About the author: Cassandra Barrett graduated from the University of Utah graduate program in genetic counseling in 2021. She holds a Ph.D. in biological engineering and specializes in neurogenetics, variant classification, and precision medicine. She has been involved with prison organizing and education since 2017 and is currently an organizer with Liberation Lit in the Kansas City area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the artist: Mike Nickles is an artist and writer from Hillsboro, Kansas. He is currently incarcerated in the Lansing Correctional Facility. Mike shares his work with the hope that more people will know the truth about the realities of incarceration and be moved to action. You can follow and connect with Mike on his new Instagram page where he shares his art and writing @inside_out_mike.
People in prison are not a group we think about much when it comes to J.E.D.I initiatives in genetic counseling. What do prisons even have to do with genetics? I have been involved in prison organizing and education for about six years now. As I have learned over time from my mentors and friends on the inside – mass incarceration impacts everything, everywhere, all the time. And that includes genetic counseling.
My hope in writing here is to get more genetic counselors thinking about the impacts the prison industrial complex has on our patients, our profession, and our own lives. So, in the spirit of subversion, I want to share some of the effects I have seen; I’m sure there are many more interfaces between the prison system and genetic counseling that I have yet to think of. I will add a disclaimer that I have never been incarcerated, nor have I had any close family who has been incarcerated.
The first and most simple connection is that (formerly) incarcerated people are our patients. In fact, they are quite likely to be people who could benefit from genetic counseling. Individuals with disabilities are massively over-represented in the prison population. In many cases people are incarcerated as a function of ableism, whether that’s a person with a neurological condition such as Huntington’s disease being arrested secondary to their symptoms, a Deaf or nonverbal person being unable to communicate with poorly trained police, or a person with disabilities being forced into poverty and therefore more contact with police. It goes without saying that BIPOC Deaf and disabled people face the greatest risk here. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has also expanded the risk of incarceration for pregnant people and their providers.
When I started my master’s program in genetic counseling I had already been involved for a while in prison education, teaching Biology 101 on a volunteer basis. I was excited to learn more about genetic counseling practices and competencies specific to counseling incarcerated patients. I quickly realized there would be no such resources forthcoming. Despite the fact that we all counsel folks who have experienced incarceration, there is next to no discussion of the needs of this population within our profession. I have only ever found a single role play and one wonderful master’s thesis relating to genetic counseling for incarcerated women (if you know of any more resources, send them my way!). In a country where over 600,000 people go to prison annually, this is an important area of cultural competency to be trained in. As a majority white cis female profession, I suspect that most of us have never considered ourselves to be at risk of incarceration. In fact, many of us may feel that we benefit from prisons. These days my prison organizing work is centered on mutual learning and relationship building, rather than teaching.
I want to be cautious about advocating that genetic counselors invest time in building out cultural competency toolkits, research projects, roleplays, courses, etc. around incarceration. While these are important things to do and should be done, I instead hope that we will focus more of our efforts on ending mass incarceration and build systems of true accountability and restorative justice. The actions of the prison system itself speak loudly in favor of its own abolition. Learning about the realities of daily life for people in prison is an important way to inform our counseling and our politics. But prisons are intended to be cut off from the rest of the world. They are often built in rural communities. It’s hard to get information in and out of a prison. I have come to see this as an intentional part of their construction. If more of us knew about the realities of prison life, it would be much more difficult to justify their continued existence. I hope that this is just a starting point that will lead any readers to seek the firsthand accounts of people most impacted by incarceration. A reading list with some good places to start is provided at the end. And I want to share with you a few things I have heard repeatedly from my incarcerated pen pals, students, and co-organizers and that have been published in peer reviewed studies of prison life. I hope you will take time to digest these stories, consider the questions they raise, and ask your own.
❖ Prison wages are shockingly low. The average national wage is 63 cents per hour. In some states, work is unpaid. In Louisiana for example, many incarcerated people still pick cotton for as little as 2 cents per hour. Many people in state prisons work to keep the prison running, support state institutions, or are contracted out by the prison as laborers. I’ve known people who built furniture for the university where I got my master’s in genetic counseling, printed flyers for the state department of health, took customer service calls for the state DMV, or made debt collection calls for private companies. Private prisons are by no means the only institutions benefitting from exploitative practices. In what ways might your institution benefit from this type of exploitation? How is your patient with an incarcerated parent going to afford genetic testing given such wages?
