Karen Barney helping prisoners reintegrate into society

OT student doing research with child
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Featured Alum

After successful career at Saint Louis University,
Barney helping prisoners reintegrate into society

By Sarah Fuelleman

UW-Madison alumna Karen Barney recently retired from Saint Louis University, but that doesn’t mean her efforts to help others are coming to a close.

Barney plans to continue working to implement a new model to help prisoners reintegrate into society. The prison initiative is similar to a program Barney worked with during her time in Wisconsin in the 1970s that helped mental health patients who had been institutionalized transition to the community.

Saint Louis University has had a program to educate prisoners and prison staff for several years. The university provides books and does not charge tuition to the prisoners or the corrections workers.

“The evidence shows that with every degree a prisoner earns, there is less recidivism,” says Barney, who earned both a bachelor’s degree (1966, in occupational therapy) and master’s (1982) in higher education administration from UW-Madison. “We now need to study whether education improves their quality of life, and we think it does.”

Karen BarneyBarney served as the interim director of the prison program for nearly 2 years as Emerita faculty. She worked at Saint Louis University from 1992 to 2013, beginning as adjunct assistant professor and completing her career as tenured professor and chair of the Department of Occupational Sciences and Occupational Therapy. Her specialty was gerontology and she still has a passion for work to support elderly people for healthy aging, having published a textbook, Occupational Therapy with Aging Adults: Promoting Quality of Life through Collaborative Practice in January, 2016.

One continuing issue for people being released from prisons, explains Barney, is that they are not prepared to return to outside society.

“The quality of the incarcerated person’s life is terrible,” she says. “Most decisions are made for them. They have limited access to almost anything that we call meaningful activities (occupations).”

Preparing them to participate in the kinds of activities we all do is important, Barney continues.

The prisoners don’t have cell phones or access to internet. They lack basic life skills, job-searching skills and often work skills. And even if one had a skill or trade before prison, often the field has advanced while the person was incarcerated.

In the Saint Louis University program, Barney says the inmates undergo an assessment based on the Occupational Therapy (OT) practice framework in four areas of literacy: reading; math; health and occupational, which includes meaningful activities of life; as well as work. The inmates create an individual vision plan with short- and long-term goals, then work through the steps to reach their goals.

The program includes an OT pre-release baseline assessment, individualized coaching, small group sessions to practice interpersonal skills, then regular follow-up meetings with staff who support the former inmate as he settles into his life, helping build positive habits and routines.

“The model is a seamless one, so that once they are released, they are followed immediately. This helps instill new habits and routines for life outside prison,” Barney says.

In addition to occupational therapy, people from 20 other professions at Saint Louis University provide an inter-professional component in the program, based upon the individual needs of the program participants.

“OT should not be doing this alone,” Barney says. “Other professionals have so much expertise and can weigh in and help. Some inmates need help learning to eat a healthy diet, for example. Many lack the skills to create a resume or apply for jobs, and that help is available.

Recently, the Saint Louis University program was invited to present at the White House Inter-Agency Council, and since then has been asked to prepare a formal proposal for how this program may be expanded nationwide with three populations: incarcerated persons, veterans transitioning from the military to civilian life, and persons with disabilities.

The mission is personal as well as professional. Barney’s son, whom she adopted in the 1970s, is serving time in prison and that experience informs her work, too.

“When you visit someone in prison, it’s very strange,” she says. “The whole experience is regimented and you are treated very poorly. You are suspect because you might be bringing something in that could be used as a weapon (incarcerated people are frequently very creative in the use of simple materials). You’re screened scanned and drug tested. Even being a visitor is dehumanizing.”

Barney reports that she still is a Badger at heart.

“I loved the UW-Madison programs,” she says. “I still love the UW very much. I’m very passionate about this work with prisoners.”

“This work is truly a privilege,” adds Barney. “I’m very blessed to be in this time and this place, regardless of circumstances. I believe I was supposed to be doing this.” 
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