Exhibit in New York Unearths 1990s Activism by HIV-Positive Women in Prison

Contributing Editor
Part of the "Metanoia" exhibit on display at The Center in New York City from March 11 to April 29, 2019.
Judy Greenspan

March 11 through April 29, New York City's LGBT Community Center presents Metanoia, an extraordinary archive of letters, flyers, poems, newspaper articles, and other ephemera documenting activism both by and for women with HIV in prison in the early-to-mid 1990s, particularly in California's Chowchilla facility, where health care was virtually nonexistent and no institutional services existed for women with HIV/AIDS.

The exhibit is culled largely from The Center's 13 boxes of archives from Judy Greenspan, an activist who was a link between the women in prison and outside groups such as ACT UP San Francisco, and is inspired in part by [an exhibit last year in Los Angeles of 1980s to 90s AIDS prevention materials from the ONE Archives. It centers the work of HIV-positive women of color including Joann Walker, Betty Jo Ross, Twilllah Wallace, and Katrina Haslip, who have all since died of AIDS but who fought for HIV/AIDS care, prevention, and education while in prison in the 1990s.

On April 8 at 6 p.m., The Center will also present three short documentaries on the topic: I'm You, You're Me: Women Surviving Prison, Living with AIDS (Catherine Saalfield-Gund and Debra Levine, 1992); Blind Eye to Justice (Carol Leigh, 1998); and Digital Stories (From The Center and Margaret Rhee, 2011). Guests that night will include Greenspan and all the filmmakers.

We talked with Katherine Cheairs and Alexandra Juhasz, two of the exhibit's four curators -- the other two are Theodore Kerr and Jawanza Williams -- about the exhibit.

Tim Murphy: How did this exhibit come to be?

Alexandra Juhasz: There was a show last year at the ONE Archives in LA called "Lost and Found," focusing on AIDS prevention materials from across the decades, including safe sex and safe drug use, that curator David Frantz had put together. The New York LGBT Center asked me if I was interested in moving that show to New York. I was intrigued but said I wasn't comfortable curating it by myself and wanted to do it with a diverse group of activists. So last December I met with Kat [Katherine Cheairs], Ted [Theodore Kerr], and Jawanza [Jawanza Williams]. We know one another from the collective "What Would an HIV Doula Do?", which is a group of clinical providers, artists, and writers pulled together by Ted.

Katherine Cheairs: So we were collaborating on this exhibit, which features archival ephemera that speaks to a historical moment and centers people we haven't heard from a lot in the HIV narrative, including women of color and trans women. We were digging into the archives to see what voices we might find. And the LGBT Center had the archives of Judy Greenspan, who [lives in San Francisco] and was a real bridge between the activist/nonprofit sector and the federal government and the incarceration system when it came to HIV in prison. She worked with ACT UP San Francisco's Prison Issues Committee, then went on to work with Catholic Charities. Her archive is a treasure trove of knowledge and information: letters and documentation by and about prisoners with HIV, not just from California but all over the country.

TM: Tell us about some of what you found in those boxes.

KC: There is a newsletter called The Fire Inside put out by California women prisoners that started in the 1990s. And in one of the early issues, I found a story about a woman in Chowchilla named Joann Walker, with a very small photo of her. She looks so assured in it. The article said that there had been a successful campaign for the compassionate release from Chowchilla of a woman very sick from AIDS named Betty Jo Ross. It turns out that Joann had become an activist through this campaign. Judy Greenspan was the liaison between them and the activists on the outside.

AJ: There was no care whatsoever for women with AIDS or HIV in these facilities, so a lot of the activism was about granting this compassionate release.

KC: It's important to note that Joann is the one who contacted ACT UP San Francisco and said, "You need to know what's going on here, because women are dying in here and we need some advocacy and support." So there is a lot of correspondence between Joann and Judy over several months. The letters reveal how strong Joann was. I knew none of this prior to opening that box. Joann was granted compassionate release, but she died in 1995. Betty Jo died around the same time. Twillah Wallace advocated for Joann's release. Twillah lived until 2006, and she's featured in one of the films we'll show.

AJ: In New York, there was a parallel story with Katrina Haslip, who was a prisoner activist in the ACE program at the Bedford Hills women's prison. We also found evidence of chants that activists were using at various demonstrations, and we've hung them on the walls of the exhibit. Like, "Women die, they do nothing!" And, "Women with AIDS can't wait till later/We're not your fucking incubator!" And, "If you're poor and a woman, it's no surprise/Carceral medicine is telling you lies."

KC: In one letter, Joann writes, "The stress level here at CCWS [Chowchilla] is so great that I had 565 T cells when I was first incarcerated and now I have under 100. I'm not the only one. T cells drop like flies around here! Upon my release, I will be asking the state for $10,000 for each T cell I lost due to their murder game." There's this incredible defiance on the part of women of color fighting for their lives that shows up in these archives. Women prisoners weren't getting treatment for all kinds of preventable illnesses. So there's this ferocious take-no-prisoners approach that [activists] were exercising both inside and out.

TM: And you have some contemporary images in the exhibit as well?

KC: Yes, we commissioned portraits from the studio Lolita Lens [Photography] of Kiara St. James, Malaya Manacop, Rusti Miller-Hill, Nathylin Flowers Adesegun, and Shirlene Cooper, all women of color working in the HIV space today in New York. The work the women did in prison in the 1990s continues to be a source of inspiration today.

AJ: The title of the show, Metanoia, means transformation through change. HIV has been something that often would bring people into activism, community, and their best selves. The lives of Joann and the other women in the show really embody that.