Former Austin resident and street drug user Angela McLaurin said serving 60 days in an Illinois maximum security prison saved her life.
A 1995 arrest for minor drug possession sent 52-year-old McLaurin to the female-only Dwight Correctional Center, where she was tested and began treatment for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Before McLaurin entered prison, a friend told her “something ain’t right” with her.
“I knew something was wrong every time I looked in the mirror,” McLaurin said.
“I wasn’t glowing.”
That’s one reason McLaurin agreed to have an HIV test during her processing at Dwight.
But not everyone learns their HIV-positive status this way, though more inmates do now since HIV testing in Illinois’ correctional facilities became mandatory in August — 30 years after the AIDs pandemic started.
In Austin, about 622 people were infected and living with HIV in 2010, according to data from Chicago’s Department of Public Health – and that number has grown over the last five years.
In 2006, 513 Austin residents were HIV positive.
This is partly due to the increasing number of ex-inmates who come to the West Side after being released from state correctional facilities, said the Rev. Doris Green, director of correctional health and community affairs at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
The number of HIV positive individuals living in Austin is slightly less than in Uptown, Lakeview and Rogers Park — the three Chicago neighborhoods with the greatest number of reported HIV cases, according to 2009 city public health department data.
Citywide, 21,177 people were HIV positive in 2010, according to Chicago Department of Public Health statistics.
The HIV rates among inmates are two to three times higher than among community members, according to AIDS Foundation of Chicago data.
Ex-prisoners who don’t know they’re HIV positive or are uneducated about the virus can come back into the communities and spread it, said Green, also the vice chairwoman of the Westside HIV/AIDS Regional Planning Council.
“The community (Austin) is overwhelmed with a re-entry population,” she said.
Green said it’s important for HIV-positive prisoners who are released to be linked to care so they’re less likely to spread the virus to others.
Green said most ex-inmates with HIV had the virus before entering a state jail or prison.
But prisoners also have sex in jails and prisons, which may include unprotected sex among people who may not have been tested or know their HIV status, Mildred Williamson, chief of the HIV division at the Illinois Department of Public Health, said in an e-mail.
HIV positive individuals are cycling in and out of prison, said Ciuinal Lewis, project director at Chicago’s Connect to Protect, a coalition that works to reduce HIV among young African American females and Latinas who live in North and South Lawndale.
“If we are not catching them on the way in, we should be catching them on the way out, and we’re not,” she said at the Westside HIV/AIDS Regional Planning Council’s November meeting.
“They are having sex with people in jail and coming right back out and having sex with other folks.”
Williamson said African Americans are disproportionately present in U.S. prisons and jails. Ex-inmates often return to segregated communities of high poverty and high racial and economic segregation, such as Chicago’s West Side.
“HIV infection rates are often high in such communities,” Williamson said.
“So the probability of social and sexual encounters with someone who is HIV positive, and may not know their status and not care, becomes higher.”
HIV is transmitted through blood, semen and vaginal fluids. Women with HIV can also transmit the virus through breast milk. There is no known cure for HIV, which suppresses the immune system, making it hard to fight off infections and damaging the body over time.
When a HIV positive person’s white blood cell count drops to an unhealthy number, the virus is then considered AIDS. People who are HIV positive can live many healthy years and delay the progression of AIDS with medication.
Individuals who already have sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and Chlamydia are more susceptible to being infected with HIV, Beverley Walker-Donley, chairwoman of the Westside HIV/AIDS Regional Planning Council, said at a recent meeting.
HIV stigma and lack of access to condoms also contribute to Austin’s high HIV rates, Walker-Donley said.
People with STDs are two to five times more likely than uninfected individuals to get HIV if exposed to the virus through sexual contact, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics.
Austin had the highest number of reported gonorrhea and Chlamydia cases in 2010 out of all Chicago’s 77 community areas.
About 1,743 people in Austin reported having Chlamydia and 579 people reported having gonorrhea, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health’s fall 2011 HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infection Surveillance Report.
The same year, just 255 people in Roseland reported having gonorrhea and 675 had Chlamydia. In Uptown, 77 people reported gonorrhea and 160 people reported Chlamydia.
Not all HIV-related statistics in the city are easy to come by, however.
It’s difficult if not impossible to determine how many ex-inmates are actually being released back into Austin, because the Cook County Sheriff’s Office’s inmate database does not distinguish between wards or neighborhoods in Chicago, said Elisabeth Abraham, freedom of information officer for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office couldn’t say how many inmates were discharged by Austin’s zip code either.
The Cook County Department of Corrections released approximately 86,000 inmates in 2010, Abraham said.
The best estimate comes from an 8-year-old study by the Urban Institute on Community Re-Entry.
The study, published in April 2003, showed a disproportionate percent of persons released from state prisons returned to six of Chicago’s community areas, said Williamson.
“Four of these areas are West Side communities, including Austin,” she said.
Since HIV testing hasn’t been mandatory in jails and prisons, the number of released inmates with HIV who re-enter Austin isn’t known, Green said.
“We do not have a system to draw that information,” she said. “I would love to have a number like that.”
Up until mid-August, it wasn’t mandatory for state correctional facilities to test new inmates for the virus.
But before August, some facilities voluntarily tested inmates.
McLaurin, who now lives in Logan Square, said when she was quarantined at Dwight for processing, a staff member slipped a piece of paper under her door asking if she wanted to be tested.
The paper listed risky behaviors, such as unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, sharing needles for steroids or other drugs and exchanging sex for money, among others.
“Maybe you need to be checked out,” McLaurin remembers saying to herself.
“I’ve participated in all of them.”
Now, more than 17 years after McLaurin went to prison, the Illinois General Assembly passed House Bill 1748 – which requires prisons and jails to test new inmates for HIV unless they opt out.
State Rep. Camille Lilly (78th), whose district includes much of the Austin community, authored the bill and was its original sponsor in the House.
The law also requires the state’s prison system to offer HIV-positive inmates help before they’re released, which includes referrals to services.
But not all the correctional facilities in the state have adopted the testing procedures yet.
Cermak Health Services, the healthcare provider for Cook County detainees, is administering a pilot program for optional HIV testing at the women’s division of the Cook County Jail.
The pilot program “plans to expand to the male population very shortly,” said Williamson.
McLaurin, who supports the state’s new HIV op-out law, said her life hasn’t “been a cake walk.” And it isn’t for anyone with the virus.
“It’s unimaginable, the curveballs you get thrown,” she said.
Her diagnosis in the Dwight Correctional Center helped her seek the medical attention and support she needed to live a healthy life when she left prison.
“I caught mine at a good time,” McLaurin said.
If she waited any longer, the virus could have done worse damage to her body, she said.
McLaurin is working as an advocate for those living with HIV and on her way to earning a substance abuse counseling degree from Harold Washington College.
She thinks everyone should be tested.
“HIV is not a death sentence, and it doesn’t have to define you,” she said.
“I’ve got HIV, but HIV doesn’t have me.”
Anyone with questions about HIV or AIDS, or seeking information about free testing, should call (800) 243-AIDS (2437).
In Chicago, the Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center, at 2020 W. Harrison St., offers testing and treatment for STDs and HIV, along with other support services. Call the CORE Center’s main clinic at (312) 572-4500 for more information.