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How to be a Catalyst for Prison Reform

Back in 1987 when I was a young, naïve, blonde female I had no idea what was expected of me when the National Health Service Corps placed me in a male medium security prison to be their doctor. Looking back on my 30 year career I realize that I was  a catalyst for prison reform.  Some of the things that I did helped change the rigid culture in the prison from punishment and harm to prevention and healing.  Those things included creating  the first HIV support group for inmates, the first treatment regimens for AIDS patients, the first class to teach officers about blood borne diseases, the first CME classes for nurses, the first preceptorship for physician assistants and the first life skills course and  toastmasters club for inmates.  I also taught a class to new officers about what I learned as a hostage (who was assaulted and raped ) and used that story to underscore the value of compassion in a prison. 

I’m going to share with you why, what and how I became a catalyst for prison reform.  For any of you who want to speed up change that is needed in your organization, but do not want to be changed for the worse or consumed by it read on.

1.     First you have to be aware what’s missing that is making the problem worse and be clear on what you want to change and why.  I entered a prison system that lacked medical care and was not designed to heal nor care about the root cause of the behavior that caused the individual to end up in prison.  The prison was designed to incarcerate, shame and punish. It was not designed to keep society safe in the long run. I wanted to help change the way the system  dealt with the inmates, because I knew as a physician that punishment was not the best way to promote a positive change in behavior. I also knew that if one could change their behavior in a positive direction the inmate  would be less risk to themselves, the individuals who worked in the prison and society when they left. 

2.     You have to really want and be willing to stand up, take the lead and be in it for the long run. 

3.     As an example I took the lead by starting the first life skills course in the prison for inmates that addressed the root causes of issues like addiction, violence and criminal behavior. Anytime you take the lead you need to build consensus.  In a prison one needs the buy in from both sides of the fence line and you need to bring the right people together. I taught that class for 30 years as a volunteer in the evening and brought in outside speakers as well. That class not only helped increase my understanding of their problems it energized me when I saw a positive behavior change after they experienced their aha moment. 

4.     As a catalyst you need to motivate and inspire others and the best way to do it is thru story telling that touches the person emotionally. Once you do that you can introduce data and statistics to support why you are promoting the change. 

5.     Anyone who works in a prison for years knows that the environment can put one at risk for becoming jaded ,cynical, stressed, depressed and  burned out.  To be a true  catalyst that is not consumed  you have to take care of your health, happiness, energy  and above all remain curious and orient yourself  to help change the prison system so you can return the inmate to society as an asset not a liability. 

6.     Since a true catalyst is not consumed or changed it did not make sense to me to stop being a catalyst for prison reform when I left the prison.  That is why when I retired I  wrote my memoir, ’30 Years Behind Bars,’ Trials of a Prison Doctor.  I wanted to use my personal story to inspire and motivate others to become interested in prison reform and be part of the solution.   It is available on Amazon or  

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