“There’s People Like Myself and Others Out Here Fighting for You”

An interview with activist and longtime Prison Health News editor Teresa Sullivan

By Suzy Subways

From PHN Issue 40, Summer/Fall 2019

Teresa Sullivan, who has been a vital part of keeping Prison Health News going for the past ten years, is leaving the editorial collective. We are overwhelmed with gratitude for her wisdom and guidance over the years, and we are so excited to support her amazing work in the world moving forward. From teaching classes at Philadelphia FIGHT to her leadership role in the Positive Women’s Network, a social justice organization of women living with HI V , T eresa helps so many people grow stronger and smarter . In this interview, we asked Teresa to tell us more about her work and vision. Continue reading ““There’s People Like Myself and Others Out Here Fighting for You””

Second issue of Turn It Up! prison health magazine now available

Our sister publication, Turn It Up! Staying Strong Inside, has just released its second issue! This is a beautiful, detailed and comprehensive resource for people in prison about how to survive, thrive and advocate for their health. Turn It Up! is published by the SERO Project.

You can read it online here and order a copy for your loved one in prison here.

Visit TheBody for a wonderful interview with the editors.

Words to Live By

Advice from a formerly incarcerated person living with HIV

From PHN Issue 37, Summer 2018

1. Take care of yourself. Make your health your top priority. Ask for what you think you need. Don’t wait for someone to take care of you. Advocating for your health is a constant job, especially in prison or jail. Continue reading “Words to Live By”

Risk of Sexual Transmission of HIV from a Person Living with HIV who has an Undetectable Viral Load

Reprinted with permission from the Prevention Access Campaign

From PHN Issue 34, Fall 2017

There is now evidence-based confirmation that the risk of (sexual) HIV transmission from a person living with HIV (PLHIV), who is on Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) and has achieved an undetectable viral load in their blood for at least 6 months is negligible to non-existent. (Negligible is defined as: so small or unimportant as to be not worth considering; insignificant.) While HIV is not always transmitted even with a detectable viral load, when the partner with HIV has an undetectable viral load this both protects their own health and prevents new HIV infections.[i] Continue reading “Risk of Sexual Transmission of HIV from a Person Living with HIV who has an Undetectable Viral Load”

Making Sure HIV Isn’t Treated Like a Crime

by Suzy Subways

From PHN Issue 29, Summer 2016

Did you know some laws make punishments much harsher if you are living with HIV? In Pennsylvania, if someone in prison is convicted of spitting on a guard, 10 years can be added to their sentence if they have HIV. Many states have similar laws. Do you think that’s fair? Continue reading “Making Sure HIV Isn’t Treated Like a Crime”

My Involvement with the HIV/AIDS Awareness Program at the Oregon State Penitentiary

By Timothy Hinkhouse

From PHN Issue 27, Winter 2016

In the mid-1990s, it was brought to the attention of the health staff at the Oregon State Penitentiary that an HIV/AIDS education program needed to be assembled to educate the population about this “scary new disease.” The Oregon Health Department contractor who was doing the HIV testing and counseling at the time brought it to their attention because she lost her brother to AIDS and she wanted to help those still alive. A team of incarcerated people who worked well together put together an outline for an education program, the HIV/AIDS Awareness Program (HAAP). We came together because we were on the same page about the necessity of reducing the rate of new infections and clearing up prevalent misconceptions about exposure and transmission. Continue reading “My Involvement with the HIV/AIDS Awareness Program at the Oregon State Penitentiary”

Ending the Spectrum of Violence Against Women: The Positive Women’s Network

By Teresa Sullivan

From PHN Issue 21, Summer 2014

“We, as women living with HIV, envision a life free from violence, coercion, and discrimination for all people. We, as women living with HIV, demand an end to the many different forms of violence faced by all women, including physical, emotional, psychological, religious, sexual, institutional, and economic violence, and the trauma that violence leaves in its wake.” —Positive Women’s Network, USA

When we hear the word “violence,” the first thing we visualize is the physical abuse of someone. And women living with HIV are indeed vulnerable to physical violence because of stigma and ignorance. This reality was made brutally clear yet again a few weeks ago with the heartbreaking murder of Elisha Henson, who was killed in Texas because of her HIV status. A survey conducted by the Positive Women’s Network, USA (PWN-USA) last year found that 72% of women living with HIV who responded were survivors of intimate partner violence. However, for PWN-USA, ending violence against women includes ending a spectrum of human rights violations, including but not limited to physical violence, that women have faced for many generations throughout history. Continue reading “Ending the Spectrum of Violence Against Women: The Positive Women’s Network”

Rising Above HIV Discrimination

By Joel Laux, M.C.C.F. Montgomery County, PA

From PHN Issue 16, Spring 2013

I am HIV Positive, and have been so for about eleven years now. I also am an IV Drug user. I have had personal experiences involving discriminatory practices in the law or its application. Although I have not been actually prosecuted in a court of law for an HIV specific criminal statute, I have been threatened with it. Continue reading “Rising Above HIV Discrimination”

Think About It…

By John Bell (formerly incarcerated) and Laura McTighe

From PHN Issue 4, August 2004

We teach a class for brothers and sisters with HIV that are just getting out of jail and prison. The class is primarily about dealing with life on the out- side. But we also spend a lot of time talking about the pain people suffered while locked up—especially how frequently people had to choose between getting the care they needed for their health and keeping quiet so that no one in their facility would find out their HIV status.

