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Conversations With Fellow Inmates

Fall 2004

For a few years now, Jeff Palmer, the Editor of this newsletter, has generously granted me the privilege to discuss many issues concerning HIV/AIDS from the perspective of an HIV-positive inmate. For this opportunity I am profoundly grateful.

Having been here at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility for many years it has become second nature to do whatever possible to assist my fellow inmates, regardless of their HIV status with a myriad of issues surrounding the disease. In addition, organized prison programs here such as "Life Skills" and "Healthy Living" have helped to bring the ABC's of HIV to every inmate who chooses to enroll. With this issue I hope to shed some light on how effective our combined efforts have been. To accomplish this, I have carefully chosen two inmates, one with HIV disease and the other without, whom I feel accurately represent their respective groups here at Territorial. I have selected to highlight these particular inmates because I felt their responses would be direct, truthful and uninhibited. As you will see, I was not disappointed. The following then are their candid responses to some -- sometimes difficult but thought-provoking -- questions. For the sake of privacy and to protect the identity of those interviewed I have not used their real names and I have transcribed their conversations exactly as they were related to me.

DM: How long have you been here?

Don: In the prison system or here at CTCF (Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility)?

DM: Here at CTCF.

Don: Around five years.

DM: So you have lived in other prisons in the system?

Don: Yeah, I came here as a "facility need" to operate a unique type setting machine few inmates can safely operate. (CTCF is one of the few facilities that produces license plates and license plates tags.)

DM: Were there organized classes in your last facility that tried to educate its inmates about HIV/AIDS?

Don: No, they couldn't have cared less. Everybody knows that this is pretty much the only joint where inmates have "the bug." (This is the term that most inmates have for HIV.) I ain't got it though, they tell me. Hands up, palm forward.

DM: Having been here as long as you have, do you feel that enough effort is made to educate guys like yourself who don't have the bug?

Don: I guess.

DM: You don't sound very sure.

Don: There's stuff in the library, but if I don't know my homies do, they tell me what's up.

DM: Do you think there's enough effort to educate guys at risk of infection such as yourself, after all, you can't always tell about other inmates? In fact, you usually can't tell.

Don: It depends on what I'm doin', you know. I went to them classes and I ask guys like you stuff and I pretty much know what I'm doin'. ... You know, basically.

DM: During your time here, have you ever done anything that might put you at risk of HIV infection?

Don: I ain't no junkie or no fag, if that's what you mean.

DM: How about tattoos?

Don: Yeah, a few times about three years ago, but I know everything was sterile.

DM: Over the course of my sentence I have seen a lot of tattoo artists, who valve their ink supply, use a bottle cap or some other reservoir to contain their ink during the tattoo process. Then they pour the remainder back into the bottle contaminating the entire supply, as well as any needle they might use again. And incidentally, the gloves that he uses protect him, not you!

Don: This guy is my homie dude, and he wouldn't take a chance like that.

DM: But who is the one taking chances here?

Don: You made your point!

DM: Actually I want to say thank you for putting up with me and being so direct and so truthful. I asked you to do this for that very reason and also because you were finally getting the hell out of here in a few months.

Don: Yeah, I'm finally going home.

DM: So what are you going to do to stay safe?

Don: I knew you were going to ask me that.

DM: Well?

Don: I'm going to take the old lady down to the clinic and we're both going to get tested.

DM: I'm impressed! What if she is infected?

Don: Easy ... she's gone.

DM: So what then to keep you safe?

Don: Use condoms, I guess.

DM: But you sound uncertain.

Don: It's an uncertain world.

DM: Did you know that after just 3 drinks you are twice as likely NOT to use a condom?

Don: I don't drink a lot of alcohol.

DM: Three beers is not a lot of alcohol.

Don: Once again, you've made your point.

DM: I want to wish you all the best and thank you for your honest answers. Stay safe!

The next interview gives us all, including myself, a great deal to think about. The inmate with whom I speak has the unfortunate distinction to be one of a growing number of inmates who become infected during their incarceration rather than before.

DM: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me for this interview. Initially you said no to my request. What changed your mind?

Jim: You kept pestering me (he laughs), but also because I began to realize I might have something of importance to offer.

DM: And what might that be?

Jim: I guess to tell guys how easy it is to get infected. I mean you can't trust anyone when they say they ain't got it.

DM: How do you think you became infected?

Jim: Drugs. Some guy I've known a few years who told me he had it but that he got rid of it by taking drugs the doctor gave him.

DM: And you believed him?

Jim: There are a lot of guys runnin' around here who say the same thing. I feel pretty f---in' stupid now but that doesn't change anything that's happened.

DM: Do you think what happened to you will help anyone else with making better choices?

Jim: Ain't that why we're talking? It's a bitch bein' a convict and a junkie! It's real easy to talk yourself into things just to get high.

DM: How did you find out you were HIV infected?

Jim: I got a fever and then pneumonia. When they tested me at the hospital a few weeks later, I showed up positive for HIV and Hep C.

DM: Did you borrow somebody's kite (needle)?

Jim: Yeah, and he said it was soaking in bleach. F---kin' liar!

DM: You believed it?

Jim: Don't go there with me again, man.

DM: I'm not trying to make you feel bad. The fact is that this is the exact error in judgment that caused my infection. How has your life changed since you became infected?

Jim: I haven't been sick since the hospital.

DM: I mean do people know about your status? Do you tell them?

Jim: Not if they don't ask.

DM: If you were going to shoot up with or have sex with another person now that you have become infected, would you tell them?

Jim: Yeah, but after that, it's on them.

DM: So once they have been informed, you are no longer responsible?

Jim: I'm not making them do it!

DM: Well, I appreciate you allowing me to take up your time as well as your honesty. I hope that you will always be this truthful with people with whom you come in contact.

After having completed these interviews, I realized how far we have come as inmates with or without HIV/AIDS. I also realize the colossal error we would be making by thinking our lessons have been learned and by resting on our laurels. I am very proud of our willingness as inmates to learn and grow, but we need to understand that the real test that we will face is how and when we apply what we have learned in our lives as free citizens in the free world.

Most of those who leave prison will be a great deal stronger and all together healthier. I have witnessed a near instantaneous relapse among too many of us, lying waste to the considerable effort and discipline we showed to others and ourselves -- many of us for the first time. It may interest you to know that one of the two individuals interviewed for this article overdosed on heroin less than one week after his release. It really doesn't matter which, my point is that the vulnerability is always there. We are indeed very human.

Danny Meyers

As always your thoughts, ideas and suggestions concerning this and other articles written by Danny may be sent to him at:

Walter D. Meyers #69486
Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility
Unit 7 Box 1010
Canon City, CO 81215-1010

Back to the Fall 2004 issue of Positives for Positives.

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This article was provided by Wyoming: Positives for Positives. It is a part of the publication Positives for Positives.