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Stemming the Spread of HIV Behind Bars

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Stemming the Spread of HIV Behind Bars

Stemming the Spread of HIV Behind Bars

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I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. For 27 years, Reverend Dorris Green has worked in Chicago to slow the spread of HIV. She's also in favor of HIV screening and condom distribution in the state's prisons. But she says that too often, her concerns fall on deaf ears. A warning to our listeners. This conversation may be graphic in nature and not suited for children.

Reverend Dorris Green is the director of community affairs for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Thanks for coming on the show.

Reverend DORRIS GREEN (Director of Community Affairs, The AIDS Foundation of Chicago): Thanks so much. It's nice to be here.

CHIDEYA: So Reverend Green, we just heard from a survivor of prison rape. And, you know, what do you see as the key obstacles to making condoms available in the U.S. prison system?

Rev. GREEN: I work here at the AIDS Foundation in the policy department. And what we are seeing is, we need more education here, and I'm sure this is happening in other states. Educating our legislators about HIV. And also letting them know that, yes, there are - there is sex going on in prisons. We have a hard time here in this state convincing our legislators that people are actually having sex in prison.

CHIDEYA: You know, you're a reverend and you approach this issue of HIV from a faith-based perspective. So some people say, you know, homosexuality is a sin. That may not be applicable to the cases of rape, but some people may feel, hey, consensual sex, they get what they deserve. I'm just saying things that other people are saying. And does that - do you think there's prejudice in the way people are treating this issue?

Rev. GREEN: Well, it could be. But my position, I'm a minister true enough, but I think I'm a little different type of minister. I - even working with the churches - I just think that churches and other people, we've demonized sex in such a way to make people think that people can't have sex, are not having sex, and it's a certain group of people. And it's not any of that to me. It's more of people being unprotected in this hour. I'm not concerned about who people sleep with. It's not my business. But what I am concerned about more than anything else is that condoms is available for people to be safe.

CHDEYA: Let's talk about that availability. I understand that the state of Illinois has been resistant to your efforts. So what have your conversations been, or what's your approach to advocacy?

Reverend GREEN: Well, my approach now, I - in our state, I have to admit that in IDLC here, we're working toward educating the people and not condemning even those that don't really understand. So I'd rather take that approach than to just say that it would never happen. So we are working at doing different programs and trying to come up with a, what we would call a demonstration project. It may be one of our jail sites, to start some type of distribution in the jail, on the jail level.

So we are having conversations at the AIDS Foundation about things like that, about presenting these things to our legislators instead of just saying, they would never, you know. Because I'm seeing change here in this state. I'm seeing information being put in prisons throughout the state for the families of incarcerated people. Never seen that before. There's legislation that has been passed, the African-American Response Act was passed in '05 here. And in that legislation, there's language about prevention in prison.

So our state is beginning to do more - some more work around prevention and testing in prison and peer-to-peer education in prison. So I have to work with them now, because it appears to me that they are getting on board on some levels. The condoms is something we're going to have to work on. And we don't have a problem here at ALC in educating our legislators around this subject.

CHIDEYA: This issue might be even more controversial when it comes to women, because there are incidences of prisoner rape in women's prisons between prisoners and guards. There's also consensual sex between female prisoners and guards, and then there are consensual and non-consensual sex between women. Have you addressed the issue of women prisoners at all?

Reverend GREEN: No, not at this point as far as condoms. No, we haven't, but I'm so looking forward to the conversation in our groups. We're beginning to meet here - when I say meet, I'm talking about bringing in community advocates from all over different communities. Bringing them together to start talking about, when we present this legislation to our legislators, what are going to have in it? I'm sure that we need to have some language in there for females as well. And I'm sure it'll be there. So no, we haven't started it, but it will be part of the package. Because you're absolute right, it's not just the male-to-male, it is, you know, it is officers and, you know. So we have to kind of make sure that that's in the agenda, in the plan.

CHIDEYA: What do you see, or what would you like to see ahead overall, not just for Illinois, but for the country?

Rev. GREEN: I would like to see the religious - let's start with that group - the religious community to be - not to be so homophobia and stigma towards people that are HIV-positive. I would like to see prevention throughout the states, all states. We don't have many prevention tools, but what we have should be for everyone, not just for people in the community or in the prison, because I don't separate the communities. The rate of people coming in and out of prisons in our state is so rapid till you can't separate - at least I can't separate them. People in prison, people out. They're in and out and in and out. So I say people need protection, need to be able to have protection available for them if they choose to have sex. We can't stop people from having sex. It's obvious. But we can make tools available for everyone that need them.

CHIDEYA: Well, Reverend Green, thank you so much.

Rev. GREEN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Reverend Dorris Green is the director of community affairs for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

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