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Notes from the Unrepenitentiary

On June 1, Rosalind Simpson Moore-Bey died at home in Washington, D.C. To anyone who has passed through the D.C. Jail or CTF (Central Treatment Facility), Roz's name is not only familiar it is well-known. Her name is known, as well, to many prisoners with HIV or AIDS anywhere in the u.s., and to AIDS activists everywhere. Roz was a warrior

Roz did time in D.C. and at the old Federal Women's prison in Lexington, Kentucky in the 80's and 90's. If you think back, you will remember that as a time when AIDS and HIV were surrounded by even more ignorance and prejudice than now. In the mid- to late80's, the medical establishment, the government and the media didn't even recognize that women get HIV, and, largely as a result, many women suffered terribly and died quickly with AIDS undiagnosed and un-cared-for. The earliest mention of HIV as a virus that infected women was when some men claimed to have contracted HIV from prostitutes. The sex workers, of course, remained faceless: they existed only as vectors of the disease, a danger to men.

Despite the extensive number of HIV-positive women prisoners at Lexington in the early 90's, there was absolutely no effort by the prison to educate women about HIV. When a group of prisoners got together to try to educate ourselves and begin to conduct discussion groups, we found that the other prisoners were too frightened of being suspected of having HIV even to attend the events we held. Confusion, fear, and suspicion were rampant.

In this climate, Roz did one of the bravest things I've seen in over 13 years in prison. She stood up in a meeting of over 400 women and said, "I am living with AIDS. I am proof that AIDS is not just a `death sentence'. We have to love ourselves and one another." Her words, her courage and her dignity forced a crack in the dam. What followed was an outpouring of interest, grief, and need all of which enabled us to do an enormous amount of education, counseling, and support. Rosalind was at the heart of this work even when she was stuck in the prison hospital for days and weeks at a time. I know she saved some lives with her teaching and preaching; I believe she saved some souls, too. The cost to her was not insignificant: needless to say, she often exhausted herself working when she should have been resting. And she was often the target of idiotic AIDS phobia, as when a cellmate tried to bring a law suit against the prison for putting her in a cell with Roz. All the while she was doing battle with her own demons, including the agony of the illnesses attacking her body, and the pain of rejection by some people she loved. What was so remarkable was how Roz refused to fight these battles for herself alone, but rather turned them into weapons to strengthen others. I once watched Roz lead a support group for an hour and a half, weeping the entire time but never allowing her grief to silence her. She had to keep speaking, because the other 15 HIV-positive women present in the group were still so shocked and terrified by their disease that they could not yet articulate what they desperately needed to say.

A few years later, in 1993, Roz was one of the earliest beneficiaries of the D.C. Medical Parole process. Thanks to the commitment and hard work of some progressive lawyers in D.C., prisoners with AIDS could now receive compassionate release on parole. Roz, who had been at death's door enough times to be paying rent there, was a clear candidate. With the strongest spirit imaginable, she had fought through illness after illness, amazing her wonderful doctors, medical workers, family and friends. A year after her release, she married a terrific partner, James Moore, and together they struggled for her life.

Not once in the 5 years since her release has she stopped fighting for other prisoners with HIV and AIDS. Toting her portable oxygen tank, walking despite painful neuropathies that had her in a wheelchair for a while, she returned over and over to lead support groups at the D.C. prisons, and to speak to any group that would listen and might help prisoners with HIV. When I meet women who have been sent into the federal system from D.C., they never say, "Oh, yeah, I've met Roz" Instead, they tell me how she helped them did something for them that no one else had been able (or willing) to do. How necessary she has been to so many people.

Every day for the rest of my life I will miss Rosalind achingly. None of the words meet the task of describing her inspiration, example, heart, courage, dignity, perseverance, commitment not one measures up. But any time a prisoner with HIV or AIDS manages to ease their pain, Roz will have been present. And any time any person decides not to turn their back on the needs of prisoners, Roz's tremendous spirit will be felt.

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