A Column for Women Prisoners
In honor of the lives of Patty Contreras and Bunny Knuckles, (two beautiful women and former prisoners who passed away this past Spring), we dedicate this issue of Women Alive Inside News to them. Their stories and remembrances can be found in the June '99 issue of WORLD. To receive a copy or for subscription information, write to: 414 13th St. 2nd floor, Oakland, Ca. 94612. (Tel: 510.986.0340)
Notes from Cathy
I want to include some personal stories from readers who have been incarcerated, and are making it on the outside. I know from personal experience, it's not always easy to make that switch from incarceration to freedom. Although we all have dreams while were on the inside about how our life is going to be when we get out, sometimes things don't work out the way we plan. Often times if our substance abuse, behavioral , or self-esteem issues are not addressed while incarcerated, we find ourselves right back in the same situations that got us there in the first place. The following personal story was shared with us by a beautiful, courageous woman by the name of Judith Dillard. Judith is not only an active member of Women Alive, a participant in the pen-pal program, but also a dear friend. I'm sure that in reading her story, many of you will find similarities relating to your own life. Through her struggles with substance abuse, homelessness, acceptance of her HIV diagnosis, and ultimately her success in dealing with these issues, it is her hope that other HIV+ women will find inspiration.
I was born in July 1954. The 4th oldest of 12 brothers and sisters in a small town in west Texas. My father was an alcoholic hog-farmer and my mother was a housewife. I guess people would have termed our family "country". We weren't poor, but we didn't have much. When I was 8, my mother left my Dad. When they divided up the kids, I ended up with my Dad and my Grandmother. Besides drinking a lot, my father loved to gamble. Craps, poker, dominoes, you name it. Anything for money. When I was little he used to take me along with him. He would sit me on his lap while he gambled. I enjoyed this not only because I got to hang out with the adults and watch all the action, but also because it was a rare moment of attention from my father. I loved being Daddy's little girl.
The wild life
As I got older, through years of watching the adults, I had become a pretty swift gambler myself. By my late teens, I was "rollin' with the best of them". Mind you, none of this was legal. We're talking "country" here. Backwoods gambling shacks and bootlegged liquor. Gunfights and stabbings were a regular occurrence. I think this is where my attraction to the wild side of life first started.
Obviously since nobody was concerned about breaking laws (the booze and dope flowed freely) it didn't really matter to anyone that I was only a teenager. It was during this time that I had my first experience with drugs and alcohol. Little did I know what a devastating effect it would have on my life.
During my 20's life looked pretty normal on the outside. I had gotten married, had some kids, had a house, a job, all the stuff that is supposed to make you happy. Unfortunately my attraction to drugs and gambling was still there and my husband and I dabbled in both of them frequently.
Growing up, I had always wanted to come to California. Finally, in 1988 when I was 33 I left my kids with my Mom (who had pretty much been taking care of them the whole time). My husband and I packed up and made the trip. We did all right for awhile when we first got here. We both got jobs, had a nice apartment in Inglewood, and things were going well ... but not for long. Eventually our lives started easing back into drugs. Once we had found out where the "crack man" was, it wasn't long before we started to lose everything we had obtained. Both of us had lost our jobs. We sold everything in the apartment (including my house plants). Here we were, 2 broke crack heads.
There was never enough dope to go between us, and we fought constantly. Eventually I gave up and left him in our empty apartment and headed downtown. I figured he wouldn't come to look for me there. I never intended to stay there very long. Really, I just wanted to get high for a while until I figured out my next move. Unfortunately, I GOT STUCK! Anyone who has ever used crack knows what I'm talking about. I spent the next six years on beautiful downtown Skid Row. (every major city has one)
I hustled day and night for drugs. My home was a "Cardboard Condo" next to the Union Rescue Mission. As a drug addict, I did what many women do to support my habit. I traded sex for drugs or money. In 1993, a local clinic was doing HIV testing in the area. In order to entice people into testing, they were giving away free stuff. (I would have not tested, had it not been for the "freebees") The only way to receive your free gifts was to return for your test results a week later. I went back never expecting to hear that I had tested positive. I had heard so little about AIDS/HIV in the past, and I really hadn't been concerned about it.
