Incarceration & Access to Care: One Clinic’s Story

There are many ways our clinics work to ally ourselves with local community organizations, campaigns and efforts. Fortifying local movements through offering organizers and directly impacted people a place to rest, find some relief from emotional and physical pain is one service we can provide.  Such direct service can build movements by strengthening people's resilience. As we look into examples happening around the country and ways in which we are engaging towards these ends, we share stories in hopes of collaboration, growth and support. Here is a story of a special offered in Seattle that received inquiries and reflections that we wanted to share with others asking similar questions about how our clinics can be of greater service as we strive to grow our accessibility.

We often ask ourselves, how can our clinics be more accessible to the most marginalized people in our communities? How can acupuncture’s simple, healing powers be shared with the people who need support yet have the least resources and face giant hurdles at every step of life? In September, 2017, we ran a monthly special for former prisoners and family members dealing with loved ones who are incarcerated. We were asked by other acupuncturists, what reaction this received. Did people find it invasive to need to claim the identity of former prisoner? Was there too much stigma around this experience that people wouldn’t want to name this status to get discounted acupuncture? Would other patients be uncomfortable that we were openly talking about the prison industrial complex, mass incarceration and institutional racism at their clinic?

In fact, we found the opposite to be true. We share the details of this specific monthly special to encourage other community acupuncture clinics across the POCAverse to consider incorporating explicitly welcoming spaces for those who have been so deeply shut out of society and its resources, who are suffering from lifelong trauma.

As a prison abolitionist, I have witnessed the destruction of families, bodies, communities, minds, neighborhoods, and hearts of so many, over the past several decades. I have wanted to offer prisoner support at CAP for years, and not known exactly how to make that explicit. This Fall was the first time we've offered this special as a means toward this goal.

For outreach, I sent out mailings describing the special and community acupuncture in general, to 14 prisoner support organizations in the surrounding area, asking them to share the information with their staff, clients, families and former prisoner communities. I posted announcements on social media, our newsletter, and posted flyers up around the clinic. And we relied on our most common form of marketing: word of mouth.

We had eight patients take advantage of this special. Two of whom were brand new to CAP, and three patients who used the special 2-5 times that month. Two men and six women, with varied ages, sexualities and ethnicities participated. Patients varied how much they shared about their experience. We treated people with family members locked up as well as people who were formerly incarcerated themselves.

Several punks work at CAP and I’m the only one with a background in prisoner advocacy, activism and supporting people inside. One CAP punk described this experience like this:  “I got over my discomfort in asking and offer the special to all new patients. Three patients who identified as either formerly incarcerated people or who have family members currently in prison, were very comfortable sharing this info with me and wanted to tell me their stories. I am learning how isolating it can be to either have that experience or to have family members dealing with that experience. While some of these stories are sad, I can tell that people's hearts are made lighter by sharing and (as always) I feel really honored that they feel safe enough to share their stories with me.”

It has been noticeable that some people really want to talk about this part of their life in a way that was unexpected. Patients who had been previously been regulars, seemed grateful for the opportunity to disclose more of themselves. We have had zero instances thus far of people feeling shy or uncomfortable disclosing this info. Of course, it is difficult to say if others are not utilizing the special out of shame/distrust/fear/difficulty.

CAP believes in educating and expanding all our patients’ visions for a more just world. Our hope is that posting this special visibly and talking about this offering, encourages people interacting with our space who don’t think about their privilege, their interactions with police, the realities of the prison system to engage, resist, and organize.  We plan to offer this again in the future and hope that it will grow and evolve and be a source of ongoing support for families with loved ones locked up and formerly incarcerated people themselves.

~ Sonja Sivesind of the Community Acupuncture Project of West Seattle

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  1. Hey there, I want to clarify one line from my comments above. I re-read my reflection that “some” of the stories I heard of imprisonment were sad, and it took me awhile to remember why I would say something so inane.
    Then I remembered. One of our beloved regulars is a recovering heroin addict. She credits her time in prison for getting her sober, getting her to start meditating and putting her life back together after the addiction took so much from her. She has been so honest and upfront from the get go and has offered to share her full story. I will follow up with her and ask her if she’d be comfortable with me sharing her experiences with incarceration, sobriety and acupuncture with POCA.