Passing the Torch: John Bell 1946-2012

By Laura McTighe

From PHN Issue 15, Winter 2013

In September 2012, the Prison Health News community lost John Horace Bell, AIDS activist, mentor to a generation of currently and formerly incarcerated people, co-founder of PHN, and our friend. We know that many of you reading this article have not met John, but you do know him through his work and his continued influence on all of us at PHN. Those of you with internet access may want to read one of the many testimonials in his honor: For the rest of you, we wanted to share a few PHN-specific memories.

   When John and I were first starting PHN, he insisted that we design the newsletter in the half-sheet format we still use. He knew that our readers who were battling stigma on the inside would need to be able to quickly hide PHN in a pocket if the wrong person was reading over their shoulders, and they couldn’t do that with a full-sheet newsletter. 

   When it came to writing articles, John always reminded us that our best articles read like letters from a loved one to their significant other in prison.  John asked us to write from our hearts, to explain health information as clearly and succinctly as possible, and to remind people that taking care of their health was an investment in the futures they would some day lead beyond the walls. 

   When we were relaunching PHN in 2010, John explained that providing accurate information was only one of our tasks as a prison health newsletter. Our readers were often fighting for their lives in deeply dehumanizing systems. Accurate information meant little if you could not affect change to get standard of care treatment. So we began to profile prison justice struggles across the country, in addition to sharing tried-and-true health advocacy tips in every issue. 

   But what was perhaps most remarkable and important about John was that he never accepted credit for any of this. His thanks was in seeing this newsletter come to print, in reading the letters you would write to us each month, and in seeing the PHN editorial staff push themselves to build the national community of currently incarcerated people he always envisioned was possible.

   We all will mourn John in our own ways. But he would have wanted us to remember him by continuing to live and work in the way he showed all of us was possible—to come together across our divisions, to comfort one another in our vulnerability, to demystify the political processes that harm our communities, and to work toward establishing and maintaining a world without AIDS, walls and cages. And, as John always added, to have fun while doing it.

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