November 4, 2010
Pam Goodrich: Opening Doors for Prisoners
by Kate Ferguson and Laura Whitehorn
By 1989, when Pam Goodrich faced the fact that she had HIV, she had been arrested 58 times and had 28 convictions. Today she serves as an education and training coordinator at the LGBT Center in Staten Island, New York—and works as an educator inside Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, a men’s prison on Staten Island. The Pam Goodrich who walks into that prison is very different from the one who did time behind bars. But today’s Goodrich remembers what life was like in the days of prison and drugs. More important, she puts those memories to use, making her an effective advocate for prisoners living with HIV as well as those trying to avoid contracting the virus.
Was 1989 your first HIV test?
I realized I contracted HIV in 1989. But I suspected that I had been infected earlier. In fact, I had been tested in 1985, when they were paying you to get tested. But I never went back for the results. Everybody I was using drugs with—injection drugs—were falling victim to this disease. I suspected I had been infected, but [getting high] kept me in a place where it didn’t make a difference. It wasn’t until 1989 that I wanted to really take a look at what was going on with me.
I was just tired. I was really, really tired of my life, where I was going, the numerous arrests. I was just sick of me. I wanted a better life. I had been using drugs since I was about 12. By the time I was 14 I was taking acid and using heroin. So I wasn’t surprised—I kind of expected to find out I was HIV positive. All the people I shared needles with were turning up positive.
What did you do when you knew you had HIV?
I continued to get high. I wasn’t ready to go into action, so I continued to use—at that time I just felt like I was going to die anyway, so, [I figured], what’s the use—to stop using drugs wasn’t going to change anything, you know. It wasn’t until my last encounter with the Department of Corrections in 1996 that I stopped using.
I had been in Rikers Island [another New York prison]. I came home, and both my mother and sister were hospitalized—in two different hospitals. My mother had cancer. She was asking for my sister. I know you can’t make a pact with your higher power, but I said to God, “If you allow them to make it through this, I promise that I will get my life together.” I had to visit both of them at the two hospitals, and I needed to have a clear head, because I had to make decisions for my mom and my sister.
What got you into advocacy and peer education?
When I started facing my HIV status, I began to educate myself, and I became a client of Fortune Society [which helps people who have been released from prison]. I needed to be around people who were like myself. At Fortune Society, so many things were offered to me. I felt that I could never pay back what was given to me. In Fortune Society we say, “Change minds and save lives.” And I felt I could go into different organizations and different jails and prisons, that I could identify with these communities so that they could understand the message, and maybe [that would help them to] participate in their own self-help.
I think the most positive role I can play is to give back. Having an extensive incarceration history and an extensive substance abuse history, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be able to affect people in a different way, by leading by example. I have no problem disclosing that I have HIV. And so, I’ve had the opportunity to work in the correctional sector where people are not so openly talking about their status. But they feel comfortable enough to come and say to me, “Miss Goodrich, you know, I need to talk to you about my status.”
What message do you bring to people inside—both HIV-positive and -negative?
I try to stress to people that you can live with HIV. HIV doesn’t want you to die, it needs you to live, and through medications I’m still here today. For those that are apprehensive about disclosing, my qualified team of peer educators—the people I’ve trained—can encourage them and help them.
And I see the difference education can make. As I continued to educate and empower myself, I realized I had to make a decision between whether I wanted to live or die. So I began taking HIV medications. I had not been open to it. But now I want you to know that I’ve been on the same medication for the last eight years. My viral load is undetectable, and my CD4 cell count is 757.
Tell us about what you do in the prison.
I’m a training coordinator. I provide an intensive 60-hour training every six months for the peers in the prison. Those guys sometimes amaze you. People have misconceptions about prison. They think a lot of prisoners are illiterate. What I’ve found is that when most people come to take my training, they have already had some knowledge of HIV and AIDS. So I have to stay abreast of developments, stay current, update the curriculum. In the last seven years I’ve trained more than 250 peers, and I do harm reduction counseling to prevent them from creating harm to themselves or to other people. I train them to deal with their stress. Once people take the intensive HIV training, they must take stress management too.
We have the New York prison system’s only program for MSMs [men who have sex with men]. We have to tread lightly, so it’s called Prison Issues and Concerns. It’s basically an MSM group. I devised a curriculum to address things like loving yourself to love others, talking about sexuality, talking about hormone therapy, communication skills. You don’t have to identify as anything. If you’re questioning your sexuality, then you should come to the group.
To see Pam Goodrich in action, search World AIDS Day at Arthur Kill Correctional Facility at poz.com.
Search: prison, prisoners, jail, LGBT, Pam Goodrich, injection drugs, IDU, heroin, drugs, Rikers Island, peer education, Fortune Society, substance abuse, Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, Prison Issues and Concerns
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