AIDS Arms gets CDC grant to expand prison outreach

Program includes HIV education efforts in Texas prisons, peer counseling efforts and safer sex packets for those just leaving prison

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

PREVENTION BEHIND BARS
PREVENTION BEHIND BARS | HIV educators with AIDS Arms have trained more than 800 peer counselors who have worked with more than 65,000 other inmates in Texas prisons.

The Centers for Disease Control has awarded AIDS Arms a $1.6 million five-year grant to expand its outreach to the Texas prison population.

AIDS Arms’ Free World Bound Program has worked with the Texas prison system for eight years. According to the agency’s executive director, Raeline Nobles, AIDS Arms has 10 staff members who work with 116 prisons across the state.

“The grant expands the prison and prison reentry program,” said Nobles.

The program begins in the state’s prisons with risk reduction education and helps HIV-positive prisoners with reentry into the community.

She said that wardens identify good candidates for the program. Then AIDS Arms staff provides a 40-hour training program on how to avoid HIV, TB, STDs and other diseases rampant in the prison populations.

Those prisoners become certified peer educators and are sent back to work with other prisoners to teach risk reduction. The peer counselors have two re-trainings a year.

Over the years, AIDS Arms has trained 800 people who have worked with 65,000 other prisoners, Nobles said.

The agency also does prerelease planning up to six months before an HIV-positive prisoner leaves prison. Counselors make sure prisoners, who are released with just 10 days worth of medications, know where to get their meds. They arrange housing, medical appointments at Peabody Clinic, counseling, family reunification planning and further risk-reduction training.

“And when they’re released and land at the Greyhound station downtown, we meet them with a bag of stuff — condoms, HIV wellness info, toiletries — to get them through the next few days,” Nobles said.

Nobles said her staff members are not the only ones meeting these people at the bus station. Dealers selling drugs and prostitutes offering sex, among others, are there to meet the prisoners. She said about half of the former prisoners they meet downtown welcome the help from the AIDS Arms caseworkers.

“We’ve got to get to them first,” she said.

The CDC grant specifically targets HIV intervention for both negative, at-risk populations and HIV-positive prisoners. With it, AIDS Arms will be able to increase its Free World Bound staff by two, Nobles said.

Nobles said the program began when AIDS Arm staffers noticed people recently released from prison who were coming to AIDS Arms and were extremely sick.

“There was no treatment in prison for years,” she said.

Getting them back to any health baseline was extremely difficult, she said.

“To change that, we had to get to these folks years before they were released,” Nobles said.

Three of the employees of the agency are former prisoners who began as peer educators in prison before their release. Nobles said they hired them for a number of reasons.

“We wanted to show our clients solid role models,” she said. “We will never fully understand, but these three have fully integrated into the community. They take their meds, go to doctors’ appointments, and have cars, homes. They’re extremely effective.”

Nobles said the prison intervention should help with risk reduction in the gay community as well.

Without intervention, she said, “Within 48 hours of release, those prisoners will have unprotected sex with two people.”
Nobles said her agency’s own anecdotal evidence backs up the statistics from CDC.

“We’ve got to get to them first,” she said, stressing the importance of handing them the bag that includes the condoms. She said that many did get the message about prevention, but buying condoms right after getting off the bus from prison wasn’t a priority.

Nobles said a final portion of the prison program was getting people into job training and getting them to work.

She said AIDS Arms partners with a number of other organizations that specialize in finding employment for recently released felons.

While the unemployment rate among released prisoners is much higher, the rate for AIDS Arms clients hovers between 15 and 17 percent, Nobles said.

Texas has the second largest HIV positive prison population in the United States. Each month about 30 HIV-positive prisoners are released to the Dallas County.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 13, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Partner denied sick leave by AT&T

Bryan Dickenson, left, and Bill Sugg hold hands in Sugg’s room at a rehabilitation facility in Richardson on Wednesday, Jan. 27. (Source:John Wright/Dallas Voice)

Despite 100% rating from HRC, company won’t allow gay man time off to care for ailing spouse

JOHN WRIGHT  |  News Editor
wright@dallasvoice.com

Bryan Dickenson and Bill Sugg have been together for 30 years.

For the last 12 of those years, Dickenson has worked as a communications technician for Dallas-based AT&T.

After Sugg suffered a debilitating stroke in September, Dickinson requested time off under the federal Family Medical Leave Act to care for his partner.

But AT&T is refusing to grant Dickenson the 12 weeks of leave that would be afforded to a heterosexual spouse under the act.

As a result, Dickenson is using vacation time so he can spend one afternoon a week at Sugg’s bedside at a rehabilitation facility in Richardson. But Dickenson fears that when his vacation runs out, he’ll end up being fired for requesting additional time off to care for Sugg. Dickenson’s attorney, Rob Wiley of Dallas, said he initially thought AT&T’s refusal to grant his client leave under FMLA was just a mistake on the part of the company. Wiley said he expected AT&T to quickly rectify the situation after he sent the company a friendly letter.

After all, AT&T maintains the highest score of 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which ranks companies according to their treatment of LGBT employees. And just this week, HRC listed AT&T as one of its “Best Places to Work.”

But AT&T has stood its ground, confirming in a statement to Dallas Voice this week that the company isn’t granting Dickenson leave under FMLA because neither federal nor state law recognizes Sugg as his domestic partner.

