Bay Area doctor helps San Quentin inmates tell their childhood stories
Updated: Aug 31
To many incarcerated people in San Quentin State Prison, Dr. Jenny Espinoza, who spent seven years as the prison’s primary care provider, is still known as “Doc.” When the Kentfield resident sees them nowadays, it’s not to soothe their aches, pains and illnesses, but to help them share their stories through her nonprofit Back to the Start, whose writing workshops lead them through detailing their lives from childhood to incarceration.
Co-led by Espinoza, the former chief physician and surgeon of the California prison health care system, and incarcerated individuals, and with the help of volunteers, they hope these narratives underscore the need for investments in early childhood and family resources as well as address the United States’ systemic and racial inequities starting at birth.
After navigating COVID outbreaks and quarantines inside the prison the past few years, the nonprofit’s first cohort graduated earlier this year.
Q What made you take the job at San Quentin?
A My interest in medicine has always been grounded in underserved populations. Initially my main interest was homeless medicine and my big goal was to be the medical director of homeless clinic. I did that in San Francisco and one of my mandates as a clinic chief was outreach to homeless veterans and give them services and care. We tried to do this in the prison system since unfortunately, there are a large of number of veterans in the prison systems. … I realized there’s an extremely underserved population that I didn’t know anything about in my backyard, but that’s where I thought I could make more of an impact.
Q What was your experience there?
I wanted to learn about the prison system, about the population, but what really made the biggest impression on me were the stories from my patients that I was hearing in clinic, in particular about their childhood. I was hearing very similar stories and I just got to the point where I realized that if I have wanted to make a more fundamental difference in their lives to improve their outcome, that what I really needed was a time machine to make a difference earlier.
I started getting more and more frustrated and coming to understand that even though the work I was doing was important, I was treating symptoms of our failed policies and systems. For some years, I was looking for a way to try to make an impact on that level as my next step.
Q How did that become Back to the Start?
A In 2018-2019, I was accepted in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation fellowship, which focuses on health equity and the last year we are tasked with launching an initiative. That’s how Back to the Start ultimately came to fruition. It was an evolution of ideas. First I was thinking of trying to work in the policy space but through the program and through my work in talking to policy makers and those involved in that space, they kept talking about how these days it’s about the stories and narrative that are driving policy. The stories I heard from my patients really painted a picture that distilled these complex issues for the general public and provides a new narrative of who is in prison now. These are individuals who are really trying to help the next generation, who have done the work of trying to dig into their past to understand what led them to where they are today.
Q What has it felt like to return to the prison in this other way?
A That has also been a journey on different levels. My former patients in the yard were coming up and asking me where I have been, what’s going on, updating me on their health. I ultimately resigned from my work with the state to be able to launch this as a nonprofit and there was that break where I went from being a staff member, physician leader to being a volunteer. Sometimes I would have conversations with my co-leads like, what am I there now? And they would say, “You’re still Dr. Espinoza.” I really had to form a new relationship with the co-leads in particular, which is a working relationship. These are my peers, and if anything they have more expertise than I do and I defer to them. Similarly with the participants in the program, some of them knew me when I was a doctor, and I have seen that they see me differently now.
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