A new course at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health will give UW nursing, medical, physician assistant and pharmacy students the opportunity to address a challenging health issue – the health and health care of inmates in Wisconsin’s growing, and aging, prison population.

The Nehemiah Community Development Corporation was awarded a Community Catalyst Grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program for the project titled, Increasing Access to Quality Healthcare in Correctional Settings by Expanding Health Workforce Capacity to develop the course. The project is a partnership between Nehemiah and the School of Medicine and Public Health, with Robert Striker, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, serving as the academic partner.

The project will assemble a cross-UW campus multidisciplinary class on correctional health care that will provide both an overview of the complicated criminal justice system and match future graduates to mentors delivering healthcare to people in prison. Ultimately, the project’s goal is to prepare future healthcare providers to care for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, whether in a prison or clinic setting.

The project kicked off this April with a symposium for students and faculty that featured formerly incarcerated individuals as well as health care providers from correctional settings.

Karen Reece and Robert Striker
Karen Reece, PhD, Nehemiah Community Development Corporation and Robert Striker, MD, PhD, Department of Medicine, introduce a new course aimed at increasing the capacity of health care providers to care for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

“What we know is that when people are cared for in prison and are healthier when they are released, they have greater opportunities to be productive citizens and contribute to society,” Striker said.

But as the prison population continues to grow and age, it will require health care providers who understand the population’s unique needs and challenges. Today, there are more than 22,000 men and women in Wisconsin prisons, with the female population growing at a faster rate than any other population in the state. Racial disparities exist as well, with one in eight black men currently incarcerated.

Many of these people struggle with mental health conditions, as well as heart disease, diabetes, infectious disease, addiction, chronic stress, as well as pregnancy and childbirth in prison. Upon release, their risk of death is 13 times higher than the general population within the first two weeks and 3.5 times higher at two years post release. There is a great need for comprehensive health care and support both within and outside the prison walls and the UW course will prepare future health care providers to help meet that need.

The course will include 10 online modules and case studies, a jail/prison facility tour, and mentoring/shadowing experience, according to Karen Reece, PhD, director of research and program evaluation at the Nehemiah Community Development Corporation. It will be offered this fall and again in the spring 2019 semester. Input from formerly incarcerated people and current correctional setting health care providers is vital to the course content and development.

Nehemiah panel
Panelists left to right: Joan Addington-White, MD, UW Department of Medicine, Melissa Ludin, Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing, Nancy Bowens, NP, Oshkosh Correctional Institution, Paul Bekx, MD, Medical Director for the Bureau of Health Services, Department of Corrections, Johnnie Phiffer, community advocate and speaker

"We can’t expect people to thrive and contribute to society after incarceration unless we care for them," said panelist Melissa Ludin, a formerly incarcerated woman and current Board President of Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO). "They, too, need quality care, that is provided with compassion and understanding."

Said Reece, “Caring for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people is a unique practice with unique needs and challenges. There are a few medical centers and universities across the country that are addressing this with medical residents, but our course is innovative in that it is targeting students earlier in their education. It’s our hope that students will then think about this earlier in their career as well.”

Panelist Joan Addington-White, MD, professor of medicine and director of the School of Medicine and Public Health's Internal Medicine Primary Care Track Residency Program, is developing similar training opportunities for medical residents. She reminded attendees, “You will serve patients with a history of incarceration at some point in your career. Through this course, we want to train students to have the knowledge and sensitivity to do so effectively.”

The project aligns with the Wisconsin Partnership Program’s efforts to advance health equity in our state.

“The goal of our Community Catalyst Grant program is to support community-driven efforts to improve health equity,” said Courtney Saxler, program officer for the Wisconsin Partnership Program.

“By connecting the community expertise and experience of Nehemiah with the education and training expertise of the University of Wisconsin, this project provides an innovative, community-led approach to address the unique health care challenges and health disparities that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals face. We are looking forward to the course’s official launch this fall.”

For more information on the upcoming course, contact Karen Reece at kreece@nehemiah.org or Robert Striker at rtstriker@wisc.edu.