As we enter the new millennium, and the end of the second decade of fighting HIV/AIDS, we find, especially here on the East Coast, that the most prominent areas to become downsized or discontinued due to the lack of funding and support are the groups and organizations supporting and advocating for prisoners infected and affected by the virus.
Since 1986, when the main thrust amongst prisoners was to organize and develop the needed education and services to help stem the flow of the rapidly spreading virus, we realized we would not be successful if we did not have outside support and a place where prisoners could network their concerns and progress in this area.
We would not have been successful in the earlier stages if it was not for the selfless efforts of Judy Greenspan, as the ACLU AIDS Information Officer, where she created a national network for prisoners to share ideas, strategies, support, and efforts made in their battle to fight this disease, enabling us to create a base to develop some of the most effective programs surrounding HIV/AIDS education, counseling and supportive care.
With the sudden and alarming death of our beloved comrade Kuaisi Balagood in 1987, a network of prisoners was formed, and through their efforts and the support received from Judy Greenspan, along with Beverly Abplanaph-Gaede and Geri Pomerantz of Prisoners' Legal Services of New York, we piloted the thrust toward developing HIV/AIDS education, and counseling programs through all the prisons in New York State.
But with Judy leaving her post at the ACLU, and Prisoners' Legal Services being downsized and eventually closed completely under the Pataki administration, we slowly witnessed our support and networking base dwindle. Prisoners searched for a place they could network, share, and gain supportive help. Programs such as ARCS (AIDS Related Community Services) and Choices II (Center for Community Alternatives) helped immensely toward training peer educators and counselors and providing up-to-date information so that we can remain fresh with our knowledge and aware of the changing trends going on in the HIV community. But they are restricted when it comes to being advocates and an external support base and network for prisoners infected or affected by the virus.
Our greatest ally over the past twelve years in this area, besides Judy, was the PWAC Newsline, under the editorship of Mary Cotter, Becky Trotter, and then our beloved Cheryl Whittier. Prisoners found a compassionate, caring, and supportive place to air their concerns, trials, and tribulations in fighting this virus, and they received supportive help, advocacy, and a place where they could network with others and find insight from other prisoners' experiences. You could always find sections in the Newsline entitled "Prisoners' Perspectives," "Letters from Prison," and "Prison Legal Matters" that gave prisoners insight, knowledge, and shared experiences for them to use personally or collectively in fighting the spread of this devastating disease. Prisoners also received the Newsline free of charge.
Recently we found out, only by reading about it in Body Positive, that the PWAC was closed and a lot of its services were absorbed by BP. Many of us were left in shock and dismay over this sudden and crucial loss. It is as if we lost our clarion, our voice, our place of hope and direction. I did not even get a chance to say goodbye to Cheryl Whittier, a person who showed prisoners unconditional love and care and never left them abandoned or uncared for, as many who claim to be there for prisoners have, though they still claim that they are our ardent supporters. If you read this, Cheryl, know that we love you and will be eternally grateful for your unconditional love, advocacy, and care. These were not people who just talked the talk, but they walked the walk and were true clarions for the oppressed of the HIV community. Without the PWAC Newsline, many prisoners, both men and women, will be at a loss.
The closing of the PWAC Newsline ends a long trend of progressive advocacy and awareness for the oppressed and indigent PWA. It was a haven for the downtrodden infected with this virus to find comfort, support, tranquility, and a podium to voice their fears and experiences of discrimination and abuse, finding a supporting friend and advocate there always willing to help. With the closing of the PWAC Newsline, the prisoners in New York State, and those on the East Coast, have lost their supportive voice in the fight against AIDS and the uncaring and inhuman system they are imprisoned in. If you are a person who has formerly served time in prison, I know you can understand this dire need.
What can you do to help? Our survival, individually and collectively, will only come about with the help and support of those outside these walls. What suggestions do you have? Are you willing to help? I am here to hear from you, and will appreciate your help and concern. So let's talk! Let's build a bond and supportive network that the system will not cause to become undone!
Yours in the Struggle,
Yusuf A. Shakoor
Sullivan Correctional Facility
P.O. Box AG
Fallsburg, New York 12733-0116
Throughout its thirteen-year history, Body Positive has tried to serve the broadest possible audience in the HIV/AIDS community, including people with HIV who are incarcerated. Space and budget do not allow us to set aside a separate section for prisoners -- or any other population -- without doing a disservice to the rest of our readers. What we do try to do is cover prisoners' issues in our features and give prisoners an equal opportunity to be heard on issues of concern to them and/or to others with the virus.
Prison-specific features do not run every month, nor do prisoner-written commentaries, but they do appear regularly. We have run features recently on HIV in prison, the criminalization of HIV, and the Women's Prison Association and Home, and other features on prison-specific issues or on service or advocacy organizations that help prisoners and ex-prisoners are planned.
The "Personal Perspective" column is a forum where those infected and affected by HIV can share personal experiences and philosophies, and it frequently features contributions by prisoners. This column, "Viewpoint," offers more of an op-ed opportunity, where individuals can speak out on issues of importance in HIV and AIDS, and prisoners are more than welcome to contribute. In "Positively Poetic," we run the poetry of people with HIV, and prisoners are again among them. And prisoners are probably the group whose letters to the editor are most frequently published.
As for the many prisoners who are looking for friends or correspondents, either while they are behind bars or after they come out, it would be a nice thing if we could run a section just for their letters. We can't. On the other hand, we do have a personals section, "Positive Connections," that is very much utilized by incarcerated individuals. While there is a nominal contribution asked for placement of a personal ad, it is routinely waived (like our requested subscription contribution) for prisoners and others with HIV who are unable to afford it.
In addition, Body Positive magazine is only part of the Body Positive organization, and our publication of prison-related articles or prisoners' writings is only part of the agency's commitment to incarcerated PWAs. When PWAC closed its doors last summer and BP absorbed some of its programs into its own service menu, the PWAC Prison Pen Pal Project was among them. That program was intended to provide volunteer pen pals upon request to prisoners who wanted them. We found, however, that the program had a backlog of several hundred prisoners and no volunteer pen pals. The program was therefore modified and other avenues explored. BP now runs a Prison Program that supplies information to prisoners by mail and makes referrals to service organizations that serve those coming out of prison. That program is also exploring with other pen pal programs the possibility of working together to serve the maximum number of prisoners.
In another effort to fill the gap left by the modification of the Prison Pen Pal Program and the loss of the prison-specific section of Newsline_, BP is working with the Latino Commission on AIDS and its Alliance for Inmates with AIDS to create a quarterly newsletter for all prisoners and their healthcare providers in New York State._
Individuals interested in receiving information or referrals through the Prison Project or in receiving or contributing to the upcoming prisoners' newsletter should write to the Prison Project at Body Positive, 19 Fulton Street, Suite 308B, New York, NY 10038. And, as always, we welcome submissions from prisoners to be considered for possible publication in Body Positive magazine.