Ruben Rodriguez, Life Skills Coordinator at The Fortune Society

Fortune Applauds Goal Of World AIDS Day 2015: “Getting To Zero Infections”

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It was 1987 and I remember it like it was yesterday.

I was into the seventh year of a 15-to-life sentence at Green Haven, and had just returned from an outside hospital trip. For a couple of days I had to stay at the prison hospital ward; it was there that I ran into my friend Jose from the Bushwick area in Brooklyn.

Immediately I knew he was not himself. He appeared dejected and did not have much to say. Eventually I discovered he had been diagnosed with HIV — or “the monster,” as it was known in our surroundings. As a result, he was showing signs of depression. After spending time with him, it became apparent that he did not want to face people, and mostly feared what they would say or think about him. He was also worried about being ostracized, stigmatized, and rejected.

His dejection was quite understandable considering the reaction of the prison population in our upstate prisons, and worse yet, in society in general. On a daily basis, one would hear the stories of guys being set on fire while in their cells, the stabbings, and other forms of cruelty. It was not farfetched to see longtime friends turn on each other because one or the other had been keeping their diagnosis a secret.

Upon returning to my cell and reflecting on the situation, I decided to gather as much information on the virus as I could and then to write a proposal that would allow for incarcerated individuals to support others recently diagnosed with, or presently living with, HIV. And so began the Helping Hands Program.

The movement to change how HIV/AIDS was affecting the lives of people in prisons did not progress until the women at Bedford Hills created A.C.E. (AIDS Counseling & Education). Later, in 1989, after being transferred from Green Haven to Napanoch (Eastern Correctional Facility), I was able to connect with other like-minded individuals who founded P.A.C.E. (Prisoners for AIDS Counseling & Education) — and the rest is history.

In 1988, the first-ever global health day — now known as World AIDS Day — was held.  World AIDS Day is an opportunity for people worldwide to stand united and fight against HIV, to show their support for people living with HIV/AIDS, and to commemorate those who have died.

Eventually I left prison in 1996 and, in 1997, began working at The Fortune Society as a case manager. In 1998, I joined the Osborne Association as the supervisor for the AIDS In Prison Project Hotline. I returned to work at Fortune in the capacity of a life skills coordinator, a case manager, and a supporter of the agency in many other roles. I manage the HRA/HASA caseload, working with and for homeless men and women living with HIV/AIDS. I help them find their way back to permanent housing, stability, and what many of us consider a sense of normalcy.

Now, 27 years after the first World AIDS Day, we gather once again — on December 1, 2015. We continue to support and commemorate our family, friends, and loved ones who have lost their lives. These efforts are necessary to continue the fight so that one day HIV/AIDS will become a thing of the past.

For me, a person who has been living with HIV/AIDS for over 30 years and coming home to a new lifestyle, it was all so challenging. In addition to being positive, I dealt with this diagnosis while being in the confines of prison. I personally fought the fight to improve conditions, offer support, and educate others. Being a part of, and being asked to participate in a World AIDS Day event is not only an honor but more of a duty to serve a cause. My dedication began in a prison hospital ward in 1987 inspired by my friend Jose. He lacked the strength and the ability to fight the battle against ignorance, discrimination, stigmatization, and being ostracized by those around him. In his honor, I will continue to fight this battle every day.

We’ve come a long way from that first World AIDS Day in 1988, and substantial progress has been made in areas such as education, prevention, medical care, medications, and the support offered to people living with HIV/AIDS. The road ahead is still paved with many minefields to overcome, but we must continue moving forward.

Let us pick up where others left off and continue to strive for the theme of today’s World AIDS Day: “Getting To Zero” infections worldwide.

Categories: Community

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