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Schweitzer Fellows Tricia Hammond and Simon Ascher.

The statistics are grim: 90,000 juveniles are currently incarcerated through the U.S. justice system, and due to high recidivism rates, many of them end up incarcerated again as adults.

But in Durham County, North Carolina, Schweitzer Fellows Tricia Hammond (Duke School of Law) and Simon Ascher (Duke School of Medicine) are collaborating to do something about it.

The interdisciplinary duo has mobilized their medical and law school peers, developing a program that provides incarcerated teens at the Youth Home juvenile detention center with legal and health education, literacy classes, and mentoring.

“We hope not only to teach them important information, but also to communicate to them that they are valuable, intelligent, and capable of making choices for a different life,” Hammond says. “By creating an opportunity for other professional students to engage with these kids, we hope to create life-long advocates for a more rehabilitative juvenile justice system.”

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

Hammond: The short answer – and the selfish answer! – is that we had been so impacted by working with the kids at the Youth Home, and we wanted to make sure that the opportunity existed for future classes of law and medical students.

I started volunteering at the Youth Home my first year of law school teaching criminal law, and that summer, Simon and I started spending our spare time at the Youth Home discussing articles on current events and health-related topics.

For me, working with these kids profoundly changed my view of how our criminal justice system deals with the 90,000 juveniles and 2.3 million adults currently incarcerated. With our high recidivism rates, a lot of the U.S. prison population was once part of the juvenile prison population. Working at the Youth Home, you realize that each prisoner is an individual, and most are deserving of compassion and an opportunity to redeem themselves. That’s even more true for these kids who are usually around age 14, 15 and 16, and come from the most at-risk backgrounds.

By going to the Youth Home and getting to know the kids and engaging them intellectually, we hope not only to teach them important information but also to communicate to them that they are valuable, intelligent, and capable of making choices for a different life.  By creating an opportunity for other professional students to engage with these kids, we hope to create life-long advocates for a more rehabilitative juvenile justice system.

Ascher:  I heard from Tricia about her experiences volunteering at the Youth Home, and during the summer between my first and second year of medical school, I wanted to see what it was about.  I quickly discovered the Youth Home was a place housing kids with remarkable stories of adversity. In my interactions with them, I found it hard to believe that these bright, capable kids could be waiting on their criminal trial, or suspended from school, or in gangs. Even though they had made serious mistakes, I also felt like somehow society had given them the short straw, and could do more to try to rehabilitate them.

I also found that going to the Youth Home was incredibly rewarding. Each time I went, the kids re-energized me and reminded me how much more there was going on outside of anatomy lab. I wanted to share this experience with other medical students, but more importantly I wanted to serve the kids at the Youth Home as best I could.

In thinking about what the kids needed – and what we could provide as students – we thought we could offer them legal, health and life skills education as well as mentoring. We know that “decreasing recidivism” is a lofty goal, but we feel that these activities can give them the tools to make better decisions.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

Ascher and Hammond: First, we hope our project will demystify and humanize these two groups – incarcerated youths and Duke professional students – to one another.  At least in Durham, these two groups would be unlikely to meet in any other setting, let alone meaningfully interact and develop any kind of mutual respect. It’s exciting to see both groups defy each other’s stereotypes of one another.

As far as concrete long-term goals, we hope the kids at the Youth Home will have gained critical health, law, and life skills information (everything from applying for jobs and managing money to understanding sexual health, domestic violence and substance abuse), and we hope that at least one of them will act on this information later in life. We also hope they develop and gain confidence in their analytical abilities through article discussions and debates.

For the families of the kids, we hope to connect them to important community resources and information through our “parent resource packet,” to be distributed during family visits to the Youth Home. We hope these packets will reach the broader community as well.

For the volunteers, we hope these future professionals in law and medicine will become advocates for at-risk youth and push North Carolina and other states to implement a more rehabilitative model of juvenile justice.  We hope that by making this project sustainable, this happens for every class of med and law students who pass through Duke.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

Hammond: I think it’s figuring out a way to provide health care as a human right, domestically and internationally. One huge step in the right direction on the international stage would be for governments, universities and pharmaceutical companies to support access to essential medicines in the developing world.

I really admire the work that the national student group Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) does in this arena to promote access to essential medicines in areas of the world that cannot pay (and therefore, areas where pharmaceutical companies do not stand to lose profits by providing medicines at cost).

I also admire the domestic work of Affordable Medicines Now (link), which fights to protect the generic drug market in the U.S. and the Hatch-Waxman Act, which has saved U.S. taxpayers $734 billion since it was passed in 1984 and makes it feasible for low-income and middle class families to pay for medicine.

Ascher: I believe rising health care costs are one of the critical health issues of our time. Rising costs have had a major impact in the growing number of uninsured, how health care decisions are made, and in shaping health policy, including the recent health care reform. As the burden of health care costs grows, I believe the inequalities in our health care system will be amplified, and it will become even more important for us to rise to the occasion in addressing health disparities in our community.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

Ascher and Hammond: We’ve been surprised by the level of interest from graduate students in working with these kids, and by the quality and commitment of the volunteers.  It takes courage and open-mindedness to venture through the series of locked gates and doors into a prison-like setting and believe in the humanity and potential of the people incarcerated there.   

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

Ascher: For us, it means making a life-long commitment to public service, public health, and social justice, and being part of an interdisciplinary team of people — Fellows for Life — who have made the same commitment.

Hammond:  It also means we’ve had the opportunity to learn countless “dos and don’ts” of community health project design and implementation, receiving targeted feedback and guidance along the way from the NC Schweitzer directors and even other fellows.  I don’t think any classroom can capture what we and other Fellows get to learn through doing.  We’re so thankful we’ve had this opportunity to enhance our medical and law school experiences.

Ascher and Hammond are Schweitzer Fellows in North Carolina. Click here to read more about The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Ascher and Hammond it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Ascher and Hammond’s efforts to decrease recidivisms, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

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