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Women Prisoners Fight Aids Without Magic's Publicity

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EËESÜIISHI Dashima died of AIDS in prison, denied aerosolized pentamidine when itcould have prolonged her life, attached to a respirator and shackled to her bed, metal chains on both hands and both feet. A prison guard was the last person she saw in her life. Maria found out she was HTV+ (positive) from seeing "AIDS" in huge red letters on her prison file, reading over a guard ' s shoulder while she was being transported. No one had told her. Carmen is living with HIV, worried that rumors about her will spread, that her "friends" will stop talking to her, that her cellmates will force her to move. She is afraid to teil her family, worried about hugging her children, and fearful that she will die without ever being free. JoAnn's friends who are HIV+ come to her in the middle of the night to talk and to cry . She knows that she will never again see her Hl V+ brother, who is too poor and sick to visit. These tragic stories are typical. Women prisoners with AIDS are the most forgotten of all people with AIDS. Outside, women are the fastest-growing group that is becoming infected and AIDS is one of the top five causes of death for women aged 1 5 to 44. It's the leading cause of death for Black and Latina women. In the world outside, survival time from diagnosis is lower for women. HIV+ prisoners live only half as long as PW As (People With AIDS) on the outside. Most HTV+ prisoners are Black or Puerto Rican, reflecting the disproportionate rates of both incarceration and illness found in a racist society. HIV+ women are nearly invisible. The AIDS establishment excludes women from research, studies and experimental drug trials. The definition of "who has AIDS" discriminates against women because many HIV-related infections occurring only in women are not included in medical standards for AIDS diagnosis. Many women aren't tested for HIV until their immune systems are too compromised for early intervenu'on or immune system enhancemenL Many women prisoners are first diagnosed as having AIDS when they die. Prison medical care is universally abysmal, but the care that HIV+ women get is criminal neglecL Prisons don't voluntarily give blood tests and regular T-cell counts. Prisoners have no access to drug trials. Almost without exception, AZT is the only drug available. While in the rare instance DDI can be had, no prison or jail uses alternative treatments or acupuncture. Preventive materials like condoms, denlal dams and bleach are contraband. So it is here at FCI Pleasanton , where all of us have been touched by AIDS. Until recently, HIV was kept almost invisible among the 850 women here. HIV+ prisoners who developed symptoms were sent to the women' s prison medical facility in ington, Kentucky. There was no AIDS education. While HIV tests were available, and post-test counseling was not. HTV+ women still can 't get special diets or vitamins. Our new peer education program - PLACE (Pleasanton AIDS Counseling and Education) - is changing some of this. To represent the people here, the project was discussed in the Black Cultural Workshop, Four Winds Cultural Group (Native American women) and the Latina Club. An AIDS education planning group was born. A psychology staff member who had long been responsible for AIDS education became the group's sponsor. We started with self-education. Not all of us read well - or read English - so we looked for materials that were easy to read and for Spanish literature for the 40% of us who speak Spanish. We tried to get information specifically about women, and answers to questions that we lesbians have about safe sex. From the start we've tried to make this our program, defined and run by women prisoners, within the extreme restrictions of prison. That meant each of us taking responsibility for a basic presentation on an aspect of HIV AIDS. It wasn't easy for many. Most of us had never spoken in front of a group. By this process, we confronted deeper issues of empowerment and selfdirection. Women prisoners have no power over the tiniest details of life. One of the main control methods is to treat us like children. Institutionalization makes people internalizepowerlessnessandinfantilization. Small steps like learning and teaching, or making plans, are really giant steps that build power, commitment and self-esteem. Those of us with more education become more tive as we listen to and learn firom women of different backgrounds. Our group's perspective is that nobody is exempt from the effects of AIDS . Eighty percent of us are mothers who worry about our children, particularly sexually active teenagers and future unbom babies. Many of us were IV drug users who shared works or traded sex for drugs (including in prison). Few husbands or lovers have gone without sex while we ' ve been locked up, so we need to protect ourselves from their sexual encounters. Many women have sex with male guards who are promiscuous and don't use condoms. Lesbians can be at risk, depending on sexual practices and drug use. Most of us have friends or relatives with Hl V or AIDS. Due to this universal risk, we promote universal concern and education and try to reach the entire spectrum of women here. We believe that AIDS should be treated as a chronic disease, not a death sentence. This helps HIV+ women to fight stress and depression in already stressful surroundings. It means emphasis on nutrition and exercise, and struggle for better medical care and more treatment options. In PLACE, we help each other to maintain a positive attitude and fight for our rights. We developed an AIDS education program for the whole population. We made up questionnaires in English and Spanish, to be distributed to the whole institution before open forums in our living units. We're producing cartoon posters and bringing in outside speakers. We plan AIDS video showings. We've been granted permission to do AIDS education as part of new inmate orientation. It took four months to win approval to distribute questionnaires, hold discussion groups and display posters. Even then, the posters' cartoons about sex between women and how to clean works with bleach were censored. Another proposal, that a list of PLACE members be provided to all HIV+ women so that they can choose peer counseling was rejected, allegedly due to prison official "concern" for the privacy of inmates. Peer counseling will continue, with or without permission. Our hugs will just be illegal instead of part of an approved counseling session. PLACE is still in its early stages of development We are grateful for the help that we have received from activists on the outside. But most of the support has been from individual friends rather than groups committed to prisoners with AIDS. We need you! We need literature, videos and speakers. We need information on new treatments, and people willing to come into the prison to provide unavailable services. Most of all, we need people on the outside to help us fight for humane conditions in which to live - and die. NOTE: Linda Evans is a political prisoner at Pleasanton Federal Correctional Instituíion in California. In the 1960s, she was the Michigan-Ohio regional organizerfor Studentsfor a Democratie Society, in the 1970s a member of the Weather Underground and in 1989-90 one of the Resistance Conspiracy defendants. Imprisoned since May 11, 1985, she is serving a 50-year sentence, 35 years for using afalse name to buy legal firearms, 10 years for conspiring to resist the government and aiding in a 1983 bombing of the U.S. Capítol, andfive years for harboring a fugitive. She is as politically active as a prisoner can be. Write to her asfollows: LindaEvans, #19973-054, FCI Pleasanton, 5701 8th St., Camp Parks, Dublin, CA 94568.


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