The tale of another woman who ended up HIV positive and in jail tells another side of the same story. When she was in her late teens and early 20s, Cathy Olufs was a self-labeled troublemaker. She lied, cheated and stole to support a serious drug habit.
All of it—the rambunctious behavior, drug use and thievery—led her to frequent stays at various jails throughout California. In 1995, Olufs tested positive for HIV, and less than a year later she was sentenced to serve 16 months at the California Institution for Women (CIW).
Olufs says the worst period in her life was just before being sentenced to CIW. “I didn’t have a life before being sentenced to prison,” she says. “I was homeless and did what I had to do in order to support my drug habit.” Once incarcerated, she vowed to turn her life around and never return to the confines of a prison cell.
While in prison, Olufs’s family rarely contacted her. “Once in a while, they would send me letters, but they never came to visit,” she says. “They were afraid of me and the person I had become.” Olufs received a 30-day supply of HIV meds throughout her prison term and maintained the prescribed drug regimen when she was released less than a year later.
Today, Olufs, 44, is the education director for the Center for Health Justice in West Hollywood.* Among other things, the organization offers counseling and other services to people living with HIV.
“For HIV-positive people, especially women, a number of critical needs must be met in order [for them] to be successful and healthy upon release from prison,” she says. “[For many women] just finding a place to live, medical care and social and emotional support are difficult.” To the American public, prisoners rank at the bottom of the sympathy scale, Olufs says. For prisoners facing poverty, single parenthood, HIV and difficulty accessing health care, the chance for successful re-entry to society is all but non-existent. “There are fewer and fewer programs to prepare people for release in a meaningful way,” she observes.
“Rehabilitation and dealing with the reality of HIV has to start before the offender is released,” Shabazz-El says. If the tools for coping with HIV and re-entry to society are in place before prisoners are released, she adds, they’ll have a better chance of making it on the outside and less chance of doing something that will send them back to jail.
José Martin Garcia Orduná, executive director of the Manhattan HIV CARE Network, says many professionals fail to give prisoners the necessary tools to stay well in prison so that they may successfully re-enter society. “This starts with providing HIV-positive men and women with adequate health care and support systems,” he says. Many clients who seek assistance from organizations such as the Manhattan HIV CARE Network are recently released inmates infected with HIV.
Outwardly, Shabazz-El and Olufs are vastly different, yet they are in many ways similar. Thousands of miles apart and from different backgrounds, the two women still share a bond—the bond of surviving the indignities and humiliation of being incarcerated and HIV positive.
The reason these two HIV-positive women have become stellar role models is that they were able to navigate the system and turn their lives around. Plus, both Shabazz-El and Olufs left prison with their physical well-being and mental health intact. Now, they offer hope and inspiration to thousands of others.
Today, Shabazz-El is an active and vocal crusader for the rights of the disenfranchised and HIV-positive men and women. She is an activist and panelist for numerous local and national organizations including ACT UP Philadelphia, Positive Women’s Network: Women of Color United Against Violence and HIV, CHAMP, and the Prison Re-Entry Health Care Network in Philadelphia. In addition, she regularly gives speeches and teaches HIV/AIDS awareness classes throughout the Philadelphia metro area. At one time, she also penned a self-help and advice column called “Dear Waheedah” for a prison health newsletter.
“Offenders would send me letters asking for my opinion about various issues including prisoner re-entry and HIV,” she recalls. “Some of the letters would be so heart-wrenching and painful to read. I answered every letter I got.” When asked if all of her advocacy work and community activism becomes emotionally draining or is a strain on her health, Shabazz-El responds: “Absolutely not. It’s vital that we provide all the accurate and current information about HIV to not only those with the virus, but to everyone.”
Advocates for better health care for prisoners agree that until prison officials, politicians and others firmly commit to a strategy to address the issue of HIV in prison, minimal progress will be made. While efforts to combat the spread of HIV behind bars have improved somewhat in recent years—various states launched pilot programs and prison outreach initiatives—much more needs to be done. Warriors like Shabazz-El and Olufs are determined to foster further changes.
“Expanding HIV prevention and awareness programs and [allowing for] the distribution of condoms to inmates nationwide will decrease the spread of HIV in prison,” Shabazz-El says. “Until these two elements are widely practiced in prisons, HIV and other STIs will remain a problem.” Olufs adds that legislators and officials are in a state of denial when it comes to illicit activities behind bars. “Unfortunately, some entities [refuse] to acknowledge that sex and drug use happen in prison and jails,” Olufs says. “And for the few that do, they fear the political ramifications of actually doing something about it.”
Both Olufs and Shabazz-El offer hard-won expert advice on how to stop the flow of HIV from the outside to the inside and back out again. They also offer another defense against the rising tide of HIV: the personal examples of their lives, which encourage others to talk freely about HIV (and HIV prevention) and to get tested and treated. Standing up as they have—freeing themselves from the double burden of being ex-prisoners and HIV-positive women—Olufs and Shabazz-El offer what may be the key to freeing us all from the epidemic’s continuing spread: positive role-modeling that makes people change their behavior to protect their health.
* Correction: The asterisked sentence above has been updated from the original version, which incorrectly stated the name of the organization of the person cited.