LA program informs girlfriends, wives of prison inmates about HIV prevention

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Frank Stoltze/KPCC

Precious Jackson of the Center for Health Justice in Los Angeles educates women about the dangers of contracting HIV from men returning from prison.

The Center for Health Justice in Los Angeles has launched a the new program to assist the wives and girlfriends of current and former state prison inmates to avoid H.I.V. infection.

The issue is personal for Precious Jackson.

"Matter of fact, I am a woman living with H.I.V.," she said. "I was infected by the ex-boyfriend who had had a history of incarceration from juvenile until adult.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control reports that prison inmates across the country are five times more likely to be H.I.V. positive than the general population. Jackson’s unsure whether her ex-boyfriend contracted H.I.V. behind bars, but she knows it’s possible.

"There is sex that does go on inside the prison. There is other issues like tattooing, drug use.”

Inmates sometimes use dirty needles for tattooing or drug use – and those dirty needles can transmit H.I.V.

Jackson, 38, is a harm reduction specialist with The Center for Health Justice in L.A. It works to improve health care for prison inmates – with a focus on H.I.V. That work – and her own personal experience – led her to launch a program that educates women in relationships with incarcerated and recently incarcerated men.

She says she wants them "to not continue to keep their head in the sand. A lot of women are aware of things that go on within the prison system but they are in denial as for saying ‘not my man.’”

Overcoming that denial – that a husband or boyfriend may have had unprotected sex with another man behind bars – is Jackson’s biggest challenge. She says many women also fear their partners or are accustomed to abusive relationships. Many maintain a misplaced sense of loyalty.

“The feeling of obligation – that this is how I prove my love toward my man by staying with him during his incarceration period," Jackson says. "And also I think with women it’s really important to keep the family unification."

State law doesn't necessarily help prevent the spread of H.I.V. in prison. Governor Schwarzenegger’s vetoed bills that would allow condoms inside prisons – he’s said because state law bans sex behind bars.

Jackson’s conducting forums on all these issues for the girlfriends and wives of men who’ve been locked up.

“So by educating the women on these different type of issues it will empower them to talk to their partners and if their partners choose to stay unhealthy themselves, they have the choice to move on.”

A grant from the Office of Women’s Health in the federal Department of Health and Human Services pays for Jackson’s educational work.

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