University of Iowa College of Pharmacy graduate Justin Carr works in one of the most high-security prisons in the nation, a place where many inmates are serving life sentences and where some of them scoff at taking pills or improving their health.
“They don’t have much motivation to get better, but I tell them that I’m there to help them and that they can go back to their cell and be in pain, or they can listen to me and maybe I can help,” says Carr, a former Navy SEAL who was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom after the 9-11 attacks. “I don’t talk down to them, but I also don’t cut them any deals. There has to be mutual respect.”
Carr is a pharmacist at the California Department of Corrections at Salinas Valley State Prison, located in Soledad, CA, where he works with a team of medical professionals to care for roughly 3,000 inmates. For Carr, who received his PharmD in 2013, the workweek is not just about managing prison-based diabetes, Hepatitis C, and anticoagulation clinics, but also about security checks, armed guards, and occasional target practice.
And he loves every minute of it.
For Carr, ... the workweek is not just about managing prison-based diabetes, Hepatitis C, and anticoagulation clinics, but also about security checks, armed guards, and occasional target practice.
Carr, who grew up outside of Chicago, joined the Navy right out of high school. After boot camp, he went to the Annapolis Naval Academy in Maryland to train first-year “plebes” how to live and work on naval vessels. Carr enjoyed the rapport he had with the midshipmen, many of whom had no previous experience with military life. His job, he says, was to make that transition from civilian life to military life easier.
After two years in Annapolis, Carr took the rigorous physical and mental exam to become a SEAL. He made the cut and went to SEAL boot camp, (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or BUD/S for short), an experience that he sums up as “very painful.” But in addition to meeting his fellow SEAL trainees, Carr also got to know a group of documentary filmmakers who were chronicling the boot camp experience. Carr’s boot camp training eventually became a 6-part series on the Discovery Channel. The series aired in 2000.
“Even today, I have people come up to me at the prison who ask me about the documentary,” says Carr, who spent eight years in the Navy. “I also have prison guards who ask me to do target practice with them because they know I was a SEAL. I enjoy working with them and getting out of my white coat from time to time, but I can’t be away from the pharmacy and my patients for too long.”
Carr uses his military training to work with some of his patients, who he says relate to him better than more traditional medical professionals. Carr has tattoos and still works out regularly, so when inmates see him for the first time, they are curious. When Carr speaks with his patients, he intentionally keeps the science and medical talk to a minimum, he said. “I don’t use the fancy words I learned in pharmacy school with my patient population,” Carr said. “They don’t like to feel like you are talking down to them.”
While he was studying at the UI, Carr says he wasn’t set on working in a prison setting but was always open to serving non-traditional patients. Jeffrey C. Reist, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science, taught Carr the value of understanding specific populations and learning how to connect with them.
“I often review patient files so that I know what I need to say or how I need to act in order to set the right tone for a patient meeting,” says Carr. “I find that I’m much more likely to get my point across to a patient, and help them with their medical issue if I do my homework.” At some point in the future, Carr would like to work with veterans, with whom he says he has a special bond. “Being a veteran myself, I would love the opportunity to give back to fellow veterans who put their lives on the line to keep our country safe,” he says. “The bond between veterans is very tight and I find that veterans are more likely to take advice from another veteran than someone who hasn’t experienced combat. There’s a shared experience that is important.”