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"It's been a slow night. We're looking for sex workers, people living on the street, or users out looking for a fix. But we see only cops--and that worries everybody," says Frenchie Laugier.
"Mama, you need condoms?" Laugier belts out when she finally spots a regular. "Sure, but dry," the woman responds--she'll be giving some blow jobs, and doesn't want the lubrication.
Laugier also gives the woman a hot meal, a tuna fish sandwich, and some canned goods; then she throws in a scouting report on police in the area. "Be safe, honey; there's a lot of po-po around."
It's learned advice. Laugier, a Latina, spent seven years upstate on drug distribution charges before coming to work for FROSTFrom Our Streets With Dignityfour years ago. She knows what people face in "the [prison] system," which, to her, is just an extension of the streets.
Back in the van, Laugier and her partnersthe driver, Alan Riddle, a black man who is a cabbie by day, and the chef, another Latina, formerly homeless, who asked not to be identifiedcontinue their search for the regulars.
Finally, around midnight, a group of homeless men and women surfacethey are all black, Latino, or a little bit of both. Laugier feeds them and is now comfortable calling it a night; she knows where to find her "babies" tomorrow, and she knows they're not back in jail.
The lives of African Americans and Latinos overlap greatly. They make their homes in the same neighborhoods and face similar social pressures. Among the things they share most intimately is a difficult relationship with the criminal justice system. Both are heavily overrepresented in the prison population. As of 1997, 1 in 31 black men and 1 in 79 Latino men in the U.S. were serving time.
The truth behind these numbers is complicated. It includes everything from sentencing laws that excessively punish petty drug crimes to overaggressive policing of minority neighborhoods to cyclical poverty that drives many in those same areas to nonviolent crimes born of economics. And not surprisingly, HIV has burrowed into the populations that the numbers represent.
The resulting prison epidemic offers a magnified view of the disease's impact on black and brown communities and reveals one more stealth route for the virus's continued spread in minority neighborhoods.
Laugier's clients are and have been the core at-risk group for HIV since the beginning of the epidemic. They are primarily injection drug users and sex workersfrom straight women to transgender women to men having sex with men. They are people whose daily existence is shaped by the most risky behaviors for transmitting HIV on one hand, and an ongoing game of cat and mouse with the police on the other. So, there's little wonder that the HIV infection rate in New York State prisons is higher than in any geographic area in the state.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, prisons statewide have both the highest number of HIV-positive inmates in the country, around 7500 at the end of 1997, and the highest HIV infection rateclose to 11 percent of all prisoners are infected. In New York State, blacks and Latinos, are hardest hit, representing 48 and 45 percent respectively of the prisons' HIV-positive population. Whites account for 7 percent.
"Drugs. Streets," Laugier deadpans when asked to explain these numbers. "They're in prison because they're from the ghettos. The same forces that put people of color in jail," she explains, "spread HIV."
John Anthony Eddie, Peer Training Institute coordinator for the Staten Island AIDS Task Force, agrees. "The jail population is a direct reflection of what is happening in the greater society in terms of HIV and AIDS." Eddie runs an HIV peer education program at the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island.
Every Tuesday morning, he greets about 40 new inmates and gives them an HIV 101: Use clean tools for tattoos, protect yourself when having anal sex (the state doesn't provide condoms, so inmates often fashion makeshift rubbers from latex gloves), and come see the Task Force for help when you get out.
What happens when ex-offenders transition from prison back to the block is an area of great concern for those working to stem HIV's spread in black communities. It's unclear whether more people are getting infected while in jail, or if they are just finding out about their infections while locked up. Either way, because many prisoners do test positive for the first time while behind bars, programs like Eddie's seek to capture their attention before they return to their neighborhoodswhere they are likely to conceal an infection and return to at-risk behavior.
The question of how HIV-positive prisoners will behave when they reenter the community, with or without knowledge of their HIV status, is central to stopping the epidemic. "When I come back, it's not like there's a big stamp on my forehead telling everybody I'm positive," says Lanere Holmes Rollins, who runs ACE Out, a group of female ex-offenders who do HIV prevention work in their communities. "I've been in prison working out, I look good, I'm physically fit. What do you know?"