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Living in the World

Community Champion: Dr. Karen Gedney

A Medical Doctor Who Found Her Calling Behind Bars

Dr. Karen Gedney

A medical doctor who found her calling behind bars, Dr. Karen Gedney always aspired to be a healer. She never imagined that she would spend 30 years in a prison in Carson City, Nevada.

After a four-year assignment for the National Health Corps, working with the incarcerated became a lifelong vocation for the internal medicine specialist. “I always wanted to work and help people who were the underdog,” Gedney recalls. Prison “is not oriented for healing or medical care; in fact, it’s the exact opposite. It’s oriented to shame and punish and make people miserable.”

Conversations and interactions with inmates affirmed her notion that destructive behavior stems from a root problem in need of care. She wanted to discern these causes: “I have a high curiosity gene and a low judgmental gene. Instead of ignoring what they did, I was curious as to why. To me, if you don’t understand why someone has a certain behavior, how as a society can we ever impact a potential change?”

Far from enervating her, the work with this difficult population energized her. “A lot of people are lost spiritually because they don’t have a purpose. You really feel fulfilled when you actually can help someone, and then if you see where it makes a significant impact on their life, it changes what you think is important. That’s purpose—to actually be part of the system that works to make things better,” she says.

Delving into the depths of her patients’ lives galvanized the internist to be a conduit of change. “It gave me the whole sense that society has thrown away this large group of individuals, but they still have qualities that we appreciate,” Gedney maintains. “What if we valued and supported those qualities instead of constantly shaming and punishing these people? Would we be better off as a society when we opened up the door?”

As a child in Germany during World War II, Gedney’s mother experienced starvation and captivity in Russian POW camps. Her mother’s recollections from that dire period resonated deeply with Gedney: “There was something about people in power positions that abused instead of protected that was really ingrained in my psyche. And I saw that in the prison system. In the prison system, if you have a captor and captive, unless you really have people who are watching and are holding people accountable, very bad things can happen.”

“I was in an odd position of power as a doctor,” she recalls, and she did her best to use that power for good. She faced tremendous impediments. In one horrifying incident, she was raped and held hostage.

“My German mother instilled in us growing up that if it gets tough, you just get tougher ... you never complain, you just survive.” Gedney’s friend Pam Pech says: “It is one thing to do a job. It is another thing to forgive, become an advocate for those who don’t always have advocacy, and even more to walk your talk.”

One of the ways that she valued and supported prisoners was by teaching life-skills classes on her own time, including inviting guest speakers, offering study materials, and leading discussion groups. Now retired, Gedney still works tirelessly towards individual and systemic reform. She maintains that prevention is imperative to keep individuals out of the system. She has volunteered for decades with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. “If you really want to do something, the front end of preventing the kids at risk from ending up in the criminal justice system—that’s where the greatest bang for the buck is.”

She underscores that the public must be aware of the hurdles that previously incarcerated individuals have when integrating back into mainstream society. She asserts, “The community has to realize that if you make it harder for these individuals to truly have a chance, they have very limited options. You are then less secure if they become desperate. The people who can truly succeed and be an asset again, you want to make that happen.”

Gedney recently wrote a memoir recounting her experiences, Thirty Years Behind Bars. She is confident it will increase awareness among readers about the need for “more holistic prison reform.”

“I really hope that the reader reads it and experiences a very different perspective of prison,” she declares. “I wanted the public to see it through different eyes, and what it would look like if you were oriented to prevent, heal, and support versus punish, harm, and get revenge.”

To learn more about Dr. Karen Gedney, visit discoverdrg.com.