I just couldn't stop
Boy, was I in for a surprise! Not only was the news shocking, but I was emotionally devastated. Being an active drug user, I was ill equipped to deal with this information. I did what most good addicts do and went into denial. I mean I knew that my diagnosis was true, but I was choosing not to deal with it. All I knew about AIDS was that I was going to die, and that was the best excuse ever, to get high.
If the first few years of life on the street had been bad before my diagnosis, the last four out there were real hell. People tried to get me to stop using drugs and take care of my health, but I just couldn't stop. I was caught in that downward spiral, and I didn't see a reason to get out. I was miserable. In '97 I managed to get myself arrested on drug related charges.
I was sentenced to 3 years at the California Rehabilitation Center, which is a prison for drug related offenders. Fortunately the prison was recovery oriented, and I took advantage of the information that was available. I started working on myself, and how I was going to keep myself out of this place.
I had discovered quite some time ago that I wasn't necessarily going to be dead from AIDS within the next few years like I had thought. I had better start making some plans for the future. I didn't have a home or a job to return to when I got out, but I did have some beautiful children who had been living with my mother in Texas. They were now almost grown adults, but I knew that I needed them in my life.
About six months before I was to be released from CRC, I went to see a counselor about getting into some kind of program when I got out. My request was answered, and I was able to get into the Transitional Housing Program of Tarzana Treatment Center (a sober-living type environment for HIV positive parolees).
When I was released, I had to take a bus from the prison to downtown L.A. and then transfer to another bus that would take me to the Valley where the program was located. While I was waiting for my bus, the temptation to go visit a few of my old friends down on Skid Row was so strong, almost overwhelming. I had $200.00 in gate money and it was burning a hole in my pocket. Thank God my better judgment held out.
I made it to the program safe and sober. Shortly after my arrival, I was contacted by Cathy Lopez from Women Alive (who also happens to be a graduate of the same Transitional Housing program). She invited me to come and participate in some of the programs at Women Alive, such as the Arts & Crafts group on Saturdays, the Heterosexual Support group, and the various medical updates and other social functions that they provide for infected women and their families.
Since I've been out, my life has changed tremendously. I now have a safe and comfortable place to live, proper medical treatment , a lot of support from other HIV positive women, and I feel like my life has a direction again. I have joined a church, and I am getting back in touch with my spiritual roots. Believe me, it's not easy at times. It feels like I've had to start my life over again, a very humbling experience. But when I think back to the way my life was just a few short years ago; sleeping, eating, and doing all the other bodily functions on the street..., now that's humbling. I still have a long way to go towards getting my life in order, but I wouldn't give up the freedom and the peace that I have right now in my life for anything. I wouldn't care if you gave me a piece of crack the size of Plymouth Rock!
Gotta have a plan
The point that I want to make is that it is possible to change. For those of you who may be reading this in prison or jail and have a release date coming up, really think about what you want to do when you get out. If you had a drug problem when you got locked up, I can guarantee you it's still gonna be there when you get out. Just because you've been clean inside doesn't mean that you're gonna stay that way when you get out. Get some help while you're in there if it's available. Otherwise, consider checking yourself into a treatment program or a sober living as soon as you get out.
You gotta have a plan girl! If I hadn't followed my plan to come to the Transitional Housing Program, I might have ended up right back there in the mix. Keep up the faith and don't give up hope. There are organizations like Women Alive who will welcome you with open arms, help connect you to the services that you need, and give you all the love and support that you can handle. Write to them before you get out, or call as soon as you are released. They can help!
Back to the Women Alive Summer 1999 Contents Page.
This article was provided by Women Alive. It is a part of the publication Women Alive Newsletter.