Overcoming Prejudice in Prison
For 20 years, since I was infected with the HIV/AIDS virus, I have been fighting two battles: one against the virus itself, and the other against the prejudice that surrounds it. How many times have you heard other people say that they believe people who test positive somehow had it coming? How many times have you heard that if someone is gay or shoots drugs, they deserve to have AIDS?
Prison is a hard and judgmental place. Prisoners suffer from society's prejudice, yet prisoners themselves are often the most prejudiced of all. An environment of intolerance makes life for the HIV-er even more difficult. Prisoners living with AIDS are regularly denied access to even the most elementary human rights, including prison jobs, rehabilitation programs, preferred living quarters, and even access to telephones and medical care. These are privileges that others prisoners take for granted.
Combine this with fear for one's own safety and feelings of isolation, and you are adding insult to injury. Prison officals can do little to combat the problem of prejudice against one group of individuals. Their only true remedy is to remove the ill-treated person from the equation. Almost always, this means being placed in solitary confinement or what is known on the inside as "Administrative Segregation." When a HIV-positive prisoner is feeling fearful, isolated and depressed, this only serves to further suppress an already compromised immune system.
However, we dare not and cannot blame this injustice on the "prisoners society" or on the prison administration whose job it is to keep them. As prisoners, the power to sustain or change the stigma behind HIV in prison is yours alone. You can remain silent and look the other way, or you can speak out and try to offer help.
Prisoners must take it upon themselves to learn the truth surrounding HIV/AIDS and other challenging diseases that affect the lives of those with whom they share their "home." This is the best way you, as prisoners, can offer help to your incarcerated brothers and sisters -- by arming yourselves with information. You can help others overcome their own fear, fear that breeds disdain, which in turn breeds contempt and hatred. Recognizing the problem is the first step to the solution. As more and more people become incarcerated, we find ourselves faced with a wider range of diverse prisoners, challenging what we think we believe. How can people living in a closed, isolated community such as prison be expected to tolerate what they do not understand? Education is the key, educational programs such as the California Prison Focus have made some progress in changing the way prisoners view both HIV-ers and sexual minorities living amongst them, but they have only just begun. They must continue to work diligently to overcome the myths and misconceptions surrounding HIV and AIDS, and teach their peers understanding, respect and compassion. Peer education has proven effective, and is especially so when used to educate prisoners.
Now is the time to overcome all of the prejudice against HIV-positive prisoners in our nations prisons. If you are a prisoner and/or know someone in prison who has HIV or AIDS, I urge you to seek out information that will help you overcome your fears and misunderstandings surrounding HIV, the virus that cause AIDS. If you are living in the free world, find out how you can get involved and support programs that educate today's prisoners who are tomorrow's free men and women. Over the years I've seen hundreds of men in prison of all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life. Be they straight, gay or bisexual they die of AIDS and it is not a pretty sight. Some of them were really good friends of mine who I will miss terribly.
The group "Boys to Men" sang the lyrics, "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday." I can't find a more appropriate phrase or words to express the emotional feelings and connectedness that has impacted the feelings I harbored when they departed this earth.
I would like to extend warm and heartfelt best wishes for the year 2001 and also the upcoming year 2002. May the spirit of kindness and the fruits of goodwill be with you all.
Jeffrey Lynn Sutton
"Me and AIDS"
Some bad things have happened to me; I would not wish for anyone to experience the difficulties and mishaps that I have experienced in life. But sometimes it takes painful situations to wake some of us up!
I am presently incarcerated. I have AIDS and I am dying. I want you, the readers, to take heed to what I have to say and let it sink in -- it just might save your life.
Growing up as a young adult in my teens, I was rebellious towards my mother and father. I would not listen to them when they tried to give me good, sound advice about sex, drugs, alcohol, and crime. So at a young age, I hung out with the wrong crowd and started smoking cigarettes. I went on to drink alcohol and stay out late at night.
I graduated from drinking and smoking to selling and doing drugs. This made me feel like I was cool. Today, I realize I was a fool and not cool. I wanted to fit in with the crowd. I was mostly pressured by so-called "friends" to do drugs and drink alcohol with them and I did.
I became a sexually promiscuous person. The alcohol and drugs lead me to have unprotected sex with all sorts of females. There's truth in the phrase "Did you know that when you lay down to have sex with someone, you lay down with everyone that person had sex with."
One day, I got sick, real sick. I went to see a doctor who ran several tests on me. I was told a few days later that I was HIV-positive. In 1989, as a young man, my whole world fell apart.
I told my family and friends that I was HIV positive in hopes of getting moral support. But I was wrong. Everybody -- family and friends -- turned their backs on me out of fear that I might give them HIV or AIDS. Nobody wanted me around.
Everyone began to avoid me. I became homeless, lost, depressed, and confused. AIDS was new to me, as well as everyone else. I had no one to turn to for support, love, or help.
