Board Chair Robby Morris Wants the Kids to Be Alright
Dr. Robert E. Morris
Dr. Robert “Robby” Morris’ roots are deep with the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, which he has called his professional home since the late 1980s. On Oct. 14, he returned to duty as chair of the NCCHC board of directors for the second time; his first term was 2007-2008.
After graduating from Temple University Medical School, he served in the U.S. Army as a pediatrician. After the army, he began working at the Los Angeles juvenile halls as part of his academic career at the University of California Los Angeles Medical School.
At UCLA, Morris developed a program to teach adolescent medicine. He became interested in juvenile justice after working on a study with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NCCHC that found extremely high rates of sexually transmissible infections among detained juveniles.
a new Professional focus
Morris’ life’s work came into focus when he took a sabbatical from UCLA in 2001 to serve as medical director for the Louisiana juvenile justice system to help it respond to a federal lawsuit. He noticed that signage and staff referred to the youth as “offenders.” He believed it was important for the language used to be neutral and not dehumanizing. He instituted the term “youth” and began to make a point of speaking of “children” in his publications and presentations.
Morris returned to Los Angeles in 2003, and in 2004 he was appointed health care director for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Juvenile Justice Division through 2009. In 2011, he became a professor emeritus at the UCLA Department of Pediatrics.
Morris is recognized as a national expert on health care for juveniles in the correctional system. He has served as a court-appointed expert for program evaluation and has published 15 peer-reviewed journal articles, eight additional articles, 26 book chapters and 43 abstracts, most of which involved juvenile justice.
In 2001, Morris joined the NCCHC board as the liaison of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. He has served on the juvenile health committee continuously since 1992 and chaired it from 2003 to 2006 and from 2014 to 2016. He twice chaired the juvenile standards revision committee. He is proud of his role in innovations such as the juvenile health committee being the first within NCCHC to host an educational webinar.
Morris also chaired the education committee and has served on NCCHC committees for policy and standards, finance, personnel and CCHP-P certification. He has been a surveyor since 2012 and is the NCCHC liaison to the CDC Advisory Committee on the Elimination of TB.
an advocate for reform
Morris speaks passionately about the results of mass incarceration and the ripple effect that minor crimes have on children and families. He advocates for early intervention and cites studies showing the permanent damage to children when parents are incarcerated, rather than, for example, treated for substance abuse.
“Corrections and health are in flux,” Morris says. “The federal sentencing reform guidelines passed in 2018 and changes in California about a decade ago are making great progress in removing kids from the system. In California alone, the state has made tremendous changes from the mid-1990s when 10,000 children were incarcerated to fewer than 1,200 today. Plus, the 1,200 are no longer supervised by the corrections department, but by health and human services.”
Morris is concerned that “the United States continues to incarcerate more children than anywhere else in the world, by a factor of 3 to 5 times.” He highlights the disproportionate incarceration of youth of color and those who are LGBTQ. It’s a situation that he feels must be addressed by raising awareness of the lack of equity in the justice system.
Looking ahead, Morris notes, “NCCHC can make a real difference in people’s lives. Our mission of education is directly tied to better health outcomes for those incarcerated. The best facilities commit to resources for supporting staff and providing continuing education. In turn, those facilities will have the best results for children and adults.”
Turning Mission Into Movement
Morris would like to use his one-year term as chair to:
- Increase federal and state advocacy for improved health care resources and effectiveness
- Leverage the board members to get more visibility for correctional health care within each board member’s sponsoring organization
- Continue to drive for organizational excellence in NCCHC’s day-to-day functions
- Examine the NCCHC strategic plan and develop a shared vision for what’s next
Above all, Morris continues to advocate for patients in the correctional system. He says, “No group of patients is more grateful. If we treat the children in our care with respect, they will respond positively. If we help them, we can make a permanent difference in their lives and the lives of their entire families.