Penn Senior Kriya Patel to Help Incarcerated Women Access Health Care

This is the second in a series of features introducing the University of Pennsylvania’s 2016 President’s Engagement Prize winners. Click here for the first, a feature about senior Vaishak Kumar’s project launching an agriculture extension project in India.

In most cases, a woman receives just five days of medication when she’s discharged from Riverside Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. She probably doesn’t have health insurance or any form of identification. But Kriya Patel, a University of Pennsylvania senior and one of three 2016 President’s Engagement Prize winners, hopes to change that by spending a year working with incarcerated women on their reentry into society, specifically getting them IDs and access to health care.

“At Riverside right now, there are 622 women, but within the past 12 months 5,200 different women have been released,” Patel said. “With a team of three people, we would hopefully be able to process 18 applications a day, which, within a year, would mean that we would be able to help 4,050 women receive Medicaid.”

The idea originated after Patel, a Biological Basis of Behavior major, took a class taught by Kathleen Brown, practice associate professor in Penn’s School of Nursing, called “Women and Incarceration.” The students spent the semester learning about the city’s prison system and visiting Riverside one day a week to provide interactive health workshops to prisoners.

“I’ve been doing it for many years,” said Brown, who will mentor Patel for the project’s duration. “It’s a population that I have compassion for; many of them are forgotten people. You can see in the jail data, they get arrested repeatedly for the same or similar offenses. Just locking them up, then releasing them, there are too many barriers for them to create a new crime-free life.”

The President’s Engagement Prizes, the largest of their kind in higher education, provide undergraduate winners with as much as $100,000 to support project implementation and $50,000 for living expenses. The Prizes are awarded competitively to seniors to develop and implement promising local, national or global engagement projects during the year after graduation. 

With her Prize, Patel said she wants to ease the burden on these women.

“There’s often this misconception that people in prison are bad people who had their chance,” she said. “In reality, it’s more often circumstances and lack of opportunity and intervention.”

Patel and Brown are currently in the planning phase for the project, which officially kicks off in July. They’re right now looking for two employees to hire — ideally people who have clearly demonstrated they’ve rebuilt their lives post-incarceration and who can act as role models for the women. They’re also meeting with the Pennsylvania Prison Society to create educational sessions they will employ to teach prisoners about Medicaid, and with the County Assistance Office to ensure swift approval of these applications.

The thought process behind the project goes something like this: Provide the women with solid, feasible health-care options, and improvement to other aspects of their lives will follow. “You can’t start talking about jobs and developing a new life if you’re not physically and mentally healthy,” Brown said. “You have to be those things first. That’s pretty clear.”

And, she added, the type and level of motivation given to the women while they’re still incarcerated matters.

“In jail, we do a lot of screening. We find people who have diabetes and they didn’t know they had it, people who have HIV and they didn’t know they had it. We diagnose it, we treat it and we try to encourage them to get care when they leave,” Brown explained. “They don’t do it because they don’t have access and they don’t know how to get access.”

Success in this area could trickle down to their offspring, too. On average, each prisoner at Riverside has two children, and, given Patel’s number goal, that theoretically equals assistance for 12,150 people: 4,050 women and their 8,100 children.

Though Patel hasn’t yet solidified her long-term career plans, she knows for certain she wants to work with just such a population. The Prize moves her one step further in that direction. “I really wanted this for these women, and, when I found out that I got it, I was just so excited,” she said. “I want this so badly for them.”

Launched by Penn President Amy Gutmann in 2015, the President’s Engagement Prizes are supported by Trustee Judith Bollinger and William G. Bollinger, Trustee Lee Spelman Doty and George E. Doty Jr. and Emeritus Trustee James S. Riepe and Gail Petty Riepe.

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