Noting that a high percentage of prison inmates--almost half of those in Mississippi--are hard of hearing, some researchers suspect that hearing loss may contribute to criminal behavior.
“My working hypothesis is that hearing loss may be the first link in a chain of events or circumstances that eventually leads to a life of crime,” Thomas Crowe, chairman of the University of Mississippi’s Department of Communicative Disorders, explained.
Crowe found that 48.5% of the inmates at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman suffer from some kind of hearing disorder, compared to 7% of the overall population from infants to the elderly. The average age in the prison was 25, so a lower-than-average rate of hearing problems might have been expected.
Other studies have turned up similar findings. A survey at Ohio State Penitentiary in 1970 found that 40% of the inmates had hearing disorders. A 1986 study in Wisconsin cited a 36% rate of hearing loss among inmates; a 1979 study in Virginia found 17%.
Question of Effect
The ultimate question, Crowe said, is: “What impact has the hearing loss had on that person’s life? Has that hearing loss in any way contributed, directly or indirectly, to the person’s criminal behavior, and how do you determine that?”
Crowe’s research team (an audiologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, medical doctor and linguist) is seeking a U.S. Justice Department grant to do a 5-year, follow-up study.
The second study would determine the severity, nature and causes of the inmates’ hearing problems. Crowe said the amount of money needed has yet to be worked out.
Corrections officials as well as audiologists and speech pathologists are concerned about the high rate of hearing disorders in the prison population, said Jo Williams, manager of audiology and technical assistance for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Assn. in Rockville, Md. The association called for further research in the field after a task force looked at the problem in 1984.
The task force cited a nationwide survey of about 200 state and federal corrections administrators, in which 77% of those polled said they believed that problems stemming from hearing disorders can lead to criminal behavior.
Crowe said he has found only a few dozen studies on the subject conducted in the last 40 years, and he said few of them did more than document the prevalence of hearing problems in prisons.
If a hearing disorder is congenital or comes early in life, Crowe said, it is likely to help shape a criminal personality.
Crowe’s initial research in 1985 didn’t pinpoint the nature, severity, or causes of the hearing disorders because there wasn’t enough money to cover detailed medical evaluations. Each Parchman inmate’s hearing was tested at different frequencies and compared to a normal hearing range.
Crowe compared the initial auditory screening to a simple eye chart. The doctor learns that the patient can’t see the letters of a certain size, but more tests are needed to diagnose and correct the problem.
There are many causes of hearing disorders, Crowe said, such as loud noises and neglect of childhood ear infections, and even a minor hearing loss can damage a child’s personality development. Many children with undetected hearing disorders grow up without knowing that they are different, but they must deal with considerably more stress and disorientation.
Strain of Bad Hearing
"(Speech) may sound like mumbling,” Crowe said. “It would be like you trying to interact with someone with a very heavy foreign accent. If you have to listen to them for a long time, it will tire you out. You have to channel and focus your attention to comprehend.”
Such strain may make the child irritable, and he may appear to have an extremely short attention span. Some children with undetected hearing loss can grasp words, but the emotions that go with the words escape them, Crowe said.
“Consider a preschool child who has a hearing loss--not a real terrible hearing loss. The child learns to talk, but it is severe enough that the child has trouble hearing the meaning of things,” Crowe said.
“Not only do you hear what is said, but you hear how it’s said. You hear inflections, things like that. You can read my moods and emotions.”
Emotions Not Conveyed
Inability to follow the emotional train of thought in conversations could lead to all kinds of antisocial tendencies, Crowe said. Add the handicaps from a hearing disorder to economic disadvantage and you get a prime candidate for prison, he said.
“If that scenario is sometimes correct, theoretically, we can sometimes prevent crime by dealing with hearing problems and language problems at a preschool age,” he said.
Some preschool programs, such as Head Start, offer hearing screening, but many children don’t have their hearing tested before kindergarten--after personality traits may be entrenched.