Author Archives: Elisabeth Powelson

Elisabeth Powelson

About Elisabeth Powelson

Elisabeth is a Human Rights Center Fellow and a grad student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. She is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, helping to lay the groundwork for a prison-based syringe exchange and condom-distribution project.

Some case studies from behind closed bars


As much as I love research, my real “calling” is medicine. One of my most frustrating experiences to date has been dealing with and observing the problems with health care in the prison. For one thing, Malaysia may not have as much access to medical care  as the United States, but it has enough that the prisoners should be getting decent care. For another it’s a violation of these people’s human rights that they aren’t getting basic health care.  So far, there have been a few particularly painful (sometimes literally for the patient) incidents. To start with, the whole set … Continue reading

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Nobody has it all…

A sign in a plantation gives you an idea how serious they are about punishment!

So after a few weeks and a lot of phone calls and emails, I finally got back into the prison to do my final interviews. One of the most striking parts of this project has been the contrast here between some of the amazingly progressive policies that put the U.S. prison system to shame and some of the policies that seem to me truly inhumane. I think Americans often have a preconceived notion that we are ALWAYS more progressive than the “developing” world.   Sitting in the methadone dispensing room, which is also used for research, I am thrilled with … Continue reading

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A little snag…

Front door of Malaysian prison.

My project hit a snag: I had 10 interviews scheduled and was supposed to be in the prison for three straight days. On the first day of interviewing, we went in and interviewed our three participants for the day. Last week the warden for the H block (the HIV+ cell block) was on vacation visiting his family, so the person escorting us didn’t pay too much attention to our interviews; however this week the H-block warden was back. He’s a really nice guy and interested in research and what we are doing to help the prisoners. He looked at the … Continue reading

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HIV/AIDS in Malaysia: An exciting harm-reduction project

Today was my first day going to service sites. I spent the morning at the Malaysian AIDS Council, which distributes money for HIV/AIDS projects from private donors as well as the government. What’s interesting is that the community here has been implementing methadone clinics and syringe-exchange programs, as well as services in prison — very quickly rolling out major harm-reduction interventions. Stigma around HIV seems much greater than in the U.S., however. I got my first taste of some of the dynamics in play during my flight from Taipei. Sitting next to me was an older Chinese gentleman sitting next … Continue reading

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