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An Interview with Ernest Kirkwood, Transitions Clinic Network Digital Storytelling Workshop Participant

STORYCENTER Blog

We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

An Interview with Ernest Kirkwood, Transitions Clinic Network Digital Storytelling Workshop Participant

Ary Smith

Editor’s Note: Transitions Clinic provides intensive case management support and comprehensive health care services to formerly incarcerated women and men. StoryCenter is working with the Transitions Clinic Network and City College of San Francisco on an online curriculum development project, which trains formerly incarcerated women and men on skills to become Community Health Workers at clinics like Transitions. The online courses feature digital stories by women and men, talking about their experiences with prison and the impacts of prison on their health. Ernest Kirkwood created his digital story last fall, as part of this project. During the workshop, Tim Berthold with City College of San Francisco interviewed participants; below is a partial transcript of that interview. 

Tim: What were the health impacts for you, of being in prison?

Ernest: Well, I think in coming out, that my health was basically age appropriate. I'm 71 years of age, so I am concerned with arthritis. I've always had a bad back. Also, I discovered, a couple of years before I was released, that I had contracted hepatitis C, that I was not aware of and nor did I know the significance of that diagnosis. Prison healthcare is very sketchy. They have a saying that “if you show up and you're not bleeding, you're not needing.” It's very little prevention or maintenance, it's just, you know, you can get attention when you collapse. That's basically it. 

Tim: Can you compare that a little bit to what it has been like for you to be a patient at the Transitions Clinic? How would you rate the quality of care that you've received?

Ernest: Well, my quality of care since I've been out is as different as night and day. They have people there that are more understanding and more willing to address the issues. You come in and you have health concerns and they become their concerns and they address them. There are some clinics where their first concern is coverage. Do you have coverage?...Who's going to pay the bills? The priority of Transitions is what is in front of them and what can they do for the patient. 

Physically, I got my blood pressure under control. I was given a sensible diet and a sensible exercise regimen that I could do without a whole lot of work, which worked very well for me and I'm very grateful for that. But, even more importantly, is that people speak of health, physical health with diabetes and so forth and so on, but very few people mention emotional health. That was a more serious concern with me. I did 29 years in prison, and I had great emotional concerns in not only dealing with myself and my issues but also the emotional issues of coming out and re-acclimating myself back into society...(Transitions) made it possible for me to meet weekly with a social worker, and that has been really a major difference. I can sit down and talk with someone about what it is I'm concerned with and what I'm bothered with. 

Tim: What was it like participating in the Digital Story Workshop and having a chance to tell part of your story?

Ernest: …I find that the more that I talk about my experiences and the more I talk about my past, the better understanding I get of it and the more control that I have of it. The technical part of it was very interesting, and I was really kind of amazed at how the technical part of it was approached. It was just so much cooperation and about what I wanted. How did I want it? What did I want to say? What part of it did I want this to be? That really placed me at ease and I enjoyed the whole experience...It's very meaningful for people that are going into community health work to understand more clearly the impact that they have on people that they serve and how greatly they are appreciated.

Tim: Do you feel like it's an important thing for you to share your story with other people who have stories of incarceration? 

Ernest: I feel that if a person is sincere and doing the work that he or she is supposed to be doing, then they can tell their story anywhere, anytime, with no restrictions. There's nothing that I've done in the past that I won't talk about. Not that I'm proud of it or anything like that, it's just that it is a part of my journey, and the more that I speak on that the better I get at speaking on it, and the more articulate I become. There's a lot to be gained from someone else's experience, so if I can share my journey and someone can identify with that and possibly be encouraged or enlightened to try and do the work that they need to do, then that's great. 

Mr. Kirkwood has successfully entered his third year of transition and is on staff with HealthRIGHT360, at Walden House. He attends evening photography classes at City College of San Francisco and will be working on a photography project for the Health Education Department’s new edition of the textbook, Foundations for Community Health Workers (forthcoming, 2014). As a recent appointee to the Reentry Council of San Francisco, Mr. Kirkwood is "taking it slow in this new arena, but remaining focused and determined to make a difference."