San Quentin’s annual Health Fair has entered its second decade with the completion of the 11th event, held in August. The popular event is sponsored by TRUST (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training)
“It’s one of the most anticipated events in the prison for the entire population,” said Kelly Mitchell, Chief Deputy Warden.
The Health Fair is in a perpetual state of development and planning to make each year better than the previous year.
“It’s always exciting to come here,” said Dr. Arnold Perkins. “I think it’s important for the men on the inside to have contact with the community outside.”
Some see the Health Fair as a one-day event to promote good health, but its preparation is a yearlong process. The support of the warden’s office, staff, outside volunteers and inmates makes it possible.
“I was the Public Health Director when we started with Gary Mendez,” Perkins said. “Then we decided … we wanted to make sure the men in prison had health resources. We felt that having a healthy mind, body and spirit was really important to the rehabilitation of the men.”
Perkins said former Warden Robert Ayers was the person who set this in place. He said Ayers wanted them to come in and work with the men. “He wanted us to instill in the men that they deserve to be healthy, and they deserve to be informed on how to maintain their healthy state,” Perkins said.
The day before the Health Fair, TRUST held an orientation to provide instruction on what must be done to make the event successful.
On the day of the Health Fair, more than 100 volunteers from the medical community filed into the prison’s Protestant Chapel, where they were greeted by staff and inmates with coffee and pastries.
“You are all part of history in the making,” said Angelo Falcone-Alvarez, TRUST secretary. “You are all hope dealers.”
For some medical volunteers, the Health Fair was their first time they had visited San Quentin or the inside of any prison.
At 10 a.m. it was show time, and all of the volunteers worked tirelessly to provide inmates with healthcare services and information.
“I’m excited. These fairs are beneficial. They have my support,” said Associate Warden Steve Albritton. He was curious to know if inmates discovered something about themselves that they did not know previously, such as if they have high blood pressure.
Inmates waited in several lines on the Lower Yard to receive services. Inmates received acupressure and chiropractic services in the prison’s gymnasium, as well as yoga lessons. There were also University of California San Francisco (UCSF) resident physicians who answered questions.
“I am so fortunate every time I come to San Quentin,” said Sachi Doctor, a volunteer who also works with The Last Mile program. “The opportunity and time to practice yoga (with prisoners) given the conditions justifies their desire to grow and transform. There are so many forms of exercise, but I love the personal transformation I find in yoga. I wanted to take transformation to next level.”
“It’s an inspiration to come through and see how nervous prisoners are until they try it,” said Gibron McDonald, a volunteer yoga instructor. “Sometimes we think we are not worthy of medicine. Yoga is medicine. It’s a blessing; there’s healing that takes place here.”
Dr. Triveni Defries, a UCSF resident physician, said she has been to San Quentin before, but never to a Health Fair. “It seems to be very well-organized. We’re here to answer any medical questions” on subjects such as breathing problems, skin infections, heart attacks, strokes, Hepatitis C, depression and diabetes. “We’re willing to talk about whatever anyone wants to talk about,” she said.
Dr. Emily Wistar, another UCSF resident physician, said she is in a program in San Francisco to provide primary care to underserved communities. “I think it’s a good resource for us to work with you guys,” Wistar said.
“I thought it would be much more boring,” said Dr. Asa Clemenzi of UCSF. “I thought it was nice to just answer people’s questions about health. It’s an opportunity to pass on some knowledge.”
“Trust me, you’ll be fine,” said Dr. Fred Githler, who has been a chiropractor for more than 20 years. He has his own private practice and attended the Health Fair for the fourth time. He said he heard about it through Life West Chiropractic College. “Each year it gets bigger. Any volunteer work is enlightening.”
Dirk Schlueter, who works in acupressure for the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM) in San Francisco, demonstrated the manipulation of vaccaria seeds on different points of the ear. When pressing the seed on the ear, it stimulates an acupressure point.
“This is the first time we are here, so we are pretty excited,” said Schlueter. “We try to find certain combinations that are right for you guys,” said Schlueter.
Erin Reilly works with parolees from San Quentin and Pelican Bay State Prisons at Options Detox in Berkeley. “It’s still early,” Reilly said. “We’re looking forward to helping people.”
