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This study primarily tests whether incarceration negatively affects cognitive functioning; namely, emotion regulation, cognitive control, and emotion recognition. As a secondary interest, we test protective effects of a cognitive behavioral therapy/mindfulness training (CBT/MT) intervention. Dormitories containing 197 incarcerated males aged 16 to 18 years were randomly assigned to either a CBT/MT program or an active control condition. A cognitive task was administered pretreatment and again 4 months later, upon treatment completion. Performance on all outcome variables was significantly worse at follow-up compared with baseline. There were marginally significant group by time interactions. While the control group performance significantly declined in both cognitive control and emotion regulation, the CBT/MT group showed no significant decline in either outcome. This is the first study to probe the effects of incarceration on these three processes. Findings suggest that incarceration worsens a known risk factor for crime (cognitive functioning), and that a CBT/MT intervention may help buffer against declines.
We investigated the impact of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training (CBT/MT) on attentional task performance in incarcerated adolescents. Attention is a cognitive system necessary for managing cognitive demands and regulating emotions. Yet persistent and intensive demands, such as those experienced during high-stress intervals like incarceration and the events leading to incarceration, may deplete attention resulting in cognitive failures, emotional disturbances, and impulsive behavior. We hypothesized that CBT/MT may mitigate these deleterious effects of high stress and protect against degradation in attention over the high-stress interval of incarceration. Using a quasi-experimental, group randomized controlled trial design, we randomly assigned dormitories of incarcerated youth, ages 16–18, to a CBT/MT intervention (youth n = 147) or an active control intervention (youth n = 117). Both arms received approximately 750 min of intervention in a small-group setting over a 3–5 week period. Youth in the CBT/MT arm also logged the amount of out-of-session time spent practicing MT exercises. The Attention Network Test was used to index attentional task performance at baseline and 4 months post-baseline. Overall, task performance degraded over time in all participants. The magnitude of performance degradation was significantly less in the CBT/MT vs. control arm. Further, within the CBT/MT arm, performance degraded over time in those with no outside-of-class practice time, but remained stable over time in those who practiced mindfulness exercises outside of the session meetings. Thus, these findings suggest that sufficient CBT/MT practice may protect against functional attentional impairments associated with high-stress intervals.