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Students help to reform prison healthcare

Over the last two Fridays Mills students, in coordination with the California Coalition of Women in Prison, visited a local women's prison to interview incarcerated women about the quality of healthcare they receive in prison.

The students are contributing to efforts to reform California's struggling prison healthcare system as part of their coursework for this semester's Public Interest Ethnography class.

This is a prime time for students to contribute to systemic changes in the quality of prison healthcare, according to junior psychology major Natalie Chriss, who is enrolled in the class. "CCWP is gathering this information to take advantage of this time," said Chriss.

Legal efforts to reform California's prison healthcare system have been mounting since 2002, when a federal judge ordered the state to undergo a complete overhaul of its $2 billion prison healthcare operations after prisoners filed a class action suit alleging that California officials inflicted cruel and unusual punishment through deliberately neglecting prisoner's medical needs.

Then last July, the judge stripped the state of California from this responsibility and placed it in the hands of former Executive Director of the Santa Clara County Health and Hospital System Robert Sillen, who was scheduled to begin his new duties last week.

The coalition may include parts of the student's work in a document for Sillen's review of the prison healthcare system, according to Professor Rachael Stryker, who teaches the course.

But first the students are incorporating their interviews into formally drafted ethnographies, or field research-driven investigations of cultural phenomena. Students will then give their ethnographies to CCWP as free research to aid the organization's advocacy work, according to Stryker.

"The students' work will be used to argue for certain protocols for women's healthcare and hopefully all prisoners' healthcare," said Stryker.

The specific issues CCWP has been working to address include the under-treatment of female prisoners with cancer and AIDS and the lack of protocols around issuing death certificates for deceased prisoners, according to Stryker. "Sometimes family members don't know of the death for weeks," she said.

A recent article in the American Journal of Public Health states that women prisoners have higher rates of substance abuse and mental health issues than their male counterparts. They also suffer from higher instances of communicable diseases like HIV, hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted diseases, all of which the journal attributed to drug-related crime.

Problems in healthcare are partially rooted in the rapid expansion of women's prison populations, according to the article, which have increased six-fold over the past 20 years, outpacing the growth of male prisons. The California Department of Corrections operates the two largest women's prisons in the world.

According to Chriss, prisoners who've agreed to participate in the student's ethnographic research have to endure a strip search under the watch of male guards before and after the interviews. "So for them to even talk to us is complete dedication, and requires a lot of sacrifice," said Chriss.

Stryker said the experience provides students the opportunity to work side by side with a local community organization, and write ethnographies with members of more marginalized communities.

"The problems and their solutions will be community defined, not student defined," said Stryker.

Senior and sociology major Ali Uscilka said that she's learned a lot in the class that she can use in her daily life, but one of the most important lessons was "that you can use your academic background to empower people in their own communities."

In addition to their ethnographic research, students are raising money to help women prisoners cover some of the costs of their healthcare. At the moment, the prisoners have to pay a $5 fee per medical visit.

The students are also collaborating with the Islamic Society of San Francisco to assess discrimination against Muslim youth in local schools.

Public interest ethnography is an emerging field in anthropology. Currently, Mills offers one of the only courses in the country.