By Natalie DeMola
From PHN Issue 26, Fall 2015
My name is Natalie DeMola, and I am currently housed at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California. I am serving life without the possibility of parole, and I have been incarcerated since the age of 16. I work as a peer health educator about sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, women’s health and the Prison Rape Elimination Act and support women here when a health crisis or issue arises.
Coming to prison can be a traumatic experience, because it strips options and opportunities away from us, especially when dealing with health issues. We learn to form our own support network here to give us purpose, support and meaning in our lives. We become the community and have to fight to make this environment better and meet people’s needs.
A big day for health
On Saturday, June 6, we had a health fair to share information on healthy living and what organizations in this institution have to offer. We gave out information on specific health issues and how to get tested here for HIV and hepatitis. Outside organizations set up booths on trauma, overdose prevention and disability support. We also invited groups that can aid people in getting on their feet when released from prison.
Peer Health and the Juvenile Offenders’ Committee (JOC) hosted the health fair. I am fortunate to be part of both organizations. JOC supports people who come here at a young age and have to grow up in prison without parents. We need positive role models to help the youth make the best decisions they can to protect themselves and respect each other. Peer Health Educator Yesica Cambero, who is also a JOC member, says, “I would like to change the way people think about hepatitis C– and HIV/AIDS–diagnosed people.”
The idea for the health fair first came about when the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) met with JOC to discuss how they could work with us on overdose prevention, childhood trauma, and other issues affecting juvenile lifers. Around the same time, Peer Health was planning an event, so we decided to merge the two ideas into a health fair. When the administration heard about the ideas, they decided to make this a bigger event, because many outside organizations were interested in coming. It can sometimes be difficult to get events approved, so when we got the administration’s support, that helped push the paperwork through.
The health fair was a success—so much information was passed out, and it allowed CCWP to get to know the community within these walls. CCWP is now hoping to do a trauma and recovery class here led by outside facilitators paired up with incarcerated facilitators.
How to plan a health fair or smaller event
To plan an event like this, start with an idea and a team. About 15 incarcerated people were the core of planning the health fair. We met about once a week in the peer health office, focusing on the needs of the population. Drafting paperwork is tedious and requires a team of people who will be relentless, who are strong leaders and can keep others motivated.
Brainstorm ideas that come to mind to meet your goal, and put them into a format that can be proposed to staff. Once you find a staff member who supports your idea, ask how they think you can manifest this idea in action. In my case, we got my peer health educator supervisor to support us, along with my JOC sponsors. We also had an outside resource, CCWP, which was willing to come in and help however they could. Find organizations outside by researching groups in your area that share your concerns and writing to them.
It all starts with you. If you can see it, then it can happen. Dare to dream and make a change. “It has to start somewhere,” Robles, a peer health educator, says. “Maybe we can be the ones to make a better future.” It can be discouraging when there is no staff support or obstacles get in your way. There have been times when our events were stopped due to lack of support and/or funding. That is when people in prison must still go out and do the work they originally wanted to do, even if the event did not go through. Your event can be stopped, but your voice cannot. As long as you stand firm in what you believe in, others will join you and see your vision.