Thea Lange ’13 Works at Rikers

By Charlotte Kugler ’14

While looking for an internship position last summer, anthropology major Thea Lange '13 said she was willing to work anywhere to learn more about and get involved with the U.S. health care system. A deputy commissioner with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene took her at her word.

Lange was asssigned to Rikers Island, home to NYC’s largest prison complex, as well as the Division of Transitional Heath Care Coordination (THCC), a subdivision of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that ensures HIV-positive inmates are able to continue their treatment post-release. Having previously worked with HIV-positive people while studying abroad, Lange was a desirable candidate for the internship.

“I was excited about the prospect of working directly with patients and helping them access health care in their neighborhoods,” says Lange, who was supported in her work by a UAF grant from the College. “Inmates represent an underserved population struggling to combat the HIV epidemic, and I was enthusiastic to begin working with them.”

On Rikers Island, Lange worked as a peer health educator in collaboration with another intern to design and implement a health course for male inmates between the ages of 16 and 18. They covered topics such as nutrition and exercise, perceptions of masculinity, mental health, and sexuality, and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections.

She realized, however, that teaching young men healthy sexual practices was only part of combating the spread of HIV in their neighborhoods; their partners on the outside also needed access to sexual health information. So, using packets of information for both men and women visitors, she organized a sexual health awareness campaign in the visitors’ center of the prison.

“The entire experience was both interesting and memorable because I learned something new every day,” Lange says. “Navigating the intersections between the Department of Health, Department of Corrections, and Department of Education helped me realize how the collaboration of multiple agencies is necessary to provide comprehensive health services.”

She also learned about the inmates themselves and had many meaningful conversations with them, which gave her insight into the circumstances that led to their incarceration and into what would be waiting for them upon their release.

“Through working with these young adults, I realized that I don’t need to go abroad to find health care inequalities,” says Lange. “I don’t even need to leave my hometown.”

Studying anthropology at Mount Holyoke has taught Lange how to think critically about public health interventions and given her alternative perspectives on the health issues of the underserved in the United States and abroad. She has focused the majority of her studies on critical analysis of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in foreign countries, but she knows HIV is still present in many communities in the United States. She plans to attend medical school to pursue a specialty in infectious disease, but first she wants to increase her experience working with underserved populations.

“I’m looking forward to working in communities where I can learn from listening to people and provide them with support to obtain the health care they need.”