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Brad Brockmann, '83: Reforming Prisons by Reforming Healthcare

By Amy Spooner
January 25, 2016

It has been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Brad Brockmann's journey of more than 2,5​00 miles became the pivotal step toward finding his life's work.

Brad Brockmann, '83Brockmann, '83, is the executive director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, which is working to reform (and shrink) the nation's vast prison system by increasing current and former prisoners' access to healthcare—particularly mental health and addiction treatment. "By criminalizing treatable diseases and not providing adequate healthcare for the poor, the U.S. created a perfect system for increasing the incarceration rate," he says. "We have put problems we don't know how to handle behind bars, where we don't have to see them." But with one in nine men and​ one in 56 women likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime, Brockmann argues it's time for the United States to get its head out of the sand.

Brockmann's first post-law-school steps included a decade of international finance at Cleary Gottlieb and Paul Weiss in New York City. But his greatest fulfillment came from pro bono cases involving low-income housing. So he left Big Law for the Queens West Development Corporation, which was then overseeing the largest mixed-use development project in the world. "I was building something concrete," says Brockmann. "It resonated in a way that finance couldn't."

Brockmann was poised to oversee New York City's low-income housing development when a hiring freeze nulled the deal. Also reeling from his father's death, he went to Mexico for a three-month respite as a volunteer. The move became a multiyear "series of adventures that blew everything I had ever known and thought wide open," he says. Brockmann worked with an AIDS hospice, did translation work for therapists, and campaigned to address human rights violations against the indigenous people of Chiapas. He began embracing liberation theology, which centers religious faith on the experiences of the poor. "In Mexico I saw the embodiment of 'Love Thy Neighbor,'" he says. "A series of negatives had led me to working in this remote place—and there I found what I wasn't even aware I was seeking."

Brockmann returned to Boston to pursue a master's of divinity degree, intent on doing international human rights work. A professor refocused him on needs closer to home; specifically, at the local jail. "We assume that because we live in a civilized society, we have a civilized prison system, but this couldn't be more untrue," Brockmann says. He began teaching emotional literacy courses in prisons and took a class on prisoners' rights at Harvard Law with Margo Schlanger, now the Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law at Michigan. He then landed a position with Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts, where client interactions convinced him that adequate healthcare within communities is paramount to fixing overcrowded prisons. Now with the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, based at Brown University's Miriam Hospital, Brockmann uses research data to lead the charge in reforming healthcare options for prisoners, former prisoners, and low-income communities. "The highest recidivism rate occurs among prisoners with co-occurring mental health and substance use issues, conditions that are mutually reinforcing and require sophisticated treatment that is generally unavailable to the poor," says Brockmann. "The Center was founded by physicians, who reached the same conclusions about the problem that I had as a civil rights attorney."

Brockmann draws hope from expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act and from the fact that those on both sides of the political aisle agree on the public health component of the nation's epidemic of incarceration. He points to a 2011 Washington Post op-ed authored by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich that touted the fiscal benefits of expanding community treatment, and encouraged states to follow Texas's example in shrinking corrections systems and using the savings to increase community-based treatment options for the mentally ill and low-level drug addicts. "The left and the right agree on what the problem is," says Brockmann. "Now we have to keep working to fix it."

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