Hello there readers. I was thinking back when I first arrived in prison on May 1, 1994, at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). The transport van coming from the intake center pulls into the sally port in front of this very old prison built back in the 1800s. I looked through the cage of the van and said to myself, "So this is where I am going to die?" Upon entry into the receiving area, the large, heavy steel door with bars on it just like in the movies opened. The group I came in with, some had been there before. I followed their lead. Once I was in the building, the same door was closed with such a slam and ringing of the bars I knew that I was in prison. I had a mugshot taken and was assigned a state ID number to be used for most everything, which was printed on an ID card I had been given to carry with me.
From here I had to go to "group living," where inmates worked and assigned the housing to all prisoners. Since my case was high profile, they knew I was coming and had a cell picked out for me. I was told that I was to be housed with an inmate who was known for assaulting his cellmates. Ok, now I was scared! I can't talk to the guards because I would be a snitch, so what now? I go to the cell to meet the guy; fortunately for me he was scared of the guy "Dying of AIDS." He tells the cop to move me just minutes after I moved into the cell. I was so relieved that I was put into a single-man cell.
There were inmates who played mind games trying to get me to check into protective custody just so I would self-segregate. No way I was going to do this! I'd go to the chow hall only to hear from people that I should have my own utensils, plate, cup and bowl so as not to infect anyone with AIDS. On shower days I'd be told to go to the infirmary to shower. No way I'd do that too unless the cops made me. People kept their distance from me, living in their paranoia. I was treated like I was less than human by some guards. I couldn't tell anyone in a position of authority for fear of retaliation or being killed and it looking like a suicide. Just nine years before, a former warden of the penitentiary was killed for "allegedly" wanting to blow the lid off the corruption going on at OSP. Did I want to get murdered because I spoke out against wrong doing? NO!
I was lucky to meet such an awesome individual later on. She was an HIV counselor who was affected by this disease that took a family member from her. Her name was Danna Ridling and if I could know that she was reading this, I'd say that you are the most warm and caring person I've met since being in prison. Thank you for listening to me and comforting my tears. You were a surrogate mother to me and I owe you a huge debt of gratitude that I can never repay. I was sad to see you leave us. You are missed!
Eventually I got involved in programs. One in particular was called the HIV/AIDS Awareness Program (HAAP). This program used to educate inmates about all diseases and answer the questions they had concerning fears based on rumors. This was a great thing, especially for the World's AIDS Day celebrations. There was so much community support, but gone are those days ...
I had decided after three or four years in prison to get involved in activism and help those who did not have the courage. A lifer friend I had made told me to stand for something, fall for everything or die for nothing. The HIV momentum was moving forward publicly for those that should be treated equally, since I had community support I'm going forward full throttle. I was known to the prison population as the face of HIV that wasn't going to just lie down and die!
To the readers: Don't let anything stand in your way to do the right thing for those afflicted with HIV/AIDS. We are still humans who made some bad choices that cost us a positive HIV diagnosis. Life is not over, just the opposite. You can make a difference and live just for that purpose if you can't see anything else right now. I am grateful for you as a survivor, knowing in my heart and mind that you can make a difference, even if it's as simple as just being there for them in their time of need.
Stay healthy and stay safe.
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