In prison, the average cost of a doctor’s visit is $3. The average wage of an incarcerated worker, however, is a mere two cents per hour. That means in order for someone to access basic health needs while in prison, they have to work 150 hours first. Even the best paid workers, who make 20 cents per hour, still have to work 15 hours to get medical help. If that doesn’t dissuade incarcerated people from exercising their medical rights, a long list of other reasons--including provider negligence, ineffective medications, and a resistance to the money-making scheme between institutions and Big Pharma--will. As an antidote to this, VOTE began a partnership with the Tulane School of Medicine in 2015. Together we established the Formerly Incarcerated Transitions (FIT) Clinic, a place where returning citizens can go to get access to quality, affordable and safe medical treatment. Now, five years later, we’ve brought two community health workers, Danielle Metz and Haki Sekou, on board. As formerly incarcerated leaders, both have experienced these medical injustices firsthand, and as such have big visions for where VOTE and Tulane will be taking this work. Check out what they have to say.
VOTE: Let's start with an easy one. How did you come into the VOTE family?
Haki Sekou (HS): Norris was my motivating factor in becoming involved. The major thing I like about VOTE is the fight we got. If there’s an issue, we address it, and I like that more than anything else. It’s not just one person being recognized, it’s an organization being reckoned with.
Danielle Metz (DM): I’ve been a VOTE member since I came home in 2016. My favorite memory was when we went to Orlando [for the FICPFM gathering] and knocked on formerly incarcerated people’s doors to deliver the message that they could vote.
VOTE: As our community health workers, how do you define health?
DM: Health is defined as mind, body and soul. You have to be physically healthy, mentally prepared, and spiritually prepared.
VOTE: Tell us about accessing medical care on the inside.
HS: It was about who you knew. If the doctor knew you and liked you, you got services. Then people started getting cancers and other illnesses, but they were given a huge stack of pills, so a lot of people wouldn’t take their medication. They didn’t trust the doctors unless they knew them. A lot of people also didn’t take them because they thought it was all about the dollar--about people making capital off of them taking the pills.
DM: I watched about 10 women die in prison, or a week after they came home. They would have cervical cancer or something like that but [the doctors] thought it was fibroids. So a lot of stuff went untreated. You know you’re looking forward to your next life, your freedom, and you never get to see it because of the neglect of the system.”
VOTE: That’s horrific, and not surprising. So now that you are both home and in your role as community health workers with VOTE, how are you helping FIP on the outside?
DM: We are the liaison between a physician and a person coming back into society. We are the most trusted person because when you’re coming out, because of the inadequate care you received while in prison, it’s kind of hard to trust anyone. But when we tell them that we’ve been to prison, too, it breaks down that barrier and makes them want to open up. Sometimes I go to the court house. Sometimes I stand on the corner in areas where I know people go, and I explain to them what we offer. I let them know we have dental, and a lot of people want to get their teeth done. Now we’re even enrolling people on the inside.
HS: I also go to the people--to parole board hearings, to the institution--we’re just out in the community. People can come to us to talk about things that they wouldn’t talk about with their doctors. It’s a bond. So like Danielle said, we’re the buffer zone between the doctors and the formerly incarcerated community. We ask the doctors the questions that they may not know how to ask.
VOTE: And if they tell you that they don’t trust or feel comfortable going to the doctor, how do you approach that?
HS: Keep working with the person, meeting them where they’re at. Accepting them where they’re at, moving at their pace, taking the time and patience to be with them. You’ll win their trust, most of the time. You have to really care about people to be in this role.
DM: Yeah, sometimes I even have to go to their houses and bring them to the appointment.
VOTE: That’s right in line with one of our main expressions: help is what I need, not what you want to give me. So we’re very excited to build out this part of our work! What is your overall goal?
DM: We want everyone coming out of prison to receive adequate healthcare--Medicaid, Medicare, and any kind of healthcare that they can because health is very important. And we also want to reduce the stigma. We are people who need access to healthcare. Don’t define us as ‘inmates’ or ‘ex-offenders’, we’re a patient. As so whatever we need, we should get adequate attention.
HS: I’ve heard of some doctors who don’t treat people the same once they find out they are such and such [i.e. formerly incarcerated]. I want to start by investigating who are these doctors? Where are they practicing?
VOTE: Yes, we know that Louisiana has a long and embarrassing history of malpractice within facilities.
DM: Right and that’s why we need to take these issues into legislation. When we’re sitting in meetings and telling people that they’re still practicing on the inside with a suspended [medical] license, people are like ‘huh?’ I never knew that.’ So we have to expose it for what it is, and that way people can get the proper healthcare that they need.
VOTE: Yes! And that’s where our organizing and policy teams come in. Let’s talk about mental health for a minute. How is that being treated and what do you all intend to do about it?
HS: You know a lot of mental institutions shut down, and they just took the baggage from that and sent it straight into the [prison].
DM: Right, instead of getting it treated. And, with my incarceration, when you send a 26-year-old person to three life sentences plus 20 years in prison, I think right hten and there it should be mandated that I see some kind of psychiatrist, you know talk to somebody once a week, twice a week if possible. But there’s no one there to help you with those type of problems.
HS: Yeah and when you go to the Parole and Pardon Board, they ask you about a job, and if you have a place to live, but they never mention the syndromes, the post-[incarceration] syndromes. You go through 41 years of prison, you see a man killed...that’s still on your head, but they act like nothing happened. So they want you to be ‘normal’ in an abnormal environment.
VOTE: So it goes without saying that this work, these experiences, are very challenging. What is something you like to do to take care of yourself?
DM: I like to read because it’s like a great escape. I can travel anywhere in the world through a book when I can’t even leave this state because I’m on probation. And that’s what I used to do on the inside, too. Right now I’m reading Hope Against Hope against the charter school system takeover here in Louisiana.
HS: I’m reading Prison Without Walls, which is about the psychological effects of prison, drugs, money. It’s a holistic approach to psychology. I also like exercise. I do a whole routine, work the whole body Monday through Friday, then I take the weekend off. As far as eating healthy I like fruits, vegetables, fish, chicken.
VOTE: Ok, now let’s go way into the future. Can we build a world without prisons?
HS: I don’t think prison as we know it today will last forever. I do think they will have some form of corrections, enough to keep order.
DM: I was just reading this morning that 500 people got clemency because they did a sentencing reclassification. Where this happened, they don’t even get time anymore for marijuana and I was like ‘that’s amazing.’ Because you have a lot of people in prison for a lengthy time for petty crime. So if there is going to be a world without prison, I hope it don’t take another 400 years. They say ‘once upon a time,’ meaning right now. You know, now is the time.
VOTE: Indeed it is! To close us out, tell us when you feel the most free?
DM: I feel the most free when I get up in the morning, I’m lying in my bed and I see that ceiling fan going around and around and around and I’m like ‘I’m here.’ I can jump in the car and just go where I want to go. I’m also in school and I love going to school. It gives me a sense of belonging, a sense of being empowered that I can do it, even at this age.
HS: I feel the most free when I go to jummah...at the mosque. I’m in prayer...I’m focused on the Creator. I think I’m the most free at that point than any other time.
The FIT Clinic is located at 2222 Simon Bolivar Ave, New Orleans, LA. Walk-ins are welcome, but appointments can be made at 504-475-3784. Those without insurance are also welcome. Learn more here.