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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Martoma

The Academic Consortium on Criminal Justice Health x KidsMates

By Joshua Martoma, Age 17

ACCJH KidsMates Martoma "Joshua Martoma"
"One challenge of the field is that camps have emerged that are binary: either you are considering conditions of confinement or you are thinking about abolition/decarceration. ACCJH has tried to position itself as relevant to both of these positions..." --- Dr. Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein

Our next summer interview in KidsMates' academic research series is with Dr. Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, an accomplished criminal justice and public health expert. An Associate Professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences at Duke University, Lauren has established herself as a leading researcher dedicated to examining the impacts of criminal legal systems on individuals, families, and communities. Lauren primarily focuses on health research, training, and care for justice-involved populations.

Lauren also chairs The Academic Consortium on Criminal Justice Health (ACCJH), an organization dedicated to advancing healthcare for individuals and populations within the criminal justice system. More recently, Lauren co-founded the COVID Prison Project. This groundbreaking initiative has become a national reference for tracking and analyzing COVID testing, cases, and deaths in prison systems across the United States. This project has played a crucial role in shedding light on incarcerated individuals' health challenges and has informed meaningful policy discussions.

Today's interview explores how Dr. Brinkley-Rubinstein discovered her passion for social justice research, what projects she's tackling now, and how her perspective has changed. For those interested in this space, we can probably all agree that there is insufficient attention and resources. A 2023 study in the JAMA Open Network found that "a very low number of projects about incarceration have historically been funded at the NIH, DOJ, and NSF." That's why it's so vital that we support academic researchers working in this space and encourage them to identify and advocate for changes that help us all.

For those of us who have been directly impacted by incarceration or parental incarceration, Lauren's work provides a focal point through which our lived experiences can be articulated, shared, and understood. Without further delay, let's turn our attention to Lauren and see what insights she has for us today.

Joshua: I can’t wait to get started! Why don’t you tell us your story related to the criminal justice system and your work with ACCJH, healthcare research on incarceration, and parental incarceration?

Lauren: I came to this work via a sort of twisted path. I have an undergraduate degree in sociology with a minor in criminology. I was the first person in my family to go to college, so I went to a local school and figured I would become an FBI agent. A year after I graduated, I moved to New York City and while there I worked at the Vera Institute of Justice on a project that investigated the ethics of enrolling foster care children in HIV drug clinical trials. That is where I began to see the intersections between systems: foster care, carceral, health. Subsequently, I pursued a PhD in Community Psychology, which is intentionally intersectional, and it led me to think about incarceration as a cross cutting factor that impacts the health of people, families, and communities. When I stepped into my role of Board Chair at ACCJH this year, part of my vision was really to bring this intersectional/multi-level focus into the priorities of the organization.

Joshua: That is a unique backstory, leading me to my next question - what is the most critical thing ACCJH or you have done in the last year to help children or families facing incarceration?

Lauren: ACCJH was started over fifteen years ago with a very different membership makeup. Important to our mission is still improving access and quality of healthcare to people who are incarcerated. But our membership now includes folks who are working on a broader array of issues that include policy, advocacy, social science and who come from a very diverse set of different disciplines and experiences, which includes thinking both about children who are incarcerated and the collateral impact of the criminal legal system on children and families.

Joshua: It is fantastic to hear how ACCJH has expanded beyond its original roots! It is important to remember that the children and parents left behind also have to deal with the adversities of incarceration. I love how your organization has evolved. My next question is, what don't people understand about ACCJH or your research projects that you want them to know?

Lauren: I think one of the most salient challenges of the field is that camps have emerged that people tend to think of as binary: either you are considering only improvement of conditions of confinement or you are thinking about abolition/decarceration. ACCJH has tried to position itself as relevant to and understanding both of these positions and tries to underscore the importance of both positions.

Joshua: That’s a great point! Someone has to understand both perspectives so that we can understand everything that’s happening and where to prioritize our resources. Has this multifaceted understanding given you any insights you want the world to know about children or families dealing with incarceration?

Lauren: Most people who think about incarceration tend to believe that it only affects the [incarcerated] person and after incarceration is over the impact is gone. I think in order to understand the scope of harm that incarceration inflicts, you have to understand that the criminal legal system (all of its intercepts) has collateral impacts that last both over the life course and ripple throughout families and communities.

Joshua: That is so true. Incarceration has impacts far beyond just a given prison/jail sentence. Do you have any tip(s) you would provide children or families coping with adversity?

Lauren: I’m not sure I have good advice here!

Joshua: Fair enough. As we wrap up the interview, my last question is what or who has most influenced your thoughts on incarceration and why? Also, do you have any final advice about making a difference?

Lauren: I think early on I looked up to a lot of the researchers that I now call friends such as Jody Rich, Emily Wang, and Brie Williams. More recently my work has been influenced by revolutionary thinkers who challenge the system quo such as Dorothy Roberts, Christina Beltran, etc. I think for researchers (like me) it's good to remember that big change is hard but still worth it, and in order for them (us) to keep going it's important to celebrate small wins.

Joshua: Yes, that’s something we believe strongly at KidsMates - celebrate the wins, big and small! You have made significant contributions to academia and public health policy throughout your career. Your research and advocacy have created positive change and improved the health and well-being of justice-involved populations. I am so glad I had the opportunity to share your experiences and tips with our readers today! Thanks, Lauren.

For anyone interested, you can learn more about Lauren’s academic work here.


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