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Free At Last?
by Glenn Townes
The following are excerpts from letters that POZ has received during the past year from HIV-positive inmates from around the country.
“I’m writing from the Salt Lake City jail where I await placement in my second in-patient drug treatment program. My addiction to crystal meth changed my life. Three years ago, before experimenting with meth at a New Year’s Eve party, I was a practicing licensed clinical social worker. My recreational drug use quickly progressed to compulsive use and dependency. I received two felony charges; addiction destroyed the affection between my partner and me, and my ex-wife sued for custody of our three children. In July of 2004, I was told I was infected with HIV. Disclosures in jail have created an incredible variety of experiences; rejection within such confined quarters provides unique opportunities for personal growth and public education. Conversely, it can create enough anxiety and isolation to break one’s spirit. Without support, HIV-positive men and women in correctional institutions are very vulnerable. My support comes from my friends at the Health Department, my friends who have understood
the addiction, and my children.”
Salt Lake County Adult Detention Complex,
Salt Lake City, Utah
“I sit here in this prison on a charge of aggravated assault because I didn’t have the backbone to tell my partner that I was HIV+. My partner never became infected, which I am very grateful for. This all happened about one year after I found out I was HIV+. I was not dealing with any issues relating to HIV/AIDS. I was not reading any material to help me figure out what was going on. Why is it so hard to disclose to somebody that you really care for? I think being rejected is a part of it. I was given a sentence of 8–16 years for this. I did put my partner in danger so I had no choice but to take the charge. The sentence is a little harsh, but I am dealing with it. I am trying to get involved with HIV/AIDS peer education here in the prison, but I keep meeting a lot of roadblocks from administration.”
State Correctional Insitution, Frackville, Pennsylvania
“I’m 42 years old, and I’m HIV positive. I’ve been incarcerated for 24 years during which time I’ve lost five brothers and six sisters as well as my mother and father. I have no family. No outlet beyond these prison walls. At 17, I had unprotected sex, and while in prison later I turned up HIV positive during a routine checkup. For 13 years…I’ve felt ashamed and felt like an outcast and all alone. The support groups here are a joke. I’m segregated in one of two HIV-positive units. I may be out 10.01.08. I need help in getting a doctor, housing, essentially my life back in order. I need a real support group. The South Carolina Department of Corrections will only give me a 30-day supply of my medication. The state will not help you obtain your [medical] benefits. I feel I have a chance at life to regain my dignity to be able to be a functioning positive person within society without feeling that I’m dead.”
Broad River Correctional Institution, Columbia, South Carolina
“I was probably with HIV in 1995, [but I had an] AIDS diagnosis in 2004. I’ll have you know that living with AIDS is like living in one grand dysfunctional family. I’m living in a subculture at this time that offers no primary AIDS physician, no information, etc. Doctors in here view themselves as authority figures. They believe they’re smarter than patients so they expect patients to be compliant; unfortunately, all too many patients agree-—that’s why they’re falling through the cracks. We as patients have more time and motivation to research stuff that might keep us alive longer. I’ll be honest with you: I’m not afraid of dying of AIDS. I’m afraid someone will kill me before I die of AIDS. I know that if I would have listened to all my doctors’ advice I would have been dead a long time ago. Remember that nobody asked for AIDS. It threatens your income, destroys your health, shatters your family and then demands that you spend time managing it. [In prison] when you ask for information, you get misinformation. Heck, the moral around here is, ‘You’ll be dying soon.’ It really is.”
Taylor Correctional Institute, Perry, Florida
“I am a 31-year-old male from Lafayette, Indiana. For me, HIV was a blessing and a curse. When I found out, it saved my life. It gave me answers about myself that most people will never have. (Why am I here? Do I have a purpose?) I have the words “HIV positive” tattoo’d across my shoulders and a red AIDS ribbon on my shoulder. I want people to know—that’s why I got the tattoo. There is no medical care, and having this tattoo here does me no favors. I try to talk to people [about HIV], and a lot of times I can bring them around, erase their fears and educate them. But there are some who would rather use violence toward me. Last week, I was in a cell and a new guy came in and decided he wanted my bunk and thought he could intimidate me out of it. There was some raised voice and when the guards came in he told them I threatened to spit on him. Which is total B.S., but he played on their fears and it worked. They took me out and placed me in segregation. I am locked in a cell by myself for 23 hours a day. I have no interaction with anyone else. Since no report was made I am left to conclude that I am being put here due to my HIV status. I feel like I am getting sick again and that they will leave me to die. I don’t want special treatment—I just want equal treatment. I am not in here for some crazy crime, I just got sick and fell behind on my child support.”
