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First Person


HIV and hepatitis C continue to spread like wildfire in the U.S. prison population. The alarm has long ago sounded. This is why my colleagues and I, members of Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education, feel like firemen who have been called to help extinguish a blaze. Educating our peers about the importance of making responsible decisions is viewed as potentially lifesaving. To accomplish this arduous task, we provide a setting that is conducive for discussing our sexual indiscretions and other behaviors that put us at risk. The common modes of disease transmission in prison'unprotected sex, needle sharing, tattooing'are identical to those in society at large. For the most part our peers are not oblivious to this fact. Why, then, are diseases still being transmitted in prison? Based on my assessment, many of us have established a pattern of taking reckless risks and sometimes foolishly consider ourselves invulnerable. But once we shatter myths and change perceptions, our peers learn just how susceptible they are to infection and how fortunate many of us are to have avoided the flickering flames of this inferno. For those who are infected with HIV or hepatitis C, they are made comfortable enough to confide in us'if they desire to. I believe the prison experience can provide an opportune time to reach receptive individuals as well as those who are apathetic. This is precisely why peer educator programs are so effective; indeed, they make a concerted effort to see to it that fewer prisoners return to their communities as potential conduits for disease transmission. Support from conscientious community-based organizations also proves invaluable. Now it is up to prison officials to establish uniformity regarding the level of viral hepatitis and HIV education that should be disseminated to prisoners. As I see it, education has to be our extinguisher. But self-discipline and accountability also are key components. So if we are truly in the business of preventing the transmission of infectious diseases in prison, then let's suit up'we have a crisis to contain. Day is a peer educator for the Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education program at Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, N.Y., and a fellow for the National Trust for the Development of African-American Men, located in Riverdale, Md.

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Ronald F. Day