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Spreading the Word on Preventive Health Care

By TBCJ Chairman Christina Melton Crain

Sixteen years ago, Earvin “Magic” Johnson was diagnosed as HIV-positive. His diagnosis brought a human face to AIDS and a greater awareness of its potential impact on society as a whole.

Christina Melton Crain
TBCJ Chairman
Wanting to make a difference, the former L.A. Lakers star established the Magic Johnson Foundation, which is dedicated to AIDS-related research. Following his retirement from professional basketball, Johnson dedicated his time and energy to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in America. The Foundation has recently teamed with Abbott Laboratories to fight HIV/AIDS through community education.

It was under this venue that Johnson visited the Darrington Unit, where he filmed a discussion he had with a group of offenders. The resultant DVD will be used to disseminate his message further into at-risk communities.

In his presentation, Johnson promoted the importance of HIV testing and spoke about preventing the acquisition or transmission of the disease. He passionately talked about the need for a better understanding of the disease and its impact on individuals and their families. Johnson also advocated the value of “spreading the word” and the use of preventive education in local communities.

The offenders Johnson addressed that day were a part of the Agency’s peer education program, “Wall Talk.” Trained to “spread the word,” these offenders help educate fellow offenders about preventive health care as it relates to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, hepatitis A, B and C, as well as diabetes and staph infections.

After careful selection of the peer educators, the Agency teaches them about the diseases and provides instruction on effective methods of teaching. These offender peer educators are more likely to have firsthand knowledge about the risk factors common among their fellow offenders, which gives them credibility concerning the issues. Being a part of the offender population, these educators are also more accessible as a constant source of information and support for other offenders.

The Health Services offender peer education program for HIV/AIDS began in 1998 as a pilot program in five (5) facilities. It has since grown to 94 programs that cover a wide array of diseases and topics. As of August 2007, the program has grown to include 702 offender peer educators, and had taught 25,974 offenders in the first eight (8) months of the year.

Even though expanded to cover other communicable diseases, the core curriculum taught by the offender peer educators is HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis. It has become, however, more adaptable, which allows units to tailor the program to meet the needs, interests and schedules of the offenders housed there. For instance, the curriculum on the female units is called “Women to Women.” It covers the same information as “Wall Talk,” but also includes topics that are female-specific, such as the female reproductive system.

Through its success, the offender peer education program continues to grow. This year, in collaboration with the Safe Prisons Program, its curriculum was expanded to allow peer educators to train offenders to avoid allowing themselves to be victimized and to emphasize that offender-on-offender assaults should not be expected or tolerated. In addition, the Windham School District has collaborated with the Health Services Division to allow offender educators to enter unit classrooms and teach students enrolled in school, which provides a great opportunity to share preventive health care education with a broader audience. The TDCJ Classification and Records Department has also recognized the value of the program by creating a full-time offender job classification for peer educators. This allows these offenders to pursue their task of educating full time, while also earning the same good time and work time credit that is afforded offenders in other jobs.

Wardens and unit administrators support the program’s growth, as they have observed positive changes in the attitude and behavior of peer educators as well as in the offenders they teach. An unanticipated benefit of the program has been the dissemination of the information outside the prison. Through letters to family members and significant others, educated offenders are sharing what they have learned, spreading the message into their homes and local communities.

Offender peer education has received national recognition for its merits in teaching preventive health care. Magic Johnson’s visit to the Darrington Unit Peer Education Program and his development of a DVD to help carry the message beyond the walls and into at-risk communities is a true indicator of the importance and success of peer education.

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