Academic journal article Social Justice

Yell Real Loud: HIV-Positive Women Prisoners Challenge Constructions of Justice

Academic journal article Social Justice

Yell Real Loud: HIV-Positive Women Prisoners Challenge Constructions of Justice

Article excerpt

Society works backwards a lot. It lets your dad send you to school with black eyes and your husband lock you up in an institution when you're fourteen because he's leaving town and doesn't trust you. But society wants you to live up to its rules....

-- Rosemary Willeby (1999), prisoner and HIV peer educator, one month before dying of liver disease at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, California. She was serving a five-year sentence for a nonviolent offense.

An activist is somebody who will fight and stand against all odds to win rights for others. I have been an activist on the inside. Being positive and being put in a group of people who are labeled unsafe makes me fight harder. I have been treated with prejudice because I question "Why?" I am harassed because of my demands for answers.

-- Theresa Martinez (2000), HIV peer advocate and prisoner activist.


THIS ARTICLE DOCUMENTS THE OPINIONS AND EXPERIENCES OF HIV-POSITIVE women prisoner activists in order to develop a progressive antiviolence strategy aimed at increasing the safety of women while simultaneously challenging the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. The rhetoric of "public safety," 'justice," and "victims' rights" is regularly used by the political Right to justify what we believe is excessive imprisonment and the widening net of the criminal justice system. As a result, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world (Lichtenstein and Kroll, 1996: 17) and imprisons a disproportionate number of poor people of color. This disparate policy of imprisonment has resulted in the destruction of families and entire communities.

Yet, with the only discourse on safety being offered by the political Right, impoverished communities suffering from high crime rates are forced to rely on this same paradigm in their own search for safety. Such communities are plagued by victimization and community fragmentation due to excessive imprisonment. Consequently, we must develop a social justice strategy that addresses disenfranchised communities' needs for safety, but does not contribute to the destruction of these same communities.

Victimization and excessive imprisonment have acutely affected the community of HIV-positive women prisoners. The dramatic increase in imprisonment in the United States has been accompanied by epidemic rates of HIV among prisoners. [1] Moreover, women currently incarcerated in the U.S. suffer disproportionately higher rates of HIV infection than do free people and male prisoners. [2]

Incarcerated women and HIV-positive women share many demographic characteristics (Smith and Dailard, 1994:78-79; Zierler and Krieger, 1997: 410-11). Both are overwhelmingly made up of women of color struggling with poverty and addiction, [3] who have histories of sexual abuse and other victimization. [4]

Linked to all of these risk factors are conditions of disempowerment -- resulting from poverty, racism, and sexism -- that heighten the susceptibility of women to victimization, imprisonment, and life-threatening diseases. [5] Women with HIV are particularly vulnerable to victimization and stigmatization because of their disenfranchised social status. Additionally, because of this disenfranchised status, they are also arguably one of the groups least able to access democracy to protect themselves against a widening net of imprisonment.

This article is a collaborative effort toward developing an alternative progressive discourse on "safety" and "justice" that resists excessive imprisonment and offers, instead, community-based individualized interventions as positive solutions to crime. As staff members of Women's Positive Legal Action Network -- a nonprofit organization providing legal services and community education around the special needs of HIV-positive women caught in the criminal justice system -- we asked HIV-positive women prisoner activists to share their experiences of surviving violent crime in and out of the prison setting, and to detail their interactions with the criminal justice system. …

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