“To Help Our People Through This”

Rev. Doris Green on healing communities from the impact of imprisonment and HIV

Reverend Doris Green, founder of Men and Women Prison Ministries and director of community affairs at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, has been working with prisoners and their families for decades, and fighting AIDS since the epidemic began. She is organizing a coalition of grassroots community organizations to demand access to condoms in the Illinois state prison system. The condom campaign is a policy demand based on the knowledge that good prison health is good community health. “The people on the inside are the people on the outside,” she says. Rev. Green sees her political advocacy as intimately connected with her counseling work with individuals and small groups, rebuilding the community support networks torn apart by mass imprisonment.

Because of mandatory minimum sentences, discriminatory crack possession sentencing, three-strikes laws and other hallmarks of the “war on drugs,” there are now 10 times as many people in prison than there were 20 years ago. People of African descent represent 56% of those imprisoned for drug offenses but only 14% of illicit drug users. “The disparity makes you think nobody’s committing crimes but African Americans and Hispanics,” Rev. Green says. In the past decade, new policies shut ex-prisoners out of public housing, jobs, and social safety net programs. With so many parents, children, spouses and caregivers removed from the community, the emotional, financial and political support systems of entire communities are disrupted.

Laura McTighe and Coco Jervis document these patterns in the UNSHACKLE factsheet “Confronting HIV and Mass Imprisonment: Two Intersecting Epidemics” and observe that the “war on drugs” is a war on relationships. Loved ones left alone on the outside may find themselves in deeper poverty and depression. “It’s a strain, not having your loved one at home,” Rev. Green says. “It’s not just him doing the time – the loved one has to do that time too.” Without support systems that help individuals through crises of poverty, they may need to become involved in the sex trade or drug trade in order to survive – and both of these increase the risk of HIV and imprisonment. HIV and imprisonment are impacting the same people, the same communities. AIDS is the leading cause of death for Black women ages 25 to 34, and the reality that the U.S. has the highest rate of imprisonment in human history has everything to do with that statistic.

“As a people, we really need to fix some of the pain that people are experiencing because of racism,” Rev. Green says. “More resources should be put into psychiatric treatment, therapy, where people can process through their grief.” She comes to this work as one who knows from personal experience and can facilitate the sharing of wisdom and compassion between those who have been there. “Family members didn’t understand me being in a relationship with someone in prison. I had nobody to talk to for many years. I couldn’t tell people I had a man in prison. That pain is what birthed this ministry and support groups for family members of incarcerated people.” Community members help develop the programs at Men and Women Prison Ministries based on their own needs, rather than following a predetermined agenda based on what funding is available. “We have to become the psychologists, or whatever we can do to help our people through this time.”

Women in Black communities are impacted in many ways by the loss of so many men to prison. Tragically, one of these ways can serve to harm their relationships with men they love by increasing sexist power dynamics. According to a November 2006 National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC) report on AIDS and health disparities in Black America by Dr. Robert Fullilove of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, “There is evidence that the loss of a significant number of men to prisons also affects the degree to which women will insist on condom use.” A lower ratio of men to women has been shown to be associated with higher rates of teen pregnancy, syphilis, and gonorrhea.

Rev. Green agrees that this dynamic is real. “It just makes me sick to see that women don’t feel valued because of this,” she says. “Women tell me they have to negotiate condom use – why? That’s just something you should be able to do, because you want to protect yourself and you want to protect him. There’s a lot of things our community really needs, so I’m not judging, I’m just going to put my energy into trying to save some of these young people from transmitting the virus to each other. I can’t just say ‘Use a condom’ – it’s not enough. I have to talk to them as a grandmother, as a mother, as a big sister, as whatever I can be, and say to them, ‘You have choices on this earth, and you need to know the consequences of the choices that you make.’ It’s all about continuing to educate, and embrace and love and touch and be around people, and to care for people where they are, and not judge them and condemn them.”

Rev. Green counsels and marries couples divided by prison walls, and even for monogamous partners she stresses that condoms are essential upon release. “A lot of women are excited that the man is coming home, and they don’t take precautions,” she says. “If you’ve been faithful, and he’s been faithful, you still need to use condoms until you’ve been tested. It’s not about trust – it’s about caring enough for yourself and him caring enough for you.”

Beyond the stigma, disrespect, loneliness and despair that harm relationships is a big-picture way to remove the cause of that dysfunction and take the fuel off the fire of HIV at the same time. What if we stopped relying on prisons for the illusion of safety? “There’s another way to look at this besides ‘Lock them up and throw away the key,” Rev. Green says. “What about restitution? If you break into my house and steal my stuff, I want my stuff back. If they lock you up, I’m not getting my stuff back. I want you working, and paying me back for what you took from me. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. If you have prisoners and products, you have a profit. We need to call it what it is. We abolished slavery, we can stop this prison stuff too.”