AUTHOR | SPEAKER | EXPERT WITNESS
Dr. Karen Gedney
Karen grew up hiking and skiing in the Catskill Mountains in New York State. Her parent’s life was deeply affected by WWII. Karen’s grandmother, along with her mother, and her seven siblings, tried to escape when the Russians invaded Germany. Karen’s mother and her family spent years surviving starvation, lice, freezing and being held prisoners under the Russians. That trauma caused her mother to be overprotective and isolating which may have caused Karen to be painfully shy and feel socially awkward.
From the time she was 9 years old Karen dreamed about being a doctor. She read countless stories about doctors, they enthralled her because in those stories was adventure, danger, romance and methods to take care of the underdog. Part of the allure of medicine was that, as a doctor, people would need her help.
To finish medical school Karen received a scholarship. In exchange she was required to spend 4 years caring for the underserved. She was directed to Northern Nevada Correctional Center where she became the first woman doctor to serve at a men’s prison. Before the 4 years were up she determined to turn her work as a prison doctor into a career. Karen saw the difference she could make in a population that needed a doctor who would stand up for them and protect them from abuses of power. Karen shares, “The most challenging experience I faced in the prison was being held hostage by an inmate on Friday the 13th October 1989. He was one of my patients. Being assaulted and raped by that inmate, and then seeing him killed by the SWAT team affected me emotionally, and made me doubt myself. I had to deal with shock, anger and then find forgiveness.”
After Karen retired from the prison system, she dedicated herself to prison reform. Karen also wrote her memoir, 30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor. Karen states, “I wanted to share my experience about being a woman working in a hyper-male environment, surviving personal trauma as well as why the US needs to approach prison reform holistically and with compassion.” Karen discusses with great vulnerability such diverse topics as overcoming trauma, dealing with; racism, mental illness, HIV, executions, cancer, dying, regret, the power of redemption, education and poetry.
For years, in addition to being a prison doctor Karen and her husband Clifton, mentored children who had parents in the prison system. Since her husband suddenly passed away in February of 2019, Karen still mentors those children. Today she lives with a roommate, one of the inmates she became acquainted with while working in the prison. Her day consists of working out in the gym while listening to podcasts, and walking for an hour. She takes classes in ballroom dancing for fun. Karen sits on the boards of Ridge House and the board for the Nevada Prison Education Project, which places college courses in the prison. Karen Gedney is relentless in working on prison reform including working with the team to abolish the death penalty in Nevada. To that end she gives interviews and lectures on the Holistic prison model.
Doctor Karen Gedney is an internal medicine specialist who was placed in a male medium security prison in 1987 to complete a four year work exchange for a scholarship she received for medical school. Against all odds she stayed three decades and turned it into her calling. Today Karen continues to speak to increase awareness and inspire individuals and groups to become involved in prison reform. Karen lives near Carson City, Nevada and is currently speaking out against Nevada’s death penalty.
As a prison doctor who did 30 years behind bars, I couldn’t help but think of the artistic talent and the type of art I saw behind those prison walls. What struck me was not only how good the art was, but how many of the incarcerated only learned about their talent and interest in art when they found themselves incarcerated. Art was also one of the few ways that they could express their feelings, emotions and what they longed for without getting into trouble.
It made me wonder how many of the incarcerated never actualized their underlying talents, because they lacked the opportunity or support. Many because of their environment and circumstances dropped out of the educational system early and shifted to the survival mode. Prison can be another environment where it is all about survival, but prison can also be an environment where education and artistic expression is valued.