At this point, I really turned to alcohol and drugs to help me deal with the fact that I was homeless and that I was HIV positive. I started to drink daily to ease the mental and emotional pain of what I am living with and will eventually die from.
I became a nobody, a street person. I would sleep in abandoned houses and buildings. I have eaten out of garbage cans. I have done things that I am too ashamed to speak of, just to survive on the streets of society. AIDS reduced me to be nothing -- a nobody.
I am not a bad person. I do not have a juvenile record. I have always been a good person at heart. So, why me God? Why not me? I believed that AIDS was a gay disease and that it could never happen to me. I took no precautions and it DID happen to me. I had never been to jail or had problems with the law until I found out that I was HIV positive. Whenever I drank, I would end up in jail because I had no other place to go. Today, I am an alcoholic.
I was once raped as a child. This caused me to have all sorts of mental and emotional problems and AIDS has made the situation worse. I've never received mental health counseling for my past or present problems. I fell between the cracks like so many others -- the mentally ill, the homeless, etc.
Today, as I look back on my life, I see big holes I have left in time. The years I have wasted in jails, the alcohol, and other foolishness are all holes in my life story. My life has counted for absolutely nothing. I am sorry and ashamed of myself. (Forgive me God.)
This I want to change by using my past life as an example of how a person can go so wrong on the road of life when dealing with sex, drugs and alcohol. This is why I have written this letter. If I could reach just ONE person and help them turn their life around from being negative to being a positive, productive person, then my life would not be a total waste. (Thank God.)
I am speaking out to the young adults, as well as my peers, only to encourage them not to live as I once have. The sex, drugs, alcohol, and being rebellious towards others is not worth it. Your lives are worth more than a pot of gold, your lives are priceless. Please hear me out and take heed to what I'm saying. PLEASE!!!
Live your lives out one day at a time. It's okay to have fun without sex, drugs, or alcohol. Never be in rush to do anything. Use good, sound judgement, and think twice before you do things.
Hey, AIDS led me to live a life full of hell. I have had series of physical and mental illnesses throughout the years. I have suffered for 11 years now. AIDS is a powerful, painful, and cunning disease. It is alive. Believe me, I know. I have had painful, swollen glands in my neck, rapid weight loss, constant fatigue, persistent diarrhea, constant skin problems, sores in my mouth, shortness of breath, endless night sweats, recurring opportunistic infections, and mental anguish. These are just some of the symptoms I deal with on a daily basis. It gets so bad that I wish I was dead.
I was told by doctors two months ago that I have full blown AIDS. I am dying. The medication is not working like it should, so I have begun to prepare myself for the worst. Also, 95 percent of my immune system is depleted -- gone.
How do you prepare yourself for death? If anyone knows, please write me and let me know. I do not want to die in prison as a nobody. I do not want to die from AIDS. Any day now, I could get real sick and die. I'm afraid. I'm scared.
I have never been convicted of a crime in Indiana; I am a first-time offender. I committed a robbery to get money to buy AIDS medication and food to eat. Nobody got hurt.
I have a 15-year prison sentence. I have to do seven-and-a-half years and I might make parole. My sentence is nothing but a death sentence. I will never live to re-enter society as a productive, rehabilitated citizen, due to the fact there is no cure for AIDS.
I have learned many lessons. I am sorry and remorseful for the crime I committed. Today, I understand and accept full responsibility for my past offenses in society. I am a changed man. I now see that God had been trying to reach me throughout the years.
I had been refusing to acknowledge Him or His presence in my life. Today I accept God and Jesus Christ in my life. Please forgive me, I don't mean to preach, but am telling it like it is. I am a new man and only God knows this to be the truth.
By the world's or man's standards, I am a condemned man. But God says otherwise. Rehabilitation comes from God and a change of heart from within on behalf of the prisoner or person.
NOTE: AIDS has increasingly become an affliction of people who have little political, economic, or social power. These people include the poor, uneducated, jobless, mentally ill, homeless, and social outcasts.
Politicians talk about how they want to get tough on crime. They want to help the homeless, sick, and mentally ill who are living on the streets. It is all a bunch of lies because once they get in office, they get filled with pride. They forget about the little people who voted them into office. They forget where they come from.
Think about this: Are the Department of Justice, courts and prison administrators really trying to rehabilitate the inmate, offenders, the prisoners, etc.? No, they would be out of a job. Crime is a billion-dollar business. Don't get me wrong, there is a big need for prisons to lock harder criminals up, but not all offenders. About 75% of offenders need to be locked up, but what about the other 25%? I am a part of that 25% that do not need to be locked up. I have learned my lesson. I can do more positive things in society.
I sincerely thank you, the reader of this article, for all your time and attention in this urgent matter.
Undra Cortez Fulton
Pendleton Correctional Facility
Pendleton, IN 46064
P.S. Please pray for me, I need all the help I can get.
May God Bless!
Back to the May 2001
Issue of Body Positive