❖ Costs in prison are shockingly high. It will cost someone in prison 25 cents to send a character-limited e-message to a loved one and just as much for the loved one to message them back. Imagine spending a quarter for every text you send in a day. Communication services in prison are big money. Adding money to an account to make calls or for someone to buy toiletries at the commissary (a small convenience store inside the prison) will be coupled with massive “service fees”- think Ticketmaster x10. Commissary prices are massively inflated. During this summer’s heat wave, the cost of a small fan in the Kansas prisons where I live was $44 or 440 hours of work with the state wage here. By the time folks can afford a fan, it will already be winter. Prisons make big money for their contracted vendors. Does your company’s retirement investment portfolio include any prison vendors? How much money is it going to cost your patient to call their incarcerated family member for more family health history information?
❖ Prison is disgusting. One of my pen pals in Oregon asked me to tell everyone I know that he was recently served a cockroach floating in syrup for breakfast. Their kitchen has a rat infestation. In some places, shared toilets are only flushable a few times per day. You go until it is full because you and the dozens of other people on your bunk can only flush four times per day. You have to buy soap, menstrual products, deodorant, etc. out of your own pocket at high commissary costs. Not all your bunk mates will be able to afford this. With no A/C on in your dormitory, the smell alone will keep you awake all night. Lack of proper climate control is a common issue across prisons leading to mold infestations and heat/cold related deaths and illness. Is this the type of environment you would recommend for your patients? How might you feel and behave in such an environment?
❖ Prisons are cruel. Suicide watch involves being locked in a cell all by yourself with the lights on 24/7, naked except for a heavy “anti-suicide smock.” People in prison are routinely denied healthcare and may have their diagnoses withheld from them. I have had students in prison who were denied x-rays for broken bones and who were not told they had terminal cancer. Sexual assaults both by other incarcerated people and the staff meant to guard them are commonplace. Like on the outside, Deaf people and those with disabilities are disproportionately targeted. HEARD, a cross disability abolitionist organization, estimates that some 80% of Deaf people in prison are raped while incarcerated. If you are sexually assaulted and require an abortion, you will have to pay for it yourself in 16 states, if you are even allowed access to the procedure by staff. The average cost is over $500, or 793 hours of work for the average incarcerated person (although people incarcerated in women’s prisons tend to earn less than those in men’s prisons, just like on the outside). If you give birth instead, you may be shackled during the process and likely will not be allowed to hold your own baby once they are born. How do genetic counselors put patients into contact with the carceral system through mandatory reporting, documentation of medical procedures, etc.? What screening procedures, medical diets, mobility aids, genetic information, etc. are people in prison being barred from?
These stories are commonplace and routine. They do not represent failures of the system but are rather purposeful features of it. As genetic counselors we know that individual genetic conditions may be rare, but as a whole they are common. They too affect us all. Discussions about ending incarceration belong in genetic counseling because we are all impacted. I hope we can begin to equip ourselves to have those conversations through education and relationship building. I look forward to hearing what questions come up within our community and how they may shape our practice moving forward. It’s a long road, but it’s time to get started on down the path.
Pen pal programs are incredibly important! Isolation in prisons is a serious issue. For those of us on the outside, building relationships with people on the inside is essential if we are committed to this work. My pen pals are some of the coolest people I know and writing letters is a simple way to get involved. There are many organizations that run pen pal programs including Black and Pink, Liberation Lit, and Abolition Apostles.
The Visiting Room Project is a collection of stories about the realities of life without parole in Angola State Prison in Louisiana, a place with the highest concentration of individuals serving life sentences in the world.
Ear Hustle is a podcast about “the daily realities of life inside prison shared by those living it, and stories from the outside, post-incarceration.”
Resisting Invisibility is a blog published by Liberation Lit, a group of readers both inside and outside of prisons working to build a better world without cages. For full transparency, I am an organizer with Liberation Lit.
Mariame Kaba, Dean Spade, Victoria Law, and adrienne maree brown are just a few important, accessible organizers and authors whose work is incredible and essential. They have been a part of exciting initiatives including the NYC Transformative Justice Hub and Project NIA that provide resources to begin tackling difficult questions about prison abolition (If not prisons, then what? What about the rapists, the murders? How do we keep ourselves safe?). Check out their work and any/all publications by these authors. I especially recommend Prisons Make Us Safer: And 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration by Victoria Law as an introduction to the realities of the prison system in the United States.
If you are looking to do some truly deeper diving, this is the place to go for an archive of resources.
Finally, I have previously published a related article in Perspectives in Genetic Counseling. The intersection of genetic counseling and the prison industrial complex is an area I hope to continue writing about; I welcome any feedback, questions, and connections from colleagues!