There are times in our life when we may feel trapped and caught up in circumstances or situations over which we have absolutely no control. Whether it's an unhappy or unhealthy relationship, an addiction, a boring job or a career that's going nowhere, we find ourselves looking for an escape, but somehow can't seem to find a way out, or a path forward.
An individual who is in jail or prison would seem to be the prime example of a person who is powerless and doesn't have the ability to make any choices or decisions to improve their current situation. It's no surprise that there is gang activity, rape, and drug abuse behind bars -- undoubtedly, for some, these seem to be the only choices they have to exert any kind of power or control.
When a person tests positive for HIV, they may often feel a similar sense of loss of power or control, and for those who find out they're positive when they enter a correctional facility, that powerlessness is multiplied. This is a crucial point in their viral life cycle, if you will. The support systems they could have had in place, such as family, friends, other people living with HIV who they can trust, a good doctor who is knowledgeable about HIV and AIDS, and access to quality health care and treatment, can make all the difference in how well a person manages their diagnosis and their health going forward. But there are often times when even more basic needs, such as food, housing, substance abuse and/or mental health treatment, and employment, must first be addressed before someone can even consider treatment.
In March of 2007 I was invited to give a talk on AIDS activism at the Los Angeles County Jail, the largest county jail in the U.S., which has 20,000 inmates at any given time. Housed in the men's tower of the immense twin tower jail is the K-11 unit, where inmates who are gay, bisexual, or transgender can choose to live in a segregated facility (see "The K-11 Unit" in the May/June 2007 issue).
The experience for me was scary, exhilarating, and illuminating, all at once. It certainly quashed any gay prison sex fantasies I may have had, and it was nothing like the homoerotic scenes from the HBO series "Oz." After going through security and walking down what seemed liked endless hallways and locked, barred doors, I found myself standing in a glass control room which was stationed in the center of a large gymnasium-like room, with bunk beds all around, and no privacy whatsoever. The inmates who were in for murder or violent crimes were sectioned off from the rest of the unit, and it was all quite dehumanizing. It makes one wonder what living with the rest of the general population of the jail must be like, to choose to live in K-11.
I did learn a very valuable lesson that day, in that the experience shattered any preconceived notions I had held up until then about individuals who are behind bars. As I spoke to a group of about 50-60 men, I realized that these guys were bright, articulate, and eager to learn about HIV, and they blew me away with their knowledge and their questions. It was obvious that they had made a choice to exert some power over their own set of circumstances, and take control of their future. It gave me hope, and it was an experience I will never forget.
Just like those men in the K-11 unit had taken control of their lives and the situations they found themselves in, so can we all. If you're in an unhealthy relationship, get out. If you are suffering from an addiction, seek help. And if you don't like your job, well, at least you have one. Deal with that situation at work that makes you miserable. Or maybe it's time to think about going back to school so that you can get a job that's more fulfilling. Stand up for yourself, believe in yourself, and make that change, because believe me, no one is going to do it for you. You may just be in a prison of your own making, or you may be behind bars, but remember that you have the power to tear down those internal bars and start building a better life, one in which you are empowered to make healthy and positive choices that are good for you, and good for those you care about. The limits and challenges of living in any kind of prison, be it in our minds, our bodies, or the real thing, are never more powerful than our will to survive.
Take care of yourself, and each other.
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