Non-profit organization helps ex-convicts get health care

Jenna Jump

Cronkite News

Carl Hunter knows how difficult it can be to reintegrate into society after spending time behind bars. So he has dedicated the past few years to making this process easier for others through his work at Building Promise USA.

Austin, Texas, non-profit
is led by people like Hunter — those who have been incarcerated before, in drug addiction rehab, or have relatives in those situations. Now they work to guide others on the path to a successful future.

One main goal: to ensure that those starting over have access to the health care they need, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on.

“Building Promise is about transforming lives and giving you choices,” said Hunter, a former heroin and crack cocaine user who has been in recovery for years. His son is serving time in a Colorado prison, which gives Hunter a unique perspective on the obstacles to starting over after his release.

“A lot of what we do … is to change people’s minds, to say, ‘These are people too. “”

With about 2 million people locked up, the United States has the highest number of incarcerated people in the world, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative of Massachusetts and the World Prison Brief, a program of the Institute for Crime. & Justice Policy Research based in London.

Texas has the highest number of incarcerated people in the country; Arizona ranks ninth. Both states have higher incarceration rates than the country as a whole, Data from the Prison Policy Initiative show.

In Arizona, the Department of Corrections has come under fire for its provision of health care to inmates since it transitioned to a privatized system in 2012.

That year, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Arizona Center for Disability Law sued the department
on behalf of inmates who had received inadequate care. Millions in fines have been slapped on the agency for not doing enough to improve conditions, and last year a judge reopened the file
for test. A decision is pending that could force the department to make further changes or place the agency under federal comptrollership.

Prisoners face higher rates of chronic diseases and viral infections, such as HIV, hepatitis B and C and influenza, as well as non-communicable diseases, including cancer, asthma and diabetes ,
Studies show. Higher rates of substance abuse and mental illness are also significant, and access to behavioral health care is often limited behind bars.

But the lack of quality care does not stop at the prison gates.

A analysis by the American Academy of Family Physicians
finds that the majority of people released from correctional facilities have at least one health condition – whether physical, emotional or substance use – and that many suffer from multiple conditions. Hospitalization rates are also higher among this population, the group reports.

“Upon reintegration into society, the rapid and continued management of these conditions often falls by the wayside, as incarcerated individuals face difficulties in enrolling in health insurance coverage, finding a care physician primary care, making health care appointments and refilling prescriptions,” the report mentioned. These barriers contribute to a “particularly high vulnerability to morbidity and mortality in the first weeks after release”.

Other research findings
that for those who access health care after incarceration, regular engagement with services is unpredictable – in part because of how they are treated by clinicians.

Hunter, who holds a master’s degree in theology, has long served in the nonprofit sector, doing community organizing and other advocacy work. But even as he did, he struggled with substance use.

In 2017, he moved to Austin to enter rehab for about the twelfth time. When he got out months later, he started working as a fellow for a nonprofit for drug abusers, helping write policy. He testified in the Texas Legislature on the opioid crisis and later served as a member of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health in Austin.

After learning about criminal justice politics, he teamed up with his mentor, Reginald Smith, to start Building Promise USA. The group was granted nonprofit status in 2020 and last year won a grant from the city of Austin to coordinate rehabilitation services for formerly incarcerated.

“My son is serving 36 years…so I had a vested interest,” said Hunter, who is the group’s executive director. “There are a lot of people who have been incarcerated, but there weren’t a lot of people…who were directly affected by the fact that they had a son, a daughter or a relative in prison.”

Building Promise is a peer-led organization. Most of its leaders have themselves been incarcerated or directly affected in some way by the criminal justice system.

The group aims to connect those re-entering society with mentors who provide advice on employment, education, housing and health care.

“The goal is to mitigate some of what we would call the collateral consequences of their conviction,” Hunter said. “Collateral consequences could be…if you have a felony and you try to go get an apartment, they’ll take your $200, but in the back of their minds, because you have a felony, you won’t get that place. .”

In Arizona, the Yavapai Reentry Project has a similar mission. Founded in 2011 in Prescott Valley, the organization matches community volunteers with people recently released from incarceration and provides resources to help with housing, job training, mental health counseling and medical care.

The idea, said program specialist Kendelle Wilkinson, is to provide “someone to lean on to help them achieve their goals and make healthy choices for themselves as they transition into community.”

“We have community volunteers with all kinds of different backgrounds, some with or without these similar experiences,” Wilkinson said.

In Texas, one of Building Promise’s efforts focuses specifically on providing COVID-19 vaccines to people coming out of prison. In conjunction with other groups, the organization offers free vaccination events that include helping to connect former inmates with other health care services.

Cases of COVID-19 in prisons were four times higher than the US rate, and as vaccines were distributed, prison populations were among the last to receive them. Studies show that states have not prioritized those incarcerated during the vaccine deploymentraising concerns about ethics and fairness.

“Despite all of the information, voices calling for action, and clear need, state responses ranged from disorganized or ineffective at best to non-existent at worst,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report. on the response to the pandemic in prisons. and jails.

Hunter said the Building Promise vaccine events are just a way to help those who have already been punished, served their time and should be given a second chance.

“When these men and women pay their debt to society, they should be back to zero,” he said. “They shouldn’t have a mark of Cain on their forehead that prevents them from maximizing their life’s potential – because they have tons of potential.”

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About Antoine L. Cassell

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