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Fourth TRI-Lab sets sights on improving prisoner health

Thirty-seven undergraduates submitted applications to engage with variety of issues affecting prisoner health

The next iteration of the TRI-Lab, titled “Designing Education for Better Prisoner and Community Health,” will explore health issues affecting incarcerated individuals and seek to develop concrete interventions to address these issues, said Bradley Brockmann, executive director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Miriam Hospital and the lead facilitator of the TRI-Lab.

This marks the fourth iteration of the TRI-Lab, an initiative run by the Swearer Center for Public Service that brings together students, faculty members and community partners to examine and develop solutions to social issues. This TRI-Lab, whose title stems from the initiative’s three-pronged mission — teaching, research and innovation — will require participants to enroll in a course in spring 2016, Brockmann said.

Participants will aim to develop prototypes over the summer and introduce final products in the fall, said Brockmann, who is a civil rights attorney and has taught courses at Brown on prisoner health care and rights.

Brockmann will lead the course in conjunction with Jennifer Clarke, staff physician at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections and an associate professor of medicine, obstetrics and gynecology at the Alpert Medical School, and Ian Gonsher, lecturer of engineering.

Applications for the TRI-Lab were due Nov. 2. The Swearer Center received 37 applications for 20 undergraduate positions in the program, with the applicants spanning all four years and a spectrum of concentrations, Brockmann said. Four first-years, 11 sophomores, 13 juniors and nine seniors applied, he wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald.

“We are looking for a broad cohort with different life experiences and different academic backgrounds,” said Allen Hance, director of engaged scholarship at the Swearer Center. “We have found that the best labs are ones in which you have a variety of disciplinary perspectives coming to bear on a particular challenge.”

This group of students will engage with the variety of issues affecting prisoner health, including race, poverty, drug dependence, mental illness and systemic barriers to societal reentry, Brockmann said. “When (prisoners) are released, health care needs are part of a broad spectrum of competing reentry and survival needs that often relegate health to the backburner,” he said.

The undergraduate TRI-Lab participants will work alongside medical students, community stakeholders and incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals. Teams of students will design projects and present them to juries of community members for feedback, Brockmann said, adding that he hopes one of the teams conceives of a project that deals with nutrition and shopping in a food desert.

The students will strive to develop “interventions” to educate prisoners on issues such as  getting colonoscopies and navigating the health care system.

The students’ “interventions” — which could take the form of an app, video or website — will be developed through human centered-design, Gonsher said.

“Human-centered design is based on a process where you go to try to understand a problem, make prototypes and critically analyze those prototypes,” he said. “We use conversation and storytelling to communicate with users and use their insights to design solutions.”

Many of the major themes in the TRI-Lab’s curriculum are ones first-year students confronted this summer while reading Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” as part of the University’s First Readings program. “With ‘The New Jim Crow’ being the First Reading this year, it seemed like a particularly good time for this course to be offered as a TRI-Lab,” Hance said.

“Incarceration is an issue students are deeply interested in from the First Readings and from courses they are taking, and I think it is an issue that Providence is wrestling with,” said Kate Trimble, acting director of the Swearer Center.

This TRI-Lab has been in development for four years: The Swearer Center gave Brockmann a $5,000 planning grant nearly two-and-a-half years ago, Hance said. Brockmann used the grant to conduct outreach and “narrow down” the topic of prisoner health, he added.

“The topic bubbles up organically,” Trimble said. “When we think about which issues we tackle, we’re listening to a number of places. Some of it is student interest; some of it is faculty expertise; some of it is whether the topic matters to the community.”

“I always conceived of it as an incredible research project for us — we just needed the money for it,” Brockmann said. “We still need the money,” he added, noting that additional funding will be needed to support the students and community members who will work on prototypes this summer.

While past TRI-Labs have spanned two semesters, the course component of this iteration will be confined to the spring 2016 semester. “One real challenge that we’ve found is students would love to do a year-long, two-semester course sequence, but it’s very difficult to fit into a busy schedule with concentration requirements,” Hance said. “So what we’re trying is a one-semester TRI-Lab and then following it with summer opportunities.”

Brockmann said he hopes this TRI-Lab will be the first step toward a national dialogue on prisoner health. “In my dreams, if this works, I would propose to colleagues around the country to do a similar effort so we can build a whole health library for use by prisoners,” he said.

“This is extraordinarily ambitious, and if we don’t quite make it, there will be a lot learned in the process,” he added. “Whether or not we have finished prototypes at the end of the summer, we will be making a real dent one way or another.”


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