Dr. Patrick Wilson is an Associate Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Mailman. ODCI sat down with him to learn more about his work on incarceration and health and identify ways Mailman students can get involved.
Can you tell us about your current project?
I am currently working on a project on incarceration and HIV. I have a grant with investigator Kate Elkington at the HIV Center. We are looking at how to improve sexual health and reducing substance use among youth involved with the justice system. We are collaborating with the Brooklyn Justice Initiative to create an alternative sentencing program. We are creating a program that will help these teenagers focus on their health—reducing substance use and thinking about their sexual health.
Our program is framed through this critical consciousness and empowerment lens. We try to promote readiness for engaging healthy behaviors by laying the foundation that these teenagers are important and that they can be empowered to take control. We look at social media and other popular advertisements and critically analyze the implicit and hidden meanings. We have discussions about how media can potentially be racist, homophobic, or biased. We help them deconstruct these images to be more aware of how these subtle messages impact their lives, infiltrate the public’s perception of young people like them, and what they can do to change that.
Our program is helping the teenagers to believe that they have the capacity to make change. The program is informing the teenagers that creating change can take many forms: protesting an injustice, writing a letter to their representative, creating social activism. I believe that when you empower someone to know that they can make change in their community, they can translate that to their own self-worth. They will then start to make changes to improve their well-being by reducing substance abuse or thinking about their sexual health.
Our nation’s current approach to mass incarceration is not working. Many parts of the country focus on job readiness training and education but very few look at health outcomes. I believe it is important to treat and help them manage those issues that may have gotten them involved in the first place.
What led you to the work in HIV and incarceration?
Being a gay man, I saw in the 1990s the impact HIV had on gay men. It scared and moved me to want to focus on it as a community issue. But as I learned about HIV and the factors related to having HIV, I realized it’s much bigger than individual behavior. I began to look broader at things like substance abuse, mental health, poverty, trauma, police violence. All of these things really do shape people’s vulnerability to so many health outcomes like HIV. I really expanded my lens and now look at more of the structural and social factors relating to HIV.
How do you think Mailman students can learn more about incarceration and health? What can our students do?
Go to a courthouse and really observe and record the experience. What was it like to have the police take you through the metal detectors? What kind of resources are available in the room or building? What were the conditions of the bathrooms? What issues are at play as it relates to dynamics of race and class?
Volunteer or do your practicum with Dr. Bob Fullilove and Dr. Hopper at the Bard Initiative. I know that many of our students have worked with them and found those experiences to be very transformative.
Get involved with churches that have programs that focus on incarcerated folks and health. We don’t talk much about them, but there are plenty of churches with these types of programs.
Watch the Netflix documentary, 13th. This documentary opened my eyes to things that I didn’t know before. Our nation does not just incarcerate people in horrific ways; Our nation also has an economic system that relies on incarcerated individuals. That is something that gives us an idea of the magnitude of the problem, and how much work and effort it will take to solve it.