THIS IS THE FOURTH ARTICLE IN A SIX-PART SERIES
“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 FROST—From Our Streets With Dignity—four 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 partners—the driver, Alan Riddle, a black man who is a cabbie by day, and the chef, another Latina, formerly homeless, who asked not to be identified—continue their search for the regulars.
Finally, around midnight, a group of homeless men and women surface—they 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 workers—from 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 rate—close 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 neighborhoods—where 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?”
Rollins’s colleague Antionettea “Dready” Etienne, like Laugier, was a member of the now famous ACE program while incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County. The program is a national role model for peer education on HIV in prisons, having produced countless women such as Dready (as she prefers to be called) and Laugier and spawned replicas in both male and female facilities around the state. As a result of the program’s success, New York’s system is widely considered one of the best at educating inmates on HIV, providing services for those who are positive, and easing their transition back into the community.
Rather than focusing on those living on the street, Dready targets young people and the drug lords they look up to. These teens are the sort who overlap with current and ex-offenders and form the link between HIV in the prison and HIV on the block. “When we talk to kids, we don’t just go in there flappin’ about HIV,” Rollins explains. “We talk about how it’s connected to drugs, how it’s connected to violence, how it’s connected to jails. Then they can relate to that. And they can relate to how that girl who’s all up in the drug dealer’s face ’cause he got a lot of gap in his pocket and drives a nice car might be willing to open her legs to him, not even realizing he might be HIV-positive.”
But as with so many ills in the community, Dready says the biggest roadblock is that many of the teens she meets don’t have much of a vision for tomorrow or much faith in their ability to survive to see it. Again, the forces that push some to commit the crimes that are sending black and brown people to prison erode others’ belief that protecting themselves from HIV is worth fretting about.
“Some of them really have some powerful dreams and goals,” Dready sighs, “but they don’t have the feeling that they’re gonna make it to see them accomplished.”
“I talk to kids who feel if they make it to 25 they’re old.” says Rollins. “They believe,’If I make it tomorrow, yo’ man I’m good.’ There’s something wrong with that.”
AIDS AND BLACK NEW YORKERS, A SIX-PART SERIES:
Part I: Emergency Call by Kai Wright
How AIDS Is Hurting Black Communities
Part II: Black, Gay, At-Risk by Kai Wright
Homophobia, Racism, and Rejection Fuel Rising Infections
Part III: The Tuskegee Effect by Kemba Johnson
For Blacks, a 28-Year-Old Study Is One of Many Barriers to HIV Prevention
Part IV: Double Jeopardy by Kai Wright
In NY State Blacks Rank Highest Among HIV-Positive Inmates
Part V: Black Women and HIV by Sharon Lerner
Rising Infection Rate Reflects an Age-Old Gender Imbalance