Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Deaf, numb and blind

It is bleak. It isn't "OZ", It isn't "Prison Break".

Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away...only a phase...
-Joni Mitchell, "The Last Time I Saw Richard."

by Billy Minshall

It is hard to know where to begin as I attempt to recollect my time as an HIV test counselor at the Cook County Jail.

I now have a little distance from this experience, having left my job there nearly nine months ago. However, I frequently field questions regarding this experience. I always feel that what I tell colleagues or friends fall short of their expectations. I have to explain that I rarely felt threatened while I worked there. I have to try to convey to my gay brothers that there is no resemblance between slickly produced prison porn, and what goes on at 26th and California. I try to convey that most offenders are there for traffic violations and other misdemeanors. Most are not murderers, most not criminal masterminds. Most are repeat drug offenders or sex workers. Many are homeless. This generally isn't what people want to hear, but it is the reality. It is bleak. It isn't "OZ", It isn't "Prison Break". It is much sadder and, in my opinion, scarier than all the incarceration cliches.

Condoms are contraband in Cook County Jail. Being that I was an HIV test counselor/Health Educator this made my job seem, at times, hypocritical. After all, how was I supposed to effectively educate a population plagued with stereotypes and misinformation, and at the same time deny them the means to protect themselves? Jail folklore includes many detainees (not inmates, as they have not been convicted of anything. This is jail, not prison) using Cheetos bags from their lunches for contraception. Although not ideal, at least they were being resourceful. Remember, most of these guys are in and out of the jail system constantly. They have husbands and wives, girlfriends and boyfriends, parents and children. And some of them are having, most likely, unprotected encounters with members of the same sex. Do they disclose this information to their sex partners in "the real world"? Hardly. But, what happens in jail, doesn't stay in jail, as much as everyone wants it to.

The stigma surrounding HIV is alive and well, particularly in the jail community. Conspiracy theories and misinformation abound within those walls. I was once told by a corrections officer that Magic Johnson didn't have HIV and that AIDS had needed a spokesman and they used Magic for this. I argued that an NBA All Star would have no reason to do this, particularly in 1991 when the only HIV treatment was toxic amounts of AZT, a mono therapy method that saved some but killed others. I conceded that perhaps HIV was made by the government. After all, it is an awfully smart little retrovirus and seems a little man made to me as well. However, I stressed that the origin was not of the highest importance, rather what we could do to prevent and, if necessary, treat the virus.

This discussion quickly unraveled. Most detainees and staff in CCDOC are African American. I was once referred to as "Opie" and "Snow White". I began to understand that, as a white boy from Kansas, I did not understand. I had not lived the same struggles. No Tuskegee, no history of slavery, and no mistrust of the establishment that still runs so deep in the hearts of so many. I will never truly understand. I realized that I am only called to listen with a compassionate heart, and that has to be enough. I cannot help my skin color, or the sum of my experience any more than anyone else. I had to concede that I couldn't fix this, no matter how much I wanted to.

22.5 million people are infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. However, in the 3rd largest city in the wealthiest nation (for now) on Earth, we forbid condoms to our imprisoned. I believe that this says something about how we view those less fortunate than us. We choose to turn our backs, turn a blind eye and pretend there is no crisis in our own back yard. We want to be comfortably numb, so to speak. Too much reality is unpleasant. But how can some of us justify helping all the "poor people" in Africa when there are literally thousands of souls crying out in this city. You can't take the plank out of your neighbor's eye when you have a great big one in your own, to loosely quote the book of Matthew.

Perhaps a new administration will bring light to this situation. Perhaps not. In a time of global economic meltdown, it seems we are increasingly worried about ourselves, our jobs, our comfort. There is nothing wrong with that, until it becomes the focus of one's universe. We forget that we all belong to the same universal laws. Action, reaction. None of us exempt from consequence.

I don't have the answers. I just know it is not just. It seems we put more value on certain lives than others and I'm sick of it. I would like to believe that we are all in a period of transformation, of growing beautiful in that chrysalis stage, gearing up to emerge with strong, gorgeous wings. If we can band together to call for change in this country's administration, surely something can be done about this. I must admit that I doubt it will change. I would love to be proven wrong.

[Read "Full Blown God", also by Billy Minshall, on LifeLube.]

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