The doctors are in as Sesame Workshop tackles effects of mass incarceration

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Drs. Scott Allen and Jody Rich made a Muppet friend for a video about health and incarceration. (Photo:  Sesame Workshop)

Two doctors who focus on the relationship between incarceration and public health have teamed up with a Sesame Street Muppet to call attention to the issue.

Prompted by Sesame Workshop’s “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” initiative, the video released in October features two experts on prison health, the creator of the Sesame Workshop initiative and Alex, a Muppet with electric blue hair and an incarcerated father.

The video followed the publication of “Sesame Street Goes to Jail: Physicians Should Follow,” an article in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine. Drs. Dora Dumont, Scott Allen and Jody Rich called for physicians to pay more attention to mass incarceration and took note of Sesame Street’s involvement.

“Even Sesame Street feels the need to recognize that mass incarceration has such an impact on communities,” Allen told Current. “Doctors really need to pay more attention to the impact of mass incarceration on their patients and in their communities, even if they don’t work in prisons.”

Allen began working with prisoners after working in international health, looking for a way to serve marginalized domestic populations as well. Rich, who co-starred with him in the video, began visiting prisons to help inmates with HIV and has worked within Rhode Island’s prison health system for more than 20 years. Meanwhile, Sesame Workshop launched its bilingual initiative in 2013 to address the effect of incarceration on children, families and communities.

The medical journal wanted to add a video supplement with guests from Sesame Street, so Rich contacted Sesame Workshop. Both organizations felt the partnership would help spread their message.

Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for outreach and educational practices at Sesame Workshop, also recognized that children with incarcerated family members lacked access to resources to help them deal with the issues that inspired the initiative.

“It’s recognition of what’s happening to children who have incarcerated parents, their needs of being supported, and also their feelings of isolation and embarrassment,” she said. “We’re trying to show them that they’re not alone.”

The nonprofit organization that produces Sesame Street introduced Alex in an online initiative aimed at children in similar situations. According to a Pew Charitable Trusts study, one in every 28 children has a parent behind bars. And with more than 2 million Americans in prison, the U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate.

While Sesame Workshop looks at the issue of incarceration from a child’s perspective, the physicians see Sesame’s involvement as an opportunity to take a more holistic approach to the issue.

“We think we’re making the world safer by locking up ‘bad guys,’” Rich said. “But what we’re doing is destabilizing entire communities and generating a lot more people that have a lot less ability to function in society as productive members and end up being impoverished, being disadvantaged, and then the cycle continues.”

While the doctors agree that incarceration can be necessary for public safety, they say that imprisoned individuals often suffer from underlying health issues that have been overlooked or under-treated by health professionals. The lack of treatment further stigmatizes those issues, according to Rich. Meanwhile, even released prisoners face difficulties due to limited access to health care, contributing to a cycle of untreated problems.

“We really need to understand root causes and revamp the whole criminal justice system,” said Rich. “What we need is effective treatment. . . . We don’t need to keep locking those people up.”

Collaborating with Sesame Workshop could help raise public awareness of the issue, according to Allen, because it can appeal to academics, doctors and Sesame Street fans.

Allen’s colleague straddles those categories. When working in Rhode Island prisons in the late ’90s, Rich often imitated Sesame Street’s Count von Count when officers announced a “count” — a tally of inmates.

“Anyone working in prison knows when they hear the announcement ‘Time for the count!’ work comes to a standstill,” Allen wrote in a blog post for Sesame Workshop’s website. “And just as predictably, whenever we’d hear that announcement, Dr. Rich would assume the voice of Sesame Street’s Count von Count. ‘I count a-one . . . I count a-two . . . I count a-three . . .’”

“[N]ever in my wildest dreams did I think we would actually get to meet THE Count!” Rich wrote.

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