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Vital Signs

Students address big needs behind bars

Prison health care is a really, really, really big publichealth problem," says Olga Lemberg, a second-year student at DMS. Lemberg and her classmate Maricruz Merino—two of several Albert Schweitzer Fellows at DMS this year—are doing their part to address the problem. They are organizing health-awareness workshops at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women, in Goffstown, N.H., where such services are desperately needed.

Anger: A December 2004 report from the New Hampshire Commission on the Status of Women (NHCSW) makes it clear just how big the need is. "Outside of chaplaincy services, the New Hampshire State Prison for Women has no state-funded life skill programs," the report notes. In contrast, the New Hampshire State Prison for Men has 11 state-funded programs in areas such as anger management, domestic violence, and parenting, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. At the women's facility, similar programs are run only by volunteers, like Lemberg and Merino.

"For us, the main goal is that we are providing these women with skills, practical skills, life skills, to productively live out their time in the prison and then, when they get out, in their lives outside of the prison," says Lemberg. Working with the prison's mental-health director, Lemberg and Merino decided to focus on seven topics: nutrition, substance abuse, oral health, HIV and AIDS, other infectious diseases (especially tuberculosis and hepatitis C), mindfulness and meditation, and patientdoctor communication.

Olga Lemberg, left, and Maricruz Merino have been bringing health education to imprisoned New Hampshire women.

So far, the prison workshops have been well received by the inmates who have attended them. "They were more receptive to us than I thought they would be," says Merino. "I really felt like they might write us off as two medical students who know nothing about what they've been through. Just going there made me realize that these women, for the most part—the ones that we've met—they want to better themselves."

Lemberg and Merino are not teaching the sessions themselves but have recruited specialists from DHMC and DMS. Clinical dietician Jil Shangraw led the session on nutrition. "It was 100% better than I thought it would be," says Shangraw. The women had done some research about nutrition before the session and asked

good questions, she explains, such as how much vitamin C they should take and whether powdered eggs are as healthy as regular eggs. "Their interest was one of the best I've ever seen," says Shangraw.

"That workshop was basically to make sure they had the information to make the best choices they possibly could given what they are provided at the prison," Lemberg explains. For example, they may decide to drink plain water instead of "juice" that could be essentially sugar water.

Since volunteers run the health- and life-skills programs in the women's prison, those programs tend to be "sporadic and [the] quality may be inconsistent over time," according to the NHCSW report. In an effort to avoid that trap and ensure that their program continues, Lemberg and Merino are compiling curriculum and contacts for each of the sessions. In addition, they're recruiting first-year DMS students to take their places.

Active: Sustaining projects is also a core objective of the national Albert Schweitzer Fellowship program, which funds community-service projects run by graduate students.

Merino adds that she and Lemberg hope the presenters they've recruited will also be part of the effort to keep the program going. "They get to see what it's really like" for women behind bars, she explains. "And if they get excited about it, they may spread the word."

Jennifer Durgin

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