Tippecanoe County Jail, Lafayette, Indiana
“I am an inmate at the Georgia Department of Corrections. I was positive before I was incarcerated in 1998. When I was arrested, I had known for a year. I wanted to end my life and tried to make the police end my life because I could not do it myself. I was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. I have been in now for 10 years and I have finally come to my senses that I need to be strong if I want to live a normal life. I am still by myself; my family does not want anything to do with me. I have made a lot of changes in my life, and I have disclosed my HIV status to the inmates and staff here at this prison as a step in an area that I want others to know everything about HIV/AIDS that I know. I have gotten stigmatized but not as much as I thought I would get…
I am not a bad person, I just chose wrong. I was scared at the time and had no one to turn to. I am willing to share my experiences with everyone. I am not scared anymore.
Scott State Prison, Hardwick, Georgia
“I’ve been positive since ’98. Being in prison, information is limited. Broad River is basically an HIV/AIDS camp with about 400+ with the virus. There’s so much negative things going on I can tell you about. With just one doctor for so many HIV/AIDS it’s not a good situation. Don’t get me wrong, we do have street social workers with different programs. The thing is, none of these social workers are HIV positive. I’m in the process of starting group counseling for those getting release within a month or two. I need your help to get this program off the ground. Computers are not available here for me to use. I have seen too many guys pass away when education is lacking. Also hearing about guys dying after a few months on the streets. I’m sending an SOS to you!!!”
Broad River Correctional Institute, Columbia, South Carolina
“I am writing from South Bay Correctional Facility. I am currently involved in a volunteer STD facilitator training course offered by the Palm Beach Health Department. I am requesting that you print this letter and allow me to make all my brothers aware that they can be HIV tested, know their status and be treated during their incarceration. We will all receive a test upon expiration of our sentences; however, there are numerous benefits to early diagnosis. All we have to do to be tested is submit a request to the medical department and wait for a call out. No co-payment required.”
South Bay Correctional Facility, South Bay, Florida
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Search: prison, Waheedah Shabazz-El, inmates, correctional facility, Cathy Olufs
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comments 1 - 6 (of 6 total)
Everett Lynn, Philadelphia, PA, 2008-12-01 12:59:13
This story was incredible! Superbly written and complete with some solid facts, information and quotes. Ms. Shabazz-El should be delighted to have been profiled in such an incredbily well written and outstanding article.
mr. Paul J. Yabor, Philadelphia, 2008-11-07 09:49:48
I have know waheeda for several years and i am very gladd to see her get some of the recognition that she truely desreves. The woman is a 24-7 non stop activist who has help countless people through her selfless actions. There are a few people in the Philadelphia AIDs comuntiy that border on Hero status and Wheeda is defenantly one of them.
Waheedah Shabazz-El, Philadelphia, 2008-11-06 07:27:11
Thank you for interest KeQuana. I have found connecting to the Islamic community in Philly around HIV to be challenging but promising. June 2008 we invited local Islamic Imams to Phila Fight's 7th Annual Prevention Summit. We held the work shop (Al-Islam, HIV, Responsibility & Compassion) in a discreet area during the summit and had good attendance. We partnered with Sis Rashidah Abdul Kabir (Dep. Dir. Circle of Care) who is renowned here in Philly for founding "BEBASHI"
KeQuana, Raleigh,NC, 2008-11-03 13:13:58
I enjoyed this story!! I would however like to know if and/or how Shabazz-El have made contact with the muslim community in her state. I am a social worker who works with the positive community in NC and would like to begin the process of educating the muslim community and have been having a difficult time setting up meetings and discussions.
Andrea Johnson, Philadelphia, 2008-10-28 18:25:56
What a phenomenal woman. I first met Waheedah a year ago in the LEAP program as a newly HIV infected woman steming from a heterosexual, what I thought was, monogamas relationship. She & others inspired me to be angry enough to speak up about the injustices, stigmas and treatment of persons infected and affected with HIV/AIDS. I left my profession and comfort zone to become a HIV Tester and Counselor. I am now a "LOUD MOUTH" that seeks, educate and help those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.
Waheedah Shabazz-El, Philadelphia, 2008-10-24 13:41:43
comments 1 - 6 (of 6 total)
I am featured in the Nov. 2008 issue #149 "Free at Last." Amazing article & fantastic pictures. However I am misquoted in paragraph three where it highlights the conditions under which I received my HIV test results. The Tester ( who is now a dear friend) did not "blurt out my results in an open room".The room was in an busy hall area and had no curtains. Today I am also a C&T, trained by the Dept of Health and employed by Phila Fight. No C&T would ever "blurt out" anyone's results as implied