by Suzy Subways
From PHN Issue 10, Spring 2011
Ronnie Stephens is an HIV outreach advocate and consultant in Austin, Texas. He has been HIV positive for 10 years and a worker in AIDS services for 14 years. His life’s work is with people who are at risk for HIV because of homophobia, racism, and imprisonment. “I try to target the population that I was locked up with,” he explains. Stephens has been in drug recovery for ten years and gives it much of the credit for his survival. But to him, recovery from drugs is only part of the picture. Like preventing HIV and staying out of jail, it goes beyond the individual. Communities have to do this work together.
Q: What do you mean by “recovery from injustice”?
A: A lot of people who do AIDS strategy don’t really get the idea of social injustice. When they talk about substance abuse and prison, I say, well, half of these kids got beat up down there. They beat you up, and [the prison guards] say, “Well that’s because of what you are.” So what do you have to offer our clients coming out? These kids have been abused. Some of them have been raped, some of them have no family to go to. What do you do for those individuals who are coming back into society and don’t have any family to turn to? That’s kind of traumatizing. That hurts.
They don’t deal with [the trauma]. And they don’t have housing. So what do they do? They go back to their substance abuse. And some of them are angry. When I got clean, I saw how twisted the world is, and I understood why I got high. I didn’t want that pain anymore. The pain got crazy when I got clean. It came from all different angles. This population down here, once you get in the prison system and you go through the racism and everything else, when it’s time for you to come home, you’ve got to recover, first of all, from that system. That’s where recovery starts.
Q: How do racism and homophobia put people at risk for HIV and imprisonment?
A: When I was an addict and I kept going back and forth to prison, I noticed that if an African American or a Hispanic gets busted for possession of a controlled substance, they’re aiming for 10 to 99 years, down here in Texas. But if a Caucasian gets busted, they might get probation, or it might get dropped. That is my experience. I’m an addict. I don’t sell drugs. You wouldn’t find any dope in my house – I would use it up. The person who was with me was selling drugs. When he got busted, they found out that he had killed somebody. They charged him with murder and gave me the drug charges. That’s social injustice.
Inside, in Texas, there’s no condoms at all. If you get caught with one, that’s five more years. It won’t be a case of a five-year sentence. But it might take parole 5 more years to look at you for pre-release. When you think it’s time for you to go up for parole, you won’t get parole.
Q: How does the social injustice of prison follow you in the outside world?
A: Once, I got a ticket for doing [HIV prevention] outreach, because they said I wasn’t supposed to be leaning up against a building. In public housing, I’ve got to be careful, because we deal with clients that drink. Some of them use substances, some of them smoke marijuana. I feel like if you’re doing just a little bit, and it’s keeping you healthy, okay. Let them have that. But they’ve got zero tolerance. If they catch a beer can, too much company, or smell any marijuana, you’ve got to go.
Q: What needs to be done to fight social injustice?
A: If a bunch of us that went through the system and was able to make it could get together to advocate. I need some people in my county with me to address the social injustice that’s in the system. Somebody needs to understand the policies, inside and outside the system, put it together, do the research, and let them know, “We’re aware of what y’all have done. Let’s stop it.”