During my first year in medical school, I picked up The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander in an effort to get a better understanding about the prison system in the United States. While I had heard about the astronomically high rates of incarceration, I wanted to understand why things were the way they were. In the first chapter ‘The Rebirth of Caste,’ Alexander introduces the idea that the prison system is used as a legal and ‘politically correct’ means of slavery after emancipation of slaves. Under this system, law enforcement agencies are almost universally protected, regardless of their actions, and seemingly arbitrary (and often racist) mandatory minimum sentences exist for petty crimes. Throughout the text, Alexander also discussed the high recidivism rates within the prison system. She details many barriers that prevent inmates from reintegrating into society after returning to the free world including restricted access to employment and housing and severe parole policies.
After reading about these injustices, I was overcome by this wave of helplessness. A few weeks later, we received a school wide email with the opportunity to volunteer at the local men’s and women’s prisons through the Prison Education Program (PEP). PEP began at Cal Poly Pomona and was started by founder and director Dr. Renford Reese in 2011. Since that time, over 600 student and faculty volunteers have serviced 4,000 inmates in ten California correctional facilities. PEP works with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to bring a progressive and innovative approach to supplementing and expanding educational opportunities for the incarcerated. The classes range from yoga to health awareness and aim to translate to recidivism reduction, which may seem like a lofty goal for a group of students volunteering but a recent study funded by the U.S. Justice Department found that prison education reduced recidivism by 43%.
UCR SOM first and second year students were the first group of medical students to participate in PEP. We split into two groups and one group volunteered at local men’s prison and the other at the women’s prison. Our class was entitled ‘Health Awareness’ and we had the freedom to create our own curriculum.
I volunteered at the women’s prison and it was honestly the best experience I’ve had thus far in medical school. Every other Monday night, I spent the evening with the brightest, funniest and most curious group of women I’ve ever been around. Our first session we introduced ourselves and asked the class what topics they would like us to discuss in future sessions. By the end of that first session we had filled a couple sheets of paper, front and back, with requested topics. From that first session their passion for caring for their own health and commitment to learning was so clear.
Throughout the class, we covered topics ranging from infectious diseases and mental health to chronic illnesses and cancer and throughout each session we integrated tips on self care and advocacy. Each session was met with the same enthusiasm and the students shared their own personal experiences with illnesses, which made me so proud of the safe space we had created. We also learned about the healthcare they received within the prison system and many of the barriers that existed within the system. This experience has only made me more passionate about being an advocate of social justice as a practicing physician.
Each Monday night began with a nervousness of being away from my books for an evening but ended with a confirmation of my career goals and aspirations. The conversations that took place in that classroom will stay with me as I train to be the best physician I can be. While I truly hope we were able to help the women who gave us hours of their time every week, I know that they all taught us so much more than we could have hoped to teach and for that I will be ever grateful to them.
If you’re in the state of California and are interested in volunteering with PEP, you can find more information here.