OU Health Sciences Center holds Bridges to Access conference on health care in justice system | News

Content warning: This article mentions suicide. A list of resources is included at the bottom of the story.

Health experts discussed mental health in the justice system during the Bridges to Access conference Saturday at the OU Health Sciences Center.

The event, in its 16th year, challenges students to consider who is facing health care disparities.

According to a press release, Ashlee Barr, second-year OU College of Medicine student, sits as the chair of the Bridges to Access Conference this year. Her goal was for attendees to gain a better understanding of health care within the prison system today.

“Most of the individuals entering these institutions have more health issues than the general public, and correctional clinics may be their only interactions with medicine,” Barr wrote in the release.

Barr wrote that most people in the prison system today report chronic or mental illness, both of which are exacerbated when placed in a strained health care environment.

“Struggling people are entering into a strained system inundated by problems related to overcrowding, understaffing, limited mental health resources, deteriorating facilities, and poor sanitation,” Barr wrote. “This is a public health issue.”

Dr. Homer Venters is a physician and epidemiologist working to address health and human rights in incarceration. Formerly, Venters served as chief medical officer for the New York City jail system. He now works on a federal level to monitor health services in prison centers.

Venters’ main focus was on how unequal health care is in the modern prison system.

His presentation was titled, “Exposing the Deadly Risks of Incarceration.”

Venters provided research on the double standard between hospital quality care and those same standards in prison systems. He said many times, there is a lack of transparency between prison systems and the general public health knowledge.

“If (a) the hospital messed up, did a bad job, … that hospital would be accountable to the State Department of Health. It could come after their license,” Venters said.

For many incarcerated individuals, access to health care is closed, but not offered unless they are in a terrible condition, according to Venters.

Venters also discussed dual loyalty, which is the concept that details the importance of health care providers effectively treating their patients while equally meeting the expectations of their umbrella responsibilities, such as insurance and family members.

Venters has worked in several positions that work to aid in the protection of patients and prisoner health care. In his career, he has helped form several programs that help encourage and utilize dual loyalty methods.

Dr. Joseph Penn, a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, presented the next speech, where he discussed mental health needs for incarcerated individuals.

Penn has over 20 years of experience in correctional health care, and is director of health services for the University of Texas Medical Branch Correctional Managed Care. Penn is also on the National Commission on Correctional Health Care Board of Directors.

His presentation was titled, “Serving the Underserved Behind Bars and Razor Wire: Mental Health Needs and Timely Strategies.”

Penn discussed ethics and mental health, including the mental health of patients going into jails and prisons or the development of these issues during one’s sentence.

In Penn’s study, The Revolving Prison Door, data showed that people who have mental health diagnoses or are predisposed to addiction are more likely to return to the prison systems after their first release.

Penn said inmates are the only people with the constitutional right to healthcare services, cemented in Estelle v. Gamble in 1976, Bowing v. Godwin in 1977 and Ruiz v. Estelle in 1980.

Both Penn’s research and that of the National Commission of Correctional Health Care, show that transgender and gender dysphoria are both situations leading to mental health issues in the US prison system, and these both tie heavily into the suicide rates in the prison systems.

Penn said he oversees a death row patient diagnosed with schizophrenia and general psychosis, and said his job is to keep the patients from taking their own lives, so the state of Texas can follow through with their execution.

The goal of Penn’s research is to end suicide rates in the corrections community and provide mental health resources for patients in corrections’ care.

For more information, check out the Bridges to Access website.

This story was edited by Alexia Aston, Karoline Leonard and Jazz Wolfe. Alexandra Powell-Lorentzatos and Nikkie Aisha copy edited this story.

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