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

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer

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.