We are writing this article for those of you who are dealing with this issue on the inside now. We do not have answers for you, but there are some things that we want you to know.

It’s Your Call.

There is no protocol and no correct stance on sharing your health status in jail. It is up to you. In prison, being able to make decisions about when, how and to whom you disclose your status is hard if not impossible. Pretty much anything you can do to take care of yourself breaks your confidentiality as a person living with HIV.

Once people know your status in your facility, there is no getting away from the looks, the stares, the comments like “HIV bitch” or “He’s got that hot shit.” Before you think about getting medical care or telling anyone your status, you need to be able to say, “If you have a problem with me being HIV positive, I sincerely hope you get over it” …and mean it.

Accepting It.

People living with HIV have seen a lot of people pass before them—neighbors that dropped off without a trace, friends they watched get sick, family members they cared for at the end stages.

We know that these memories weigh heavily on you—that every time you think about those people who passed on before you, you feel terrified about your own health, about when you will get sick. And, at the same time, it is these memories and this same fear that make you think about reaching out for help and for medical care.

Your Body.

You have probably heard that HIV weakens the immune system so your body cannot fight off infections on its own. But have you heard that your immune system is very strong, and for a long time it wins out against HIV? On average, it takes 10 years before HIV can run through your immune system enough for you to even start feeling symptoms. And if you take care of yourself, you can make that time even longer.

If You Get Sick.

The most important things you can do are to 1. know your body and 2. keep an eye out for changes in your health. Things to watch for: herpes blisters and cold sores that do not go away, thrush that makes your mouth and throat dry and whitish, or pneumonia that makes you really tired and short of breath. Women should also watch for repeated yeast infections.

There are meds you can take to fight off infections like these, and there are also anti-HIV meds you can take to knock out HIV, so your immune system can get strong again and fight off infections on its own. You should be able to get these meds at your facility.


But in prison, it is rarely possible to just go to the clinic, get your meds and keep your health status private. If you go to the medical staff about your HIV, 9 times out of 10 someone else is going to find out. A correctional officer might overhear you talking with the doctor, or there might be a scheduled clinic time for the infectious dis- ease doctor at your facility so all inmates know that is the day for people with HIV, or other inmates might see or hear the meds you take in med lines. Whatever the case, no facility protects your confidentiality 100%.

The Choice.

Whether you decide to seek medical care or refuse it, your life is on the line—from the HIV or from the dis- crimination you face in your facility. This is not an easy or fair choice.

There are many people in prison who have stood up to the abuse that people with HIV face, and are getting medical care. We applaud you for your bravery, and know that you have served as inspirations for people in your facilities who are not open about their HIV.

But there are many more people getting sick behind bars, because they have refused treatment. We stand along side you and offer our support in dealing with this difficult decision.

Your Safety.

Whatever decision you make, please keep yourself safe on the inside. You are too valuable, and there is too much work for you to do when you get out.

If you are too afraid to tell people your health status, don’t. If you are afraid to get medical care because others will find out your status, don’t. If you are going to seek medical care, make sure you have someone you can lean on for support—even if it is someone you write to on the outside. If you are going to seek medical care only if you get sick, start preparing now. It will be even harder to deal with the mental and emotional pain from stigma if your body is also weak.

Health Without Meds.

If you choose to not get medical care while you are locked up, take steps to keep yourself healthy.

Bottom line: if germs cannot get inside your body, they cannot make you sick. Shower regularly, wash your hands before you eat, and keep cuts and scrapes clean.

Also, exercise and stress reduction help to keep your immune system strong. Doing push-up, sit-ups and playing sports will all strengthen your body, plus exercise helps you let out tension. And, while it is hard to really get rid of stress on the inside, if you can find five minutes each day to slow down and take some deep breaths, you will feel the difference.

We Are Here.

We are waiting for you on the outside. There are advocates across the country who will make sure that you get the services that you need, and that you have a community of people who are HIV positive and recently released to help support you. You are not alone.

Hearts on a Wire

By Najee Gibson

A lot of inmates from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community feel lonely because either their families gave up hope for them, or they’re so caught up in the system that they feel like there’s no hope for them when they come out. So they stay back in the same addictive behaviors when they come out, which is not healthy for someone living with HIV.

I did 5 ½ years. I heard about Hearts on a Wire like 2 months before I got released from prison. They were doing an anonymous questionnaire for members of the LGBT community in state facilities: Were you getting health care? How were you being treated? I took the survey and informed them that I was going to be released in April. So they opened their arms and told me to come into the office. That’s how I got plugged in, and from there, things started to blossom. I liked what I heard. All of us need to be understood and cared for, and someone to identify with our hurt. Hearts on a Wire could identify with my hurt, and the bullshit that I put up with being incarcerated, being a person of color – the no-nos, the punishments.

Hearts on a Wire is about 2 years old. We cater to inmates in state facilities in Pennsylvania. We meet every Wednesday, and you pass on what was given to you. We make cards that say, “Keep your head up,” and send them to inmates.

Continue reading “Hearts on a Wire”