“Overall it’s very positive, very progressive,” said Shaka Muhammad, who is an IDAP (Inmate Disability Assistant Program) worker. “It gives guys insight on health. They should probably have information on the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).”
Safia Quinn volunteered her services as a notary to certify the medical forms the men signed for advance directives. This was her first San Quentin Health Fair. She said she has volunteered at similar events in Oakland and Hayward. “I think it’s very beneficial. It’s definitely a treat,” she said.
“This is my third one,” said inmate Douglass Manns. “It’s a larger crowd from when I first started. He said the general population has grown over the years at the prison because of the addition of inmates to West Block.
Redwood Dental Hygienists Society (RDHS), a component of the California Dental Hygienists Association, attended the Health Fair to give inmates demonstrations on how to properly brush and floss their teeth. They also answered questions on oral hygiene.
“It seems like they’re improving on the whole way they’ve stepped up,” said Laura Birchett, a hygienist with RDHS who participated at the fair last year. “I think it’s wonderful that they bring this to San Quentin and that the inmates are so involved in putting this together.”
Jessica Wong, a hygienist with RDHS, said, “I’m thoroughly enjoying my time. I enjoy getting to know you guys.”
“They were open to receiving our pamphlets,” said Ashley Malone of Center Force. “A lot of people were interested in our peer health class.”
Inside the ARC (Addiction Recovery Center) trailer, volunteers offered readings for blood pressure, glucose levels, cholesterol levels, vision and hearing testing.
Inmate Todd Jones was getting his blood pressure checked in the ARC trailer. “Last year I only went to the gym. I didn’t come in here.” Jones said he visited the acupressure area earlier. “I’ve never done it before. It’s interesting. I think it’s better than medication. It’s natural.”
“It moved a lot quicker than it did last year. I think it’s great,” said inmate John Ray Ervin. “It’s a different experience, something I never experienced on the street. It teaches you a lot about your body. He said he learned ‘our bodies are beat up.’ ”
Dr. Bill Bolinger, an independent chiropractor and health fair volunteer, said it was his first health fair at San Quentin. “I think we should be here every month. It’s great that they do this at least once a year.”
“I get more from what I do,” said Bolinger, who has done mission work in Vietnam and Mexico and planned to do the same at a Native American reservation in New Mexico a week later.
“This year was run a lot smoother,” said Nick Grant, a Health Fair volunteer with Chiropractic Outreach. He said this was his third visit to San Quentin for the event. “There wasn’t that congestion” as in previous years.
Grant said his organization volunteers around the world to treat people in Mexico, Laos and Fiji. He discussed a Harvard University study on joints. He said the study reported that joints that do not move degenerate within two weeks. “We want to keep those joints moving because a moving body is a healthy body.”
Dr. Tammi Clark, a volunteer chiropractor, said the spine and nervous system work together, and that sometimes restricted joints become painful. “Often you see benefits when restrictions are released. We restore mobility so they (joints) can move better.”
“It’s about optimizing health,” said Clark. “The spine is made up of so many bones that when they’re off, other parts of the body compensate. If they spent as much time with flexibility (stretching) as building bulky muscles, they’d be in better shape.”
“Today is going smoother than any other Health Fair,” said Tyrone “T-Bone” Allen, an inmate and founding member of TRUST.
According to Allen, in 2003 Jerry Brown, who was then mayor of Oakland, commented on how Oakland had become a dumping ground for San Quentin. It was at that time San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford decided she would help to make changes. She created programs with the help of Dr. Gary Mendez and Lt. Vernell Crittendon.
Allen said Woodford helped to form TRUST. Its goal was to Teach Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training (TRUST).
Allen said TRUST “started working with these guys to build bridges back to the community,” and bring homicide rates down in the Bay Area by educating black men about who they are.
Allen said the first Health Fair was about dealing with issues that African-Americans face, such as sickle cell anemia, high blood pressure, alcoholism, substance abuse, STDs and HIV.
According to Allen, Perkins and Chavez joined with TRUST to organize the Health Fair during Black History Month in 2003. “Today, this project has evolved into an all-inclusive health fair for all groups, not just African-[American]s,” said Allen.
Phoeun You, Emile DeWeaver, Richard “Bonaru” Richardson and JulianGlenn Padgett contributed to this story.