Going to jail

Prison ?

Or prison, or juvenile detention, or the catchall, misleading term “correctional facility.” These—along with capital punishment— have been on my mind lately for a variety of reasons.

I recently was offered a job in the health care unit of a nearby county jail. Several years ago I was offered a job in the health care unit of the King County Jail in downtown Seattle. I seriously considered both jobs and went through interviews with the supervisors at both locations. I spent time in the King County Jail and shadowed some of the nurses who work there. For both jobs I was impressed by the level of compassion combined with level-headedness and toughness of the health care staff members. I tried hard to imagine myself working in this sort of environment. In the end, I turned both jobs down. At the King County Jail, as I was interviewing, a prisoner hurled himself down the center doughnut hole opening of the building, falling five floors before he landed on his head on the health care unit beside the supervisor’s office door. I decided that it was a level of trauma that I didn’t want in my life. With the latest jail health job offer, I turned it down because I realized I couldn’t reconcile myself with the complicated ethics of such health care.

In jail and in prison health care is openly acknowledged as band-aid care only—minimal and low-cost treatment for immediate health problems to keep the prisoners alive until they are either killed on death row or have served their sentences. There is no preventative care. A common rhetorical question by prison health care workers is, “Would you rather we spend money and time on health care treatment of offenders or of their victims?” That sounds good in theory, but really, how much money actually goes to help victims of violent crimes? Underneath, it is a political statement by politicians wanting to look tough on crime. Prison is viewed solely as punishment, not as rehabilitation. If as a society we were serious about rehabilitation, investment in preventative health care for prisoners would make sense. But this would only make sense ethically if we had access to basic health care as a basic human right for all people in the US. And since African-Americas, American Indians, poor people, and persons with mental illness are overrepresented in out prison population, what exactly would we be rehabilitating them from?

Instead of working in jail health care, I have decided to work in juvenile detention. This is a group of young people I am already familiar with, since many homeless and street-involved young people revolve through “juvi” as they refer to it. I won’t be working in health care per se, but rather in a health-related activity. This is a volunteer position through Pongo Teen Writing Project. Pongo is a volunteer nonprofit program founded by Richard Gold in 1992. Richard is a poet and former insider in the book publishing world. Pongo’s mission is to help teens who are homeless, in jail, in long-term psychiatric facilities, or otherwise facing challenging lives—to write and express themselves through poetry. I’ve known about Pongo ever since moving to Seattle in 1994. Many of the homeless teens I saw in clinic would bring in journals full of poems they had started writing, sometimes first with the prompting of Pongo staff members in juvi or in homeless youth drop-in centers around town. The teens often wanted to share a particular poem with me, and it became part of the health care encounter. Sometimes they were willing to ask for help with chemical dependency or mental health issues for the first time. As Richard Gold says in a video posted on Pongo’s website, “Poetry fulfills a very practical, intellectual function in healing.”

For me, this is a way I can ‘do’ jail health care. At least I think so. I believe that there are sufficient support resources within juvi—counselors, therapists, teachers, doctors and nurses—the teens can access to help them deal with difficult memories or emotions excavated through the poetry. I also trust in the general truthfulness of the “self-dosing” theory in PTSD: people will only write about/draw about pieces of trauma they are prepared to deal with at the time. I believe that the Pongo Teen Writing Project goes beyond helping individual teens give voice to their lives, but also shares those in an appropriate way (e.g.: with the teen’s permission and using pseudonyms) to help create positive change in the complex web of social supports that have failed these young people.

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