Asking help for prisoners with AIDS

By Yusuf A. Shakoor

I just finished reading the March/April 2000 November Coalition newsletter, The Razor Wire, and want to commend you highly on your message "Two Million is Too Many".

I have been imprisoned for the last twenty years, and in this time I have devoted my energy to helping others regain their freedom and redress the wrongs this corrupt criminal justice system has done to them. Along with utilizing my time and energy helping heal others, I provide pastoral care to those in need by creating hospice programs for handicapped and invalid prisoners who are casualties of this drug war.

When I first came to prison, the New York State prison population was at 27,000, and now it is nearing 80,000. Through selective law enforcement and selective prosecution, The State of New York has created a prison industrial complex unfathomed in human history.

I have not only witnessed the ravages of this corrupt war imposed on prisoners and their families, but I have also witnessed the damage the drugs, the chemicals, have had on prisoners. New York State led the nation for many years in prisoners' deaths due to HIV/AIDS, and the largest risk groups amongst prisoners are intravenous drug users. For the last fifteen years I, along with several comrades, have toiled earnestly to establish effective HIV/AIDS education and counseling programs inside these walls of wire, steel and fear called prison. We are witnesses to many prisoners 'paroled to death' due to the lack of medical treatment and holistic care in most state institutions.

Prisoners suffering this dilemma are affected even more negatively by the lack of supportive care they seldom receive. Usually ostracized by their family, friends, peers and captors, many fall into a life of permanent despair and hopelessness because no one writes; they can't call anyone, and they receive no visitors. This daily experience, in the long run, exacerbates illness because negative stress and low self-esteem depress already depleted immune systems. So we are fighting a war on more levels than one!

Recently, one of the most respected organizations advocating for prisoners living with the virus - The People With AIDS Coalition of New York (PWAC) - closed because of budget constraints. Our greatest ally over the last twelve years in this area besides Judy was the PWAC Newsline under the editorships of Mary Cotter, Becky Trotter and then our beloved Cheryl Whittier.

At PWAC prisoners found a compassionate, caring and supportive place to air concerns, hopes and tribulations in fighting this unsparing virus. Afflicted prisoners found support, advocacy and a place where they could network with others and gain insight from other prisoners' experiences. You would always find sections in the Newsline entitled; "Prisoners' Perspectives", "Letters from Prison", and "Prison Legal Matters" that gave prisoners insight, knowledge and shared experiences for them to use personally or collectively in fighting the spread of this devastating disease. Prisoners also received the Newsline free of charge.

Recently, we found out that PWAC had closed, and the Bureau of Prisons absorbed many of its services. We were left in shock and dismay over this sudden and crucial loss. It is as if we lost our clarion, our powerful voice, and our place of hope and direction. I did not even get a chance to say goodbye to Cheryl Whittier, a person who showed prisoners unconditional love and concern, and never left them abandoned or unheard.

If you read this, Cheryl, know that we love you and will be eternally grateful for your unlimited patience, advocacy and care. PWAC people not only just 'talked the talk', but they 'walked the walk' and were true voices for the oppressed of the imprisoned HIV community. Without the PWAC Newsline many prisoners, both men and women, will be at a great disadvantage.

The closing of the PWAC Newsline blunts an otherwise long trend of progressive advocacy and awareness for the oppressed and indigent PWA. It was a haven for the downtrodden infected with this virus to find comfort, support, tranquility and a podium to voice fears and experience of discrimination and abuse. With the closing of the PWAC Newsline, the prisoners in New York State, and those on the East Coast, have lost a huge voice in the fight against AIDS.

What can you do to help? Our survival, individually and collectively, will only come about with continued, long-term help from those outside these walls. What suggestions do you have? Are you willing to help? I am here to hear from you and will appreciate your questions and concerns. So let's talk! We can be about building a bond of supportive networking that the politically powerful cannot cause to become undone! God bless you.

Anyone willing to help can write me at the following address:

Yusuf A. Shakoor #82A0304, BN-159
Sullivan Correctional Facility
P.O. Box AG
Fallsburg, New York 12733-0116

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