The Health Sciences Service Learning and Advocacy group held their fifth annual common book read Tuesday for health science students.
This year’s Health Sciences Common Book (“The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander) centers on the prison industrial complex and what she coins “The New Jim Crow” — the modern political, structural, and systemic limitations disproportionately placed on people of color.
Benjamin Danielson, clinical director at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, explained how systems change over time, and in doing so, how a lot of accomplishments are undone.
“1972 was the peak for diversity in the UW School of Medicine,” Danielson said. “We undid that work. Initiative 200 came along in ‘98, and very systematically made sure there won’t be another class of 1972.”
Initiative 200 is essentially a civil rights initiative for fair and equal treatment for every person regardless of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. This, however, can be argued in much the same way reverse racism is.
Much of the discussion, though racially and systemically based, did not focus on Alexander’s book specifically, but rather on health disparities found within the prison system.
“I want to pull us out of our egos for the moment; you are not the solution to healthcare disparities right now,” Danielson said. “You better care about how our political system works, because one of the biggest effects on health disparities and pathways into prisons is campaign finance.”
Danielson and Lara Strick, an infection disease specialist at Harborview Medical Center and the Washington Department of Corrections, both mentioned the fact they frequently receive questions from patients stemming from the Tuskegee Trials, which involved health experiments performed on Black male prisoners from 1932 to 1972.
These experiments sought to see how syphilis behaved when carried out to the fullest length without any medical treatment. The patients themselves did not know about and did not consent to what happened to them.
Horrors that ended 43 years ago still have intense rammifications on communities and races today, even generations apart.
“It’s not uncommon that I’m asked, as a provider, ‘Am I getting substandard pills than what are offered in the community?’” Strick said.
Strick works for the state prison system, in which there are 12 prison facilities, not including jails. She relayed some Washington state data: As of 2014 and 2015, black people are sentenced to prison at a rate (18%) nearly five times their proportion of the total population of Washington state (4%).
She asked why, in a place where access to medical care is state-mandated, there is still inequity behind the walls of prisons.
“Things I can think of,” she said, “are language barriers, historical trauma, placement in higher custody levels, issues in trust, and microaggressions.”
She said language barriers and historical trauma, in particular, equally impact health care access inside and outside of prison, but as far as custody levels and microaggressions go, the impact is different.
“The higher [a prisoner’s] custody status, the harder it is to regularly see patients,” Strick said. “You meet in a no-contact room, or nurses and physicians talk through a cell door.”
She defined microaggressions as chronic and commonplace, such as daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities and injustice.
“We’re all guilty probably of some of them, but that doesn’t mean they’re intentional,” Strick said. “Most are actually unintentional, but that doesn’t mean the person on the receiving side won’t notice them.”
What might just appear as a situational, unknown thing to one correctional officer might be interpreted as refusal to communicate because of race to a prisoner.
In “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander focuses a lot of her work on what happens to individuals post-imprisonment, expounding upon voting right restrictions, as well as employment, education, and housing limitations.
April Fernandes, a Ph.D. student in the department of sociology at the UW, talked about the impacts of these disparities have as they occur through the transition from prison back into the community.
“Yes, we have these higher rates of infectious diseases within the prison,” Fernandes said. “Any level of care will improve health for the most disadvantaged, for those who don’t have that same access in their home communities, but that effect is short-lived when they go back.”
Danielson discussed how the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic was created out of the Civil Rights Movement. The building itself is named after a civil rights leader, like so many of the other buildings in that community.
“[These leaders] talked a lot, and they talked loud, and had meetings that went off the rails,” he said. “It created a lot of nervousness among the health professionals, but I’ll tell you it was real. And it’s what the community does to solve its problems.”
He urges people to not just serve themselves, but their community.
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