“I really couldn’t be more disappointed with AT&T’s response,” Wiley said. “When you scratch the surface, they clearly don’t value diversity. I just think it’s an outright lie for AT&T to claim they’re a good place for gays and lesbians to work.”

Wiley added that he’s disappointed in HRC for giving AT&T its highest score. Eric Bloem, deputy director of HRC’s workplace project, said Thursday, Jan. 28 that he was looking into the matter. Bloem said a survey for the Corporate Equality Index asks companies whether they grant FMLA leave to same-sex couples, and AT&T replied affirmatively.

“I’m not exactly sure what’s going on, so I don’t really want to make an official comment on it,” Bloem said.

Walt Sharp, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company has “a long history of inclusiveness in the workplace.”

“There are circumstances under which our administration of our benefits plans must conform with state law, and this is one of those circumstances,” Sharp said in a written statement. “In this case, neither federal nor state law recognizes Mr. Dickenson’s domestic partner with legal status as a qualifying family member for a federal benefit program. There is no basis for this lawsuit or the allegations contained in it and we will seek its dismissal.”

Sharp didn’t respond to a request for further comment.

Wiley said Sharp’s statement doesn’t make sense. No law prohibits the company from granting Dickenson an unpaid leave of absence, which is what he’s requesting. Wiley also noted that no lawsuit has been filed, because there isn’t grounds for one.

The federal FMLA applies only to heterosexual married couples, Wiley said. Some states have enacted their own versions of the FMLA, requiring companies to grant leave to gay and lesbian couples, but Texas isn’t one of them.

Wiley said the couple’s only hope is to somehow convince the company to do the right thing, which is why he contacted the media.

“At some point in time this just becomes really hateful that they wouldn’t have any compassion,” Wiley said of the company. “I think the recourse is to tell their story and let people know how AT&T really treats their employees.”

Through thick and thin

This isn’t the first time Dickenson and Sugg have endured a medical crisis.

Sugg, who’s 69 and suffers from congenital heart problems, nearly died from cardiac arrest shortly after the couple met in 1980.

At the time, Dickenson was a full-time student and didn’t have car. So he rode his bicycle from Garland to Parkland Hospital in Dallas every day to visit Sugg in the intensive care unit.

In an interview this week at the rehab facility, Sugg’s eyes welled up with tears as he recalled what a Parkland nurse said at the time – “If that isn’t love, then I don’t know what the hell love is.”

“And sure enough, it was,” Sugg said over the whirr of his oxygen machine, turning to Dickenson. “As long as I have you, I can get through anything.”

Dickenson said in addition to visiting Sugg each Wednesday afternoon, he wakes up at 7:30 on Saturday and Sunday mornings so he can spend the day with Sugg at the rehab facility.

This past Christmas, Dickenson spent the night on the floor of Sugg’s room.
“That would have been our first Christmas separated, and I just couldn’t bear that, him being alone on Christmas,” Dickenson said.

The worst part of the whole ordeal was when he had to return to work after taking 13 days off following Sugg’s stroke, Dickenson said. Sugg didn’t understand and thought his partner had abandoned him for good.

“He called me over and over every night, begging me to please come see him,” Dickenson said. “And I said, ’Honey, you don’t understand, I had to go back to work to save my job.’

“That’s what really hurts about what they’ve put me through, not my pain and anguish, but his,” Dickenson said.

Dickenson said it was 3 a.m. on Sept. 22 when he rushed Sugg to the hospital. Doctors initially said it was “the worst sinus infection they’d ever seen,” but within 48 hours Sugg had suffered a stroke affecting his cerebellum.

Sugg lost the ability to swallow and his sense of balance. He’s still unable to walk and suffers from double vision.

Because he wasn’t out as gay at work, Dickenson initially told supervisors that his father was sick.

When he returned to work after 13 days at the hospital, Dickenson explained that his domestic partner was ill and he needed more time off. His supervisor managed to get him an additional 30 days of unpaid leave.

In the meantime, Dickenson phoned the company’s human resources department and asked whether he’d be eligible for leave under FMLA, which allows 12 weeks (or about 90 days) per year. Dickenson said he was told that since he lives in Texas, he wouldn’t be eligible.

Dickenson filled out the FMLA forms anyway and sent them to the company, but he never got any response.

When Dickenson returned to work, he asked to be reclassified as part-time employee, so he could spend more time with Sugg. His supervisor refused and told him his best bet was FMLA leave, even though he’d already been denied.

That’s when Dickenson contacted Wiley.

Sugg is scheduled return to the couple’s Garland home from rehab in about a week, but he’s still on a feeding tube and will require nursing care. With any luck, he’ll someday be able to walk again.

Sugg bragged that he was able to drink his first cup of coffee last week, and he’s looking forward to getting back to his hobby of raising African violets.

Dickenson said he knows of at least seven medical appointments he’ll have to arrange for Sugg once he returns home. He said his vacation time likely will run out by April, and he fears that if he loses his job, the medical expenses will eventually cause him to go broke.

But Dickenson, who’s 51, said he’s committed to taking care of Sugg, even if it means living on the street someday.

“When it runs out, I’ll be fired, and it really hurts to be in a situation like that, because I’ve worked very hard for AT&T,” Dickenson said. “We suffer now, but maybe other people in our shoes in the future, if they work for AT&T, they won’t suffer like we do.”

—  John Wright