Eighty percent of prisoners already have chronic medical conditions that require longitudinal medical care — and 95 percent of all prisoners will eventually be released back into society.
This is why Emily Wang, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, believes people leaving prison require medical support tailored to their needs. Wang is the founder of the innovative Transitions Clinic, a San Francisco-based health center that provides healthcare services to individuals newly released from prison to aid their reintegration. Founded in 2006, Transitions Clinic now has 11 programs around the United States, including one in New Haven. On Tuesday, Wang spoke to more than 20 students about the health care challenges facing individuals recently released from prison and what her clinic is doing to help.
Since the cost of taking care of prisoners with chronic medical conditions is extremely high, correctional facilities have started to release ill patients early to avoid paying their medical bills, Wang said. Prisoners with health concerns have to fend for themselves once they have been discharged, she said.
Wang said recently released individuals are at a significant risk for hospitalization and death for at least three months after being discharged. Drug overdose, heart attack and suicide are the three leading causes of death for the newly discharged population, she added.
“The missing piece of the puzzle is training former prisoners to become part of the community health system,” Wang said.
Wang said Transitions Clinic tailors its centers to their settings. The New York City and San Francisco clinics include care for family members of the recently incarcerated, a policy Wang said she hopes will spread to other centers.
Wang said formerly incarcerated persons tend to be more open and comfortable speaking with people who have already navigated the unique challenges of reintegration. In her time at Transitions, she said she has learned that individuals coming out of prison place a premium on seeing a doctor to whom they can relate.
“If you design the care the way they want it, they will show up,” Wang said of formerly incarcerated individuals.
Wang said she first became interested in prisons when she visited a women’s prison to educate the inmates about sexual health during her time as a medical student at Duke University. Instead of doing an infectious disease fellowship, which was expected of her as a medical student with a focus on HIV, Wang began to work more and more on the health issues facing American prisoners.
Wang said studying prisons has taught her about much more than just health care.
“I’ve been to prisons in every country I’ve traveled to. It’s a lens onto how we treat our most vulnerable,” Wang said.
Wang is currently writing a grant for research that will examine discrimination against people with criminal records by health care providers. She is also collaborating with faculty at the Yale Law School Medical-Legal Program in an effort to create a program that would address the legal needs of the Transition Clinic’s clients.
In her role as assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, Wang has taken all of the Yale School of Medicine internal residents to prisons around New Haven to give them a sense of perspective.
Students interviewed said they appreciated the Master’s Tea, and many attendees stayed after the talk to continue conversations with Wang.
Leo Espinoza ’17 said he enjoyed hearing about Wang’s research because it relates to his interest in the prison-industrial complex.
Transitions Clinic currently has more than 2,000 patients.