Hundreds of prisoners formed long lines on San Quentin’s Lower Yard at the prison’s 13th Annual Health Fair on Aug. 19 to receive medical services and wellness information, ranging from blood pressure checks and chiropractic services to dental hygiene instructions.
“Just because the men are locked up doesn’t mean they don’t have influence and leadership over their families,” said Sherre Patrick of Advanced Directives – Alameda County Public Health (ACPH). “If they become health conscious it could spread to their loved ones.”
Advanced Directives helps men make medical decisions about healthcare choices such as life support options and surgeries.
“It’s important for everyone to have the education to take care of themselves,” added Madeline Tenney, staff sponsor of a self-help organization called TRUST. “We had people come from all over the country and Canada to promote spiritual, mental and physical happiness.”
TRUST, which stands for Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training, sponsored the one-day event in collaboration with various healthcare service providers in the Bay Area.
“I was impressed on how much the outside community cares,” said prisoner Jim Kitlas. “They gave their time for free, for what they get paid to do. It shows the guys they have support and that gives hope and tells people to stay out of trouble.”
Inside the prison’s gym, chiropractors at about two dozen stations attended to prisoners.
“It’s about seeing the smiles when they walk away from the table instead of the hard faces,” chiropractor Dr. Brett Jones said. “They are still human beings, and we have to provide more love and not more neglect.”
At another station inside the gym, men received acupressure ear seeds (tiny pink beads taped to the ear). Patients described an ailment and then a teacher or student from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine taped a bead onto a particular area of the ear.
The seeds are designed to open blockages and to allow energy of the Qi to flow for healing purposes, according to literature handed out by the teachers and students.
“We believe inmates are entitled to healthcare and healthcare that is holistic,” said acupuncturist Ian Hua. “We provide traditional Chinese medicine that induces self-care instead of pharmaceuticals to help alleviate what they are going through.”
In the Education Building on the Lower Yard, dental hygienists gave instructions about dental care in two classrooms.
In one room, San Francisco State University (SFSU) dental hygienist Alicia Covarrubias used a model of upper and lower teeth to show the men how to properly brush.
“Eating candy causes a 20-minute acid attack on your teeth,” Covarrubias warned. “It is very important to brush the back of your bottom front teeth; saliva there causes plaque buildup. It is good to brush your tongue.”
At the end of her presentation, each man was handed a plastic toothpick.
Next door, San Quentin’s dental hygienists Zia and Shawnette G. gave the men information about the services provided at the prison for a $5 copay, such as dental screenings, teeth cleanings, fillings, extractions and the provision of partials and dentures. Dental exams are free.
At the end of the short presentation, each participant received a toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste.
“I hope to see each and every one of them (prisoners) take care of their teeth,” said Tonia Woodson, the Health Program Manager. “That they know how important it is to have healthy teeth and a healthy mouth.”
In another building on the Lower Yard, nurses checked blood pressure, glucose levels, cholesterol, weight-height ratios, eyes and ears.
Twila Brown, who teaches nursing at SFSU, monitored services at the glucose/cholesterol station.
“Over the years I’ve seen the men use the information to improve their health,” said Mildred Crear, a nurse from the Bay Area Black Nurses Association. “One gentleman checked his cholesterol last year, and it was over 300. He came back the next year, and it was 162. It has made a difference. Each year more and more nurses want to come. They want to give back, and it’s so rewarding.”
The men were shown a video about myths surrounding HIV and the difference between HIV and AIDS. HIV and AIDS are transmissible through high-risk behaviors like sharing needles, unprotected sex and tattoos, but not from sweat, urine, fecal matter, or saliva, according to the video. There was also a presentation about hepatitis, HIV and AIDS prevention.
“If people don’t know their HIV status they could be spreading it to others or getting sick,” said Georgia Schreiber, a Public Health Investigator with ACPH. “However, in these days, if you get checked, you can get the medication where you can avoid ever getting AIDS. You can live your entire life without ever getting AIDS.”
ACPH personnel hosted a game premised on health knowledge. Inmates spun a wheel labeled with questions related to healthy or unhealthy relationships. Answering the question correctly earned the participant a granola bar.
“I’m trying to get a better understanding of what I don’t know about health,” said prisoner Anthony “Habib” Watkins. “This is my first health fair even though I’ve been here for five years. Prison is full of disease, and if I can learn how to keep myself safe, it’s not only better for me, it’s better for everyone around me.”
Asian Health Services was present to educate the men about Hepatitis B and C. They also took the men through Tai Chi and Qigong positions.
“The new hepatitis cure is not just for people who are dying,” said Dr. Anita Chang. “Insurance coverage starts at stage two, the fibrosis stage.” Hepatitis B and C are more prevalent in Asian Americans than in other racial groups, she added.
Dr. Sue Chan taught Qigong, a Chinese internal martial art and Debbie Lee instructed different groups in Tai Chi.
“I am impressed with people’s ability to learn while incarcerated,” said Lee. “People are really dedicated.”
The San Quentin cultural awareness group Restoring Our Original True Selves (ROOTS) assisted Asian Health Services.
A nutrition program was provided by retired UC Berkeley professor Sharon Fleming. She introduced a slide presentation on negative eating habits stemming from anger, sadness, loneliness, stress, emotional instability or depression.
The presentation included techniques to curb unhealthy eating habits. For example, Fleming said, when depression starts to set in, inmates should walk or exercise, and eat moderate meals with minimal starch and more vegetables, fruits and water.
Residents from UCSF/Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (UCSF/ZSFG) gave medical counseling on diverse bodily ailments at the Ask the Doctor table. Meanwhile, the Mental/Behavioral Health table dealt with topics ranging from suicide to personal hygiene.
“You can’t rehabilitate or participate in life if not healthy,” said UCSF/ZSFG Prof. Sharad Jain. “We learn from the guys, and our intention is to train them to be active about their health.”
San Quentin psychologist Dr. Schmidt added, “We offer individual and group therapy. Mental health is different from the physical. We want the guys to work through their issues.”
Spiritual consultations were given by Regalos de Dios, a nonprofit organization, and Iglesia Cristiana Jesus Salva y Sana church.
Dr. Arnold Chavez and Marciano Ortega brought 25 advisers to give guidance on spiritual healing, marriage counseling, personal behavior development and how to cope with depression and loneliness. The advisers listened and talked with inmates for about three to five minutes each.
“I personally want to continue working with these people (inmates) because I want them to be prepared to come home and help their communities,” said adviser Lucy Bermudez.
In total, more than 150 volunteers served more than 2,000 prisoners throughout the day.
The Bay Area service providers included the Bay Area Black Nurses Association, Alameda County Health Department (ACHD), San Francisco State University Nursing School, the San Quentin State Prison Medical Department, and Centerforce.
Centerforce provides incarcerated individuals a variety of services from parenthood classes and health education to connections to services upon release.
–Rahsaan Thomas, Chung Kao, Emile DeWeaver, and Charles David Henry contributed to this story