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Re-searching Freedom

University of British Columbia - Faculty of Medicine

Kelly Murphy has had a difficult and challenging life: full of highs and lows, stops and starts.

The talkative and energetic Murphy grew up in a family plagued by problems. By seven, she was experimenting with drugs and alcohol. By 17, she was an IV drug-user, leading a nomadic life and moving “from man to man, country to country, city to city, drug to drug.”

Murphy’s addiction was an on-again/off-again battle that she’s struggled with ever since.

She managed to stay clean from 1998 to 2003 and, during that time, graduated from high school with honours, got scholarships to go to Douglas College and Vancouver Community College, and earned a diploma in pubic relations. She worked as a drug and alcohol counsellor while she studied to become an English teacher. Then she relapsed in 2003.

By 2005, Murphy found herself in the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women (ACCW). That’s where she also found Dr. Ruth Martin and a program that would turn her life around.

At that time, Dr. Martin – a UBC family physician and a part-time prison doctor – was introducing the ACCW Health Research Project to the female inmates. This participatory action-research project invited inmates to take part in the project as co-researchers, in collaboration with a team of UBC medical and education researchers, in order to improve their health and education.

At first Murphy resisted participating. She knew that taking part in the project meant a commitment to staying clean and, with an addict boyfriend waiting for her on the outside, she wasn’t ready to commit. However, when she found herself back inside ACCW again in early 2007, she knew she had to do something to change.

That change was Dr. Martin’s research project.

Although she had been working in prisons since 1994, Dr. Martin knew something wasn’t working. The narrow view of health care for female inmates was too limiting. She recognized the need to take a more holistic approach to addressing the healthcare issues of these women.

So she came up with the idea of a participatory health research project and asked the inmates who were interested in taking part to help her write a grant proposal. Although that initial funding application was turned down, she eventually did receive a $50,000 grant from Vancouver Foundation in 2006, which allowed the project to proceed. (She also later received another grant, the Community-Based Clinician Investigator award funded through Vancouver Foundation and UBC’s Department of Family Practice. This grant enables practicing family physicians to take time out of their medical practice to conduct research on health issues they are facing in their practice.)

Dr. Martin’s project had each female inmate who participated select an area of health research that was of interest to her. Some chose to study drug addiction, others diabetes, Crohn’s disease, etc.

Besides having to research and thoroughly understand their field of study, the women also had to write papers and present their findings. Forums were held inside the prison where they presented their work to their peers and invited professionals and interested community groups. The women were also asked to speak at the local high school; some even presented at UBC conferences.

The effect on the women who participated was transformative. They were learning new skills (research, writing, how to use PowerPoint); they were building confidence and capacity; they were feeling engaged and included; and they started to create support networks that would last even after they were released.

Today, Murphy stands as an example of this transformation. She is clean, self-aware, and a mentor to countless numbers of women who look to her for support. She works on Dr. Martin’s research team on the outside now. She helps with research surveys, ethical research submissions, and is the alumni coordinator of the ACCW research group. An aspiring writer, she also documents the events of the group in a blog.

“I really love that part,” she says. “It’s a narrative of what we’ve done.”

She also puts in an additional ten hours a week at home on the phone, supporting women who have recently left prison and are getting back on their feet.

As for her future goals, Murphy says, “One day I want to be a lawyer. Then another day I want to be a researcher, so I’m not really sure what that’s going to look like … but I don’t feel limited at all in anything I do.”

She feels certain that if she continues to do the work she is doing today, inevitably doors will continue to open for her. She has even recently re-established a relationship with her estranged 17 year-old daughter whom she describes as “a level- headed girl who has her own values and morals - something that I didn't have at her age.”

To Murphy, all these changes are just part of the journey. “I don’t see myself as victorious,” she says. “I just see myself as actually living my life.”

(Story written: 2008)

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