Kate Erwin, ’69, is the most recent recipient of the Joan Herman Shaw Award, an award given to a Concord Academy alumni each year for dedication to serving others and making a meaningful impact. Erwin graduated from Vassar College in 1973. She originally wanted to be a doctor, but during her residency at medical school, she began working in a prison as a forensic psychiatrist because it was the highest paying job she could find. Though she had her doubts at first, Erwin grew to love the job because of the huge impact she feels she can make.
“There are very many poignant moments in prison. Early on, I had a woman who when I cheered her on, she was just stunned, astounded, pleased, unbelieving, everything. Incredulous that anyone could care about her or difficulties we were addressing,” Erwin shared.
Since the beginning of her forensic psychiatry career, she has worked at nearly every type of prison, from low-security to super-maximum security, from state to federal prisons, engaging with hundreds to thousands of inmates throughout her career. Erwin prefers maximum and super-maximum prisons because she felt there was more of an opportunity to make a difference in their lives.
“I cut my teeth on the long sentence, violent guys. Women generally have short sentences: the average is 8-10 months, and so you hardly have time to get started before they’re gone. With men with longer sentences – women with longer sentences – you have a chance, doing some long term work.”
The environment in the prisons is drastically different from anything Erwin had experienced previously. Employees lighten the mood with twisted jokes and even the colloquial language is radically different.
Erwin shared, “The correctional officers have an incredible sense of humor. They’re really funny, in a very sick way. We had a guy known as spaghetti man because he had killed his girlfriend, chopped her up, and served her as dinner to her parents as spaghetti. But the prison humor on that one is what was the sauce: red or white?”
In the beginning, Erwin was quite nervous about the new job. It was uncharted territory for her. She, like most other people, was not accustomed to being around so many criminals at a time.
She said, “And it was scary, I mean you can’t be totally delusional about it. I decided early on that I can’t work in prison if I’m scared every day, so I just stopped being scared. And it just got to be really fun, I liked it. I like the possibilities of what you can accomplish. And I like learning about different worlds and they grew up in a whole different world than I did.”
Erwin’s biggest challenge in the job is trust. “They don’t trust the DOJ,” she shared. “They don’t believe that anyone in prison – you know I asked one guy, he was a serial killer. And he had been busy, killing a lot of people here and in another country. And I said to him that I know you had a different life that you don’t have. How was that going, meaning you’re not being let out, he was in federal Supermax, not being let out, not having an opportunity to kill someone. And he said, ‘Oh, you want me to tell you? Like I’m stupid.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t expect you to, I just want to know whether you’re okay with where things are.’”
Looking back on these interactions, Erwin said, “So it’s hard because if they tell me they did something maybe it will get around…” This is the biggest obstacle now for Erwin because she cannot accurately diagnose someone if they will refuse to communicate with her.
Erwin loves the impact she makes. “What I love about it is that there are these poignant moments, there are these patients who have never gotten good care for anything in their lives, patients you can really help, even if you’re just wanting to diagnose them and giving them the right medicine to see a schizophrenic who’s never been diagnosed, turn around and come back to life it’s really, you know, it’s fun.”