February 28, 2012
One in an occasional series about members of the Black Treatment Advocates Network, a collaborative of HIV/AIDS advocates who connect Black people living with HIV/AIDS to care and treatment, strengthen Black leaders, and advocate for change in policy and research priorities.
Al Brown grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where as a teen he often found himself hanging with the wrong crowd. Arrested at age 16 for being in the "wrong place at the wrong time," as he describes it, in 1981 he was sentenced to prison for second-degree murder and spent the next 28 years incarcerated.
"Back then I was living by the code of the streets: Keep your mouth closed," explains Brown, who back then feared the consequences of being the neighborhood "snitch."
In prison Brown found many of the same problems that he had seen in his neighborhood. "What many people don't realize is prison is a society within a society," he explains. "You still deal with the same issues of drugs, sex, violence and disease transmission." Yet he realized that taking responsibility for his actions would help him move forward, and as he completed his high school diploma, he discovered "that everyone wasn't against me. Some people actually wanted to see me do well," he says.
While incarcerated, Brown was bothered by the fact that HIV-positive inmates were stigmatized, treated differently by guards, housed in poor conditions and isolated until a facility that housed HIV-positive prisoners had space. This prompted Brown to educate himself about the disease. Separately, a professional facilitator overheard him advise two younger men to turn their lives around and suggested that he become a peer mentor.
Brown attended peer-mentoring classes but couldn't find enough information on African Americans and HIV. Eventually he discovered brochures and pamphlets from the Black AIDS Institute, which contained information about the HIV/AIDS epidemic among African Americans, and used them to educate himself. "It was a blessing to find material and literature from people of color," Brown says.
Once he received his peer-mentoring certification, Brown started a mentoring class for Black inmates. He knew that they were not always receptive to information delivered by the "white suits," his term for the social workers and health professionals who visited the prison in business attire but wore medical jackets on top.
"When they spoke, I would think, " 'You really don't know what it's like for me. You haven't walked in my shoes,' " he said.
Brown sought to provide his peers with information from a more credible source.
After his release in 2009, Brown began volunteering at the Los Angeles-based Center for Health Justice (CHJ), where he eventually obtained a full-time job. In 2011 he started the Positive Parole Network (PPN), a collaboration between CHJ and the AIDS-service organization SPECTRUM. PPN helps link the formerly incarcerated to medical care within 10 days of their release. It also offers job training, housing and other support, such as prepaid cellphones. Brown recalls mentoring a newly released man who attended PPN's group sessions and later thanked Brown because he was now working and was satisfied with his life.
"These people are truly learning from people who have learned and are walking the walk," Brown said. "By our mentorship, we create other mentors."
Today PPN serves 14 clients, and there are plans to serve 60 by March. Brown says that the network helps him repay the "angels" who assisted him by "paying it forward" to others.
"God put those people in my life for a reason. I owe them a lot," he says.
Kimberley Richards is a Philadelphia-based journalist.