Public Health in Preschools and Prisons

October 7, 2016 at 10:10 am Leave a comment

Two of our MCH Scholars attended this year’s CityMatCH Urban Maternal and Child Health Leadership Conference, held in conjunction with the Maternal and Child Health Epidemiology Conference, in Philadelphia, September 14 – 16.

By Thea Lange, BA

Mass incarceration is a national issue that threatens the health and human rights of all citizens. In the United States, one out of every three black boys is expected to be incarcerated at some point in his life. This involvement with the criminal justice system could interrupt his schooling, impact his employment and earning potential, increase his risk of disease, and disrupt his social capital. As a result, mass incarceration is disproportionately impacting, not only young black men, but their entire communities.

The majority of detainees and inmates are adults, but the criminalization of black bodies starts as early as preschool. Young black students make up only eighteen percent of preschoolers but represent almost half of all out-of-school suspensions. As black students continue through the school system, they are three times more likely than white students to be suspended. In addition, “zero-tolerance” discipline strategies quickly involve the criminal justice system for minor juvenile offenses creating a pipeline from schools to prisons.

Keynote Speaker Bryan Stevenson and Tulane MPH student Thea Lange

Keynote speaker Bryan Stevenson and Tulane MPH student Thea Lange

This year, the City MatCH/Epidemiology Conference in Philadelphia placed an emphasis on the role of public health in mitigating the structural racism embedded in our country. The conference opened with keynote speaker, Bryan Stevenson, reminding public health professionals of their role in addressing the injustices perpetrated against people of color both inside and outside the criminal justice system. As a public interest lawyer, Mr. Stevenson has dedicated his career to serving the poor, incarcerated and condemned.

In his work and in his life, Mr. Stevenson has witnessed the detrimental effects of structural racism on the health and well-being of people of color. He encouraged us, as public health leaders, to think and talk about our identities and implicit biases. He told us to stay proximate to the populations we serve and retain our cultural humility. He implored us to change the narrative around race in our country by acknowledging the injustices of the past and recognizing the terror black families live in everyday. He told us to hold onto hope because, despite the challenges, people and systems can change. And he encouraged us to be willing to do uncomfortable things because discomfort is part of the healing process. With his keynote speech, Bryan Stevenson set the tone for the rest of the conference.

With tears in my eyes and passion in my heart, I was elated to be immersed in a community that recognizes the structural racism embedded in our society and how it intersects with the public health, criminal justice and education systems. I engaged in lengthy conversations about criminalization of young black children in schools and the progression of that bias into correctional settings. I attended symposiums on how to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and integrate trauma-informed practices into school settings. I obtained insights into how to effectively communicate with legislators and influence policy on the local level. In the end, I came away from the CityMatCH conference with greater insight into how to effectively continue doing the work I am doing.

Thea Lange is a second-year MPH student, concentrating in Maternal and Child Health. She received a bachelor degree in Anthropology from Mount Holyoke College and continues to integrate her undergraduate background into her public health work. Her interests include early childhood education, criminal justice reform, and trauma-informed care.

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