Jade La Rochelle (’19) (from left), Natalie Petrone (’19), and Emily Briggs (’19) designed DiverseOT for female inmates at the Suffolk County House of Correction.

When Natalie Petrone (’19) visited a segregation unit at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston, Mass., with two classmates, the experience struck close to home: Petrone has an uncle who suffers from mental illness and has been in and out of jail, sometimes with long stretches in isolation.

“It really illuminated how terrible the prison system is and what we can do better,” says Petrone, an occupational therapy doctoral student who wants to work with people with mental illnesses. “Luckily, with my career, I can do something about it.”

That something is a program intended to better prepare incarcerated individuals for reentry into society. “People are released into the community and wind up right back in [jail] because they didn’t have the support they needed,” says Petrone.

With Emily Briggs (’19) and Jade La Rochelle (’19), Petrone designed an occupational therapy program, DiverseOT, for female inmates at Suffolk. Its goal is to empower the women to take control of their lives and improve their chances for a successful transition back to their communities once released. According to the Massachusetts Department of Corrections 2016 prison population report, the 2013 three-year recidivism rate for women was 33 percent.

The jail can house close to 1,900 inmates, about 10 percent of them women, serving sentences typically under two-and-a-half years. In spring 2018, the Sargent students traveled to the jail every week for three months to work with a small group.

“We did our best to learn from the women by asking, ‘What barriers might prevent you from being successful?’” says Petrone. Then the students developed activities to help the women think about how to address those barriers. There were weekly lessons for the four to nine participants that focused on life skills, such as setting goals, developing routines, and resolving conflict. In one activity, Fear in a Bag, the women wrote their concerns on slips of paper, which were then drawn from a bag and shared with the group. When one woman expressed her worry about what to say if she came face-to-face with the people affected by her crimes, the students devised a role playing exercise to help her confront that possibility.

“We did our best to learn from the women by asking, “What barriers might prevent you from being successful?”–NATALIE PETRONE (’19)

“The two women were able to have a great exchange about what might happen,” Briggs says. “They realized that sometimes the best thing you can do is apologize, say your piece, and walk away. We talked about how you can only control your actions; you can’t control how someone else is going to act.” Briggs believes the practice helped relieve the woman’s anxiety.

To temper the intensity of these exercises, the students encouraged stretching breaks, positive affirmations (“I am calm in the face of conflict” and “I am enough just as I am”), and five- to seven-minute meditations focused on breathing or compassion. These kinds of activities gave the women a space for peace and self-reflection in the midst of what can be an otherwise oppressive environment. To track their progress, the participants created a collage of their efforts: they wrote accomplished goals on orange triangles; steps taken to help someone else with their goal on yellow triangles; and obstacles on clouds, with rays of sunshine peeking out from behind them.

“It’s a little cheesy, but this way they can see what they’re doing each week and how they can help each other,” Briggs says, noting that one of the most meaningful outcomes of the program was the participants’ initiative to devise solutions to potential post-release challenges. They helped each other to develop strategies for finding resources in the community once they’re released, and to prepare for interacting with people who may treat them like criminals. Some of the strategies were simple: taking a breath before responding to a negative comment, for example. Others were practical, such as finding professional attire through Dress for Success and other nonprofits.

DiverseOT is the latest community outreach program to emerge from Occupation-Based Practice with Groups, a Sargent College course taught by Ellen Cohn, a clinical professor of occupational therapy. The course, which includes a weekly seminar, has been part of Sargent’s curriculum since the early 1970s. In previous years, students have partnered with Boston’s Museum of Science to provide inclusive opportunities for children with autism, worked with kids who are obese or at risk for obesity to develop healthy exercise and nutrition habits, and provided services for adolescents with disabilities who are transitioning into adulthood. The DiverseOT students were supervised by Cohn and Christina Ruccio, director of women’s program services at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department.

The Suffolk work falls into an area of occupational therapy known as occupational justice, a term that acknowledges people’s right to engage in occupations or activities of daily living that promote health, well-being, and social inclusion.

Occupational therapy in the criminal justice setting is an emerging practice area, Cohn adds; the Suffolk work is Sargent’s first foray into that field.

Cohn says she’s impressed by the “passion, sensitivity, commitment, and thoughtfulness” of the students, who came up with the idea for the DiverseOT program, collaborating with Ruccio and Anne Escher, a clinical assistant professor.

Ruccio says the students’ curriculum is a strong fit with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department’s goal of providing “thoughtful, gender-specific, reentry programming to our female inmates and detainees.”

Briggs, La Rochelle, and Petrone are in the first class of doctoral students in Sargent’s Entry-Level Doctor of Occupational Therapy program, which launched in 2016.

Read more stories from Inside Sargent