Incarcerated Women’s Insights in the Struggle against AIDS

Monday, January 6, 2020: 11:00 AM
Clinton Room (New York Hilton)
Emily K. Hobson, University of Nevada at Reno
From the early years of the epidemic, prisons played a key role in the growth of HIV/AIDS—due not only to the existence of sex and IV drug use behind bars, but because the growth of incarceration was tied up with social abandonment in the communities that many prisoners called home. In response, an important strand of the HIV/AIDS movement developed inside prisons, as well as through coalitions linking activists inside and outside prison walls. By responding to the intertwined development of AIDS and mass incarceration, activists forged new analyses of how criminalization operates, how it shapes sexual politics, and how criminalization, poverty, and stigma converge in public health.

While activism addressing AIDS in prisons cut across gender, people in women’s prisons played unique and important roles. This paper examines efforts to confront HIV/AIDS in prisons in the 1980s and 1990s United States, focusing on activism by women prisoners, women recently released, and the non-incarcerated activists who supported their work. I focus especially on collaborations between ACE (AIDS Counseling and Education, founded by people imprisoned in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women), ACE-OUT (a “sister program” for those recently released), and the Women’s Caucus of ACT UP. As they forged dialogue inside and across prison walls, they generated significant insights into the ties connecting prisons and AIDS: naming mass incarceration as a major factor accelerating the impact of AIDS on women, especially Black and Latinx women; identifying how the war on drugs subjected low-income women of color to two intersecting stigmas, criminalization and HIV; articulating women’s particular vulnerabilities to HIV brought into focus the epidemic’s intersections with racialized poverty and sexism. Perhaps most powerfully, they demonstrated how AIDS activism might challenge the growth and consequences of the carceral state at the moment of its most rapid expansion.

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