“Beyond the Big House: Making the Transition to Life After Prison,” a research project by public health and biology alumna Kelsey Brewster ’14, public health alumna Mina Hailemariam ’14 and public health major Paula Sorrentino ’15 has been published in VA Engage Journal, an engaged scholarship project of the VA Engage network. The group was advised by Assistant Professor of Public Health Audra Gollenberg, Ph.D.
According to its abstract, the group’s journal article “summarizes the current evidence of the burden of recidivism on society and proposes a multifaceted solution that may be adapted for a small or large prison system.”
The group was inspired to do this research project as a result of Brewster’s experience during an internship with a local AIDS non-profit organization. Through her internship, she worked with many clients who were in and out of prison, lacked access to medication, and were stuck in a pattern of ongoing imprisonment. All of the aforementioned factors contributed to the spread of disease, and prompted the design of a fundamental program to change the way former inmates transition.
The program is called Beyond the Big House, which was designed by Brewster, Hailemariam and Sorrentino to aid inmates in making the transition to life outside of prison.
“Through our research, we found a few programs here and there that were similar to what we had in mind, but there has yet to be a standard,” said Hailemariam. “We designed a program that has the potential to become the standard in correctional facilities around the United States while also decreasing government spending. This alone would more than pay for the cost of our program.”
“Our research pointed out that there is a major need to start interventions before inmates are released from prison,” said Sorrentino. “We designed a program that provides education within the prison and puts the individuals in contact with a case manager to plan their release, as well as offer a variety of services up to two years post-release.”
The group decided to participate in the Shenandoah University Projects & Research (SUpr) Summit, an opportunity offered by the university to students of all majors to showcase their work, including current or past projects, completed or in progress.
“SUpr Summit was a way for us to gain the valuable experience of selling our product to a board of community members,” said Hailemariam. “Through the course of SUpr, I think we really gained an appreciation for the impact that a program like ours could have on communities.”
“SUpr Summit was kind of a shock for us because the judges were so receptive to our idea,” said Sorrentino. “Up until that point, we really hadn’t shared the idea with anyone, so for us to hear such praise was astonishing. The problem of recidivism is known by many, but to really see how our program could have a direct impact fueled our drive to move forward.”
“Beyond the Big House, Making the Transition to Life After Prison” won the 2014 SUpr Award for Best Group Project. The students were so inspired by the opportunity to present their work that they submitted their research to VA Engage and were subsequently published.
“We want to express our sincerest gratitude for Dr. Gollenberg,” said Brewster. “She was the fuel that helped to light the fire within us. Our time in the public health program has been incredible. During our time in her courses, we came to the realization that nothing is impossible when you set your mind to it.”