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Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


UW studies, teaches mental health care for incarcerated people amidst recent deaths in Wisconsin

Effective mental health education for incarcerated, formerly incarcerated individuals relies on lived experiences, UW expert says
Tien Showers

Editor’s Note: This story contains mentions of suicide and addiction.

The death of 62-year-old Donald Maier Feb. 22 marks the fourth inmate death at Waupun Correctional Institute since June 2023, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. One such death was that of Dean Hoffman, who died by suicide in solitary confinement, according to WSJ. Hoffman’s daughter has since filed a lawsuit against the institute alleging WCI staff failed to provide sufficient mental health care and medication, according to WSJ.

Currently, 36.6% of incarcerated individuals in Wisconsin experience mental health-related illnesses, according to data from the Department of Corrections. At WCI, 66% of incarcerated individuals have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder.


It is important to educate others about the challenges incarcerated populations may face, Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin Incarceration and Mental Health lab Mickela Heilicher said. Specifically, education should include working with individuals who have a history of incarceration, Heilicher said.

“It is more important that someone is aware of the specific challenges that incarcerated populations are faced with — and the only people who know that are people who have been incarcerated,” Heilicher said. “People who may be working with incarcerated populations should be trained by people who have been incarcerated.”

In 2018, UW created courses at the School of Medicine and Public Health to educate nursing, medical, physician assistant and pharmacy students on the healthcare of incarcerated individuals in Wisconsin, according to a UW Department of Medicine release announcing the program.

With proper care and attention to healthcare, incarcerated individuals are more likely to be productive citizens when released, UW professor of medicine Robert Striker said in the release.

The courses aim teach students the proper way of treating individuals with a history of incarceration early on, so they can use the skills later in their careers.

One of the courses currently offered at the School of Medicine and Public Health is Medicine 809, titled “Intersection of health care and incarceration,” which covers addiction and mental health, according to the UW courses page. Students enrolled conduct research within correctional facilities and learn how to care for chronic conditions after release, according to the course description.

In addition to courses on incarceration and health, UW’s IMH lab, where Heilicher works, conducts research and collaborates with individuals in the Madison community who have lived experiences with incarceration, UW professor of psychiatry and IMH lab director Mike Koenigs said.

“They [individuals currently or formerly incarcerated] help us determine what is a meaningful question to ask, what are effective methods to get the information we seek to get, what are the kinds of services or supports that would make a difference in the lives of people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated,” Koenigs said.

The IMH lab collaborates with individuals formerly incarcerated to better understand the difficulties they encounter in accessing resources both during their time in prison and upon reentering the community, Heilicher said.

Research conducted at the IMH lab is focused on helping individuals find their self-worth and recover from the trauma they have faced, Koenigs said. The purpose IMH research is not to fix incarcerated individuals but support them throughout the healing process, Koenigs said.

“One thing that was made very clear to me early on as we’re talking to people who have this lived experience is we [incarcerated individuals] don’t see ourselves as things that need to be fixed by a system, we want opportunities for growth,” Koenigs said.

Research in the IMH lab contains perspectives from a variety of stakeholders — workers in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, formerly and currently incarcerated individuals and prison psychologists and security staff — Koenigs said.

Input from a diverse pool of stakeholders ensures IMH research is beneficial for all individuals in the criminal justice system, Koenigs said.

“Based on my personal history, there are things that I will never know about what they have gone through, and so a principle that I’m firmly committed to … is to always include people with that experience to inform what we’re doing,” Koenigs said.

Moving forward, the IMH lab hopes to see new initiatives and resources that support individuals who are currently and formerly incarcerated, Koenigs said.

For example, people currently incarcerated should have access to peer mentors who were formerly incarcerated, Koenig said.

“A lot of it boils down to peer support and having a safe space to be able to share what you’re going through,” Heilicher said.

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