University of Pennsylvania course will put students in prisons to evaluate inmates’ mental health

Isaiah Denby | 

The University of Pennsylvania is implementing a new course that will send students into prisons to study and evaluate the mental health of incarcerated women.

The course, named “The Health and Mindfulness of Incarcerated Populations,” is being offered by the university’s Social Policy and Practice, or SP2, department this spring.

The idea for the program was formulated by two Penn undergraduate students, in collaboration with a 2017 Penn graduate student. The trio —Madison Dawkins, Anna Estep, and Lindsey Sawczuk — are currently in the process of crafting a syllabus, which will involve taking students from the Philadelphia campus and placing them in the 75,000 square feet Riverside Correctional Facility.

The course was inspired by an independent study that the three participated in together.

According to Dawkins, visitation to the prison will be the paramount feature of the course, however, the concept of mindfulness will also be addressed in the classroom.

Estep hopes that this course will act to be a catalyst for a viable end to mass incarceration in this country.

“The more people that are aware of this issue, the more we can get done policy-wise in order to stop mass incarceration,” Estep told the Daily Pennsylvanian.

The course is also meant to “humanize” the experience of the women who are a part of a correctional facility.

“You don’t really understand the problems with mass incarceration until you work with these people and you see just how much the system has failed them,” Estep explained. “A lot of them aren’t even guilty, they’re being held there simply because they can’t make bail.”

Penn sophomore Ayanna Coleman plans to take the course because she believes that spending time in a prison could allow her to better handle the immense amount of stress she endures attending an Ivy League institution.

“Realizing where you are and making the best of your situation, I feel that can help me as a student,” Coleman told the Daily Pennsylvanian.

According to a quote from Dean John L. Jackson Jr. on the Penn Policy and Practice website, social action isn’t one-size-fits-all.

“Impactful social activity takes different forms depending on context, subject matter, scale of engagement, and ultimate objective. Action SP2 aims to provide students with tangible examples of how to translate their goals into social interventions that matter. Through formal and informal conversations/workshops with local, national and international organizers, policymakers, advocates, and activists, students will learn the nuts-and-bolts of what it takes to make social actions concrete and successful. They will see what it looks like to convert theories about individuals and society into research-supported practices that make people’s individual lives better and our interconnected world more just,” according to Jackson Jr.

The course will be instructed by Kathleen M. Brown, a practice associate professor of nursing at Penn.

Washington Examiner