Brad Brockmann, assistant professor of the practice in health services, policy and practice at the Brown School of Public Health, brings an unequivocally public health lens to his work as executive director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights. “A vast segment of our low-income population is not receiving proper behavioral health care. And untreated mental illness and untreated substance use disorders lead to involvement in the criminal justice system,” he says. Even if they’re treated on the inside, many return to the community and the cycle begins again. To break the cycle, he says, “We need not only to work on fixing the war on drugs, but to focus on a public health system that is not functioning for too many low-income individuals.”
Founded by Jody Rich and Scott Allen in 2005 and housed in a vinyl-sided triple-decker on the scruffy edge of Providence’s East Side, the center is dedicated to translating criminal justice and health research into sustainable policy and practice—for the good of incarcerated people, and for the good of society. Current projects include working with people awaiting trial to provide reentry support such as Medicaid enrollment and post-release care plans, developing best practices for treating LGBTQI prisoners, and developing and running diversion programs for people with substance use disorder. The center also helps run a National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded program to train early-career scholars to conduct research with prisoners and other justice-involved populations.
In addition, the center hosts lectures and panel discussions, and serves as a clearinghouse for information on a wide range of topics—mental health, substance misuse, chronic disease, age, gender, race—and how they intersect with incarceration.
Educating the medical community, policymakers, and the general public is one thing, but the center aims to educate prisoners as well. One way it does this is by harnessing Brown students’ strong interest in health, justice, and human rights. “David Lewis told me, ‘Follow the students,’” Brockmann says, citing the founding director of Brown’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies. “They have been a guiding light and make possible much of what we do.”
With Elizabeth Perry ScM’19 MD’19, Brockmann developed a preclinical elective for medical students, Incarceration and Health; Matthew Perry ScM’19 MD’19 (no relation) helps run it. Both students are in the Medical School’s Primary Care-Population Medicine Program. Brockmann also received funding from the University’s Swearer Center for Public Service to create, with Jennifer Clarke, a multi-semester course that provided undergrads and graduate students with the tools and technical support necessary to develop health education programs for incarcerated individuals to address low health literacy in the population. “The students and the formerly incarcerated individuals who worked with them as consultants were amazingly creative and resourceful,” Brockmann says.
For that course, Sarah Hsu ’17 MD’22 developed an educational curriculum, pamphlet, and survey about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), antiretroviral drugs taken daily to prevent HIV infection, for inmates about to be released. The health literacy course inspired Hsu to work with Victor Ha ’15 MAT’16 and two other Warren Alpert medical students to develop a course in prisoner health at Blackstone Academy, a charter school for grades 9 to 12 in nearby Pawtucket. The course is intended for “a new generation of students who care not just about incarceration and racial and social inequalities,” Hsu says, “but what they can do to advocate.”