program including brain scans (Amen), QEEGs, neuropsychological and personality assessments, and NFB training (Othmer method of course). It would be best to also come up with some kind of performance criteria that demonstrates favorable change.

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