Sociopaths: Do They Belong in Prison?

Psychologists and neurologists today have been debating whether people with antisocial personality disorder should be judged more lightly in the eyes of the law. While it may seem like a very clean-cut debate, emerging experiment have proven its complexity.

What is Antisocial Personality Disorder?

Antisocial personality disorder is a disorder that is characterized by a long-standing pattern of disregard for other people’s rights, often crossing the line and violating those rights. A person with this disorder feels extremely little to no empathy towards other people and often does not see a problem in bending or breaking the law for their own benefit. This disorder is measured throughout a person’s life and has strict diagnostic details such as only being diagnosed in people 18 years of age and older because of its developmental features. If a child shows signs of it they are diagnosed with conduct disorder but that does not guarantee a future diagnosis of ASPD.

While antisocial personality disorder is seen as a violent disorder it does not ensure that a person with the disorder will break the law in any extremes if at all. ASPD as all disorders falls on a spectrum with psychopaths seen as high functioning and sociopaths seen as low functioning due to their increased impulsivity, however, these terms are unofficial and often misused or used interchangeably. This debate mostly focuses on the low functioning individuals since they are more likely to be imprisoned but in some cases extends to even the high functioning ones, with some experts going as far to say that they should not be placed in jail at all and others simply asking for them to be spared the death penalty.

A Case Against The Brain

The best way to get an understanding of this issue is to look at a different problem the law has faced. On August 1st, 1966 at the top floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin, 25-year-old Charles Whitman killed 13 people and wounded 32, after killing his own mother earlier that morning and having stabbed his wife to death in her sleep. The evening before all this occurred, Whitman wrote a suicide note explaining that recently he had been suffering from horrible thoughts that were scaring him and now after failing to get help, he felt that he could no longer control himself at all.

“I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.”

The investigators of this case were more than confused because they couldn’t identify a motive for Whitman’s actions as he had been an outstanding citizen all his life, leading a life of charity work and selflessness.

“However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive thoughts.” -Whitman

They found the answers they were looking for when the medical examiner found a tumor the size of a nickel in Whitman’s brain compressing his amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for emotion regulation, so when this part of the brain cannot function at its fullest, the person tends to act violently without any way to stop themselves. A tumor like this could develop in anyone’s brain, but luckily it is something that can be easily removed if caught in time.

A similar phenomenon happens inside the brains of people with ASPD, according to the various brain scans conducted on people who were diagnosed with this disorder compared to those who weren’t. It was found that people with antisocial personality disorder have an average of an 18% reduction in the volume of their middle frontal gyrus, a 9% reduction in the volume of their orbital frontal gyrus (both gyri are within the frontal lobe), and an 18% thinning of the outer layer cortex of their amygdala, with the last being extremely similar to the damage done in Whitman’s brain.

Reduction in these areas gives us an understanding of why people with ASPD act the way they do as this gives them increased impulsivity and difficulty suppressing emotions of intense anger, as well as making them incapable of feeling empathy. These are symptoms that were established under ASPD so experts had already assumed that there would be physical signs of it, but the public often views mental illnesses as being non-physical due to affecting behavior instead of mobility so showing physical signs of mental illnesses stresses to a stigma filled public that these are real disorders. For experts, it proved that people with ASPD really do have very little control of their actions and may not even fully understand morality, leading them to compare these individuals to people who are intellectually disabled, who aren’t held fully responsible for their actions.

Kent Kiehl, one of the world’s leading investigators of ASPD described this idea when saying in an interview:

“What if I told you that a psychopath has an emotional IQ that’s like a 5-year-old? Well, if that was the case, we’d make the same argument for individuals with a low IQ — that maybe they’re not as deserving of punishment, not as deserving of culpability, etc.” -Kent Kiehl

However other people argue that it is different because people with ASPD know right from wrong and that is all that matters in the eyes of the law, not the strength of their knowledge of morality. Kiehl did an experiment where they showed people with ASPD three pictures, one with a Klansman burning a cross, a car on fire with no explanation as to how/why, and students sitting around a bunsen burner, and then asked the people to rate whether the picture is a moral violation. They were able to identify that the KKK picture was a moral violation but the brain scans showed that their orbital cortex and amygdala didn’t light up as they should during the process. This experiment proved that a person with ASPD’s “emotional brakes” don’t function when making moral judgments but also that despite that they can still tell right from wrong.

Kent Kiehl

Treatments for ASPD have been found, and though they do not cure the disorder, they do help lessen its control of the individual and allow them to cope. When people with ASPD are simply thrown in jail, they do not get the ability to seek a treatment and are then a threat to the other prisoners who may have been convicted of a much lesser crime. If Whitman had lived and was placed in jail with the tumor still in his brain, he would certainly have harmed the other prisoners.

So What Do We Do With ASPD Criminals?

It’s easy to see that a change must be made but the question then becomes ‘how much of a change is beneficial to society?’. If they were excused from the possibility of jail then they may be less inclined to seek professional help before committing a crime and more likely to commit violent crimes because they could get away with more. However, in a prison, they are a threat to other prisoners and if they do not receive a lifelong sentence, in not receiving any treatments, they would be a larger threat when released.

The majority of people with severe ASPD (the type that frequently ends up in jail) are poor with low educational attainment and often coming from abusive circumstances leading many to also have depression. It has been found that men with antisocial personality disorder tend to die prematurely, on average only making it to age 33 due to reckless behavior and high suicide rates. Since the individuals with ASPD that are the most immediate threat to the public also tend to be an immediate threat to themselves, they are usually the ones that want to seek out help but can’t because of the cost of it.

Ideally since 47% of prisoners fit the diagnosis of ASPD, if prisons were split with one section as a treatment center/mental hospital filled with psychologists and psychiatrists for offering treatment to any prisoners with mental illnesses, especially those with ASPD, then when the prisoners are released they would be less likely to commit violent crimes in the future.

Prisons are meant to rehabilitate prisoners, and that is precisely what offering treatments for people with ASPD would do. Having a section of each prison contain trained specialists in the same building as a regular prison set up would allow for easier transfers since treatments can only be given to willing participants. This approach would take work because it would require prisons to completely rearrange themselves and a large number of specialists, but it also is a nice common ground between the two extremes and incorporates helping people with other types of mental illnesses as well protecting other prisoners from the extreme violence created by prisoners with ASPD. These individuals should still be held responsible for their crimes and serve time outside of society, but the significance of the cause of their actions should also be addressed by offering these people treatment.

Whatever future outcomes may arise from this debate, it leads to questions of morality and what the law should base its judgments on. Any changes made for people with ASPD will only be the start, with more research on “violent” disorders and better treatments arising, there are likely to be more debates to follow. It will all lead back to the question, should the law judge based on one’s knowledge of morality, or their ability to stop themselves from going against those morals?

For more information on the treatments used for antisocial personality disorder, click here.

To read Charles Whitman’s full suicide note, click here.

Sources and More Information At:

“Antisocial Personality Disorder.” 2. NICE Clinical Guidelines, №77 ed., British Psychological Society, Leicester (UK). PubMed Health, British Psychological Society, Leicester (UK),

Eagleman, David. “The Brain on Trial.” The Atlantic, July 2011,

Kiehl, Kent. “Inside a Psychopath’s Brain: The Sentencing Debate.” Interview by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. NPR, 30 June 2010,

Moskowitz, Clara. “Criminal Minds Are Different from Yours, Brain Scans Reveal.” Live Science, 4 Mar. 2011,


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