Q&A: Rehab Behind Bars, Alum Shares her Experience Working at San Quentin

Tianna Meriage-Reiter, DPT, graduated from the UCSF/SFSU DPT Program in 2007. After working in a variety of settings, including running her own independent physical therapy practice, she decided to take a job as a physical therapist at San Quentin State Prison. Dr. Meriage-Reiter is also a board member of the Alumni Association of UCSF. She spoke with us about her shift to working with people who are incarcerated, how she incorporates yoga therapy into physical therapy and her interests outside of work.

Dr. Meriage-Reiter also has a blog in which she explores caring for people who are incarcerated: www.prisonpt.com.

Q: You owned your own practice for 11 years and then made a big shift to working with incarcerated individuals. Why did you decide to make this shift?

A: There was a shift around the pandemic. I decided to leave social media for a variety of reasons. While social media wasn’t my main avenue for obtaining or retaining clients, you’re told by business pros that you need to be on there to thrive. But I was done. I needed a shift in how I was working overall. Tired of the rising costs to run the business and not wanting to keep putting that on my clients to make ends meet, I gave up my business space and all the associated overhead. I returned to mobile work and continued teaching yoga online.

However, there was a persistent voice in my head that kept repeating “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I’d been searching job openings on LinkedIn for a while and decided to respond to a listing for a PT opening at San Quentin (SQ). I ended up turning it down at the time, deciding I wasn’t ready for the commute. I got to the point where I didn’t want to spend so much time driving around, so my decision to not have a commute was no longer a viable reason to not have a regular job.

A couple months later, the guy I spoke to about the SQ job emailed about another prison job. I definitely didn’t want this other position, but it turns out the SQ opening was still up for grabs. I thought maybe this was a sign to make my shift. But I had some requirements for any new position: I wanted it to be a unique experience; I wanted to work with an underserved population; I wanted the flexibility to work outside of the insurance world with flexibility to treat, as this was how I had worked for the past 12 years; And I needed a decent paying position. The SQ position fit all those requirements.

Q: How has working with incarcerated people impacted you?

It has been perspective changing. You usually don’t know why they’re incarcerated when initially working with them, and you just see the human in front of you.

Tianna Meriage-Reiter, PT, DPT

Physical Therapist, San Quentin State Prison

A: It has been perspective changing. You usually don’t know why they’re incarcerated when initially working with them, and you just see the human in front of you. So many of them have done the work to become different people than the person that they were when they first became incarcerated. They might say, “I used to be angry and hateful, not empathetic. I’m not like that anymore.” I hear so many stories from my patients that just never had a chance growing up. Many never learned to trust people and found it a challenge to create boundaries. Often, they become mentors at the prison and share their story to new residents, trying to shift hard attitudes that they used to share when they were first incarcerated. They often speak about gratitude. And share a sentiment that even if they never see the outside of these walls, they’re serving a purpose and trying to give back.

Q: What types of conditions are you treating?

A: There’s a variety of conditions: Chronic pain, arthritic joints—hips and knees, shoulders and backs. Part of it comes from sleeping conditions – they don’t get a real pillow and mattresses are old and thin. There are injuries from getting up and down from the top bunk. There’s an aging population so there are those coming back from a stroke or deconditioning after a variety of disease processes. I’ve also seen injuries that come from stabbings, gun shot wounds or assaults from within the prison system. It’s a little like working in a county hospital.

Q: What did you expect working as a PT to be like when you graduated in 2007 and how is it different in real life?

A: There is such a variety of places you can work. You could work in pediatric, inpatient, home health, or women’s health. I didn’t know I could own my own single-person practice – that was a shift from what I expected it to be. You can ebb and flow and move through it and there are so many opportunities if you find yourself not satisfied where you are.

Q: What do you like to do outside of work?

A: I love being by the water and enjoy kite surfing and paddle boarding. I also love any opportunity to be in nature – whether it’s van camping or hiking.