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After 28 Years Behind Bars, Harm Reduction Brought Me and My Brother Together

I started harm reduction work in prison after years of addiction. It’s helped me build relationships I never expected.

Georgetown student, Queen Adesuyi, and others listen to a prisoner discuss a project about prison reform at Jessup Prison in Jessup, Maryland, on February 25, 2016.

Part of the Series

Here in prison, my world is quite small. At my facility there are around 2,000 prisoners. The population is very diverse, which can be an obstacle to connection and relationship building. There are many prisoners who find it difficult to reach across lines. My passion lies in harm reduction, and this work relies on relationships. This is where my lived experience becomes useful.

I was never really good with relationships. I ruined every relationship I ever had. I pushed away my parents, who always wanted to help me. My siblings trying to care for me were spurned. One of the things that weighed most on my heart was how I treated my youngest sibling.

He was 12 years old when I told him I was HIV positive, and that I’d gotten it from sharing needles. We stood in a park and I told him how I was never going to stop drugs. He saw me with his young, impressionable eyes. Two years later I learned he was shooting heroin. My shame made it impossible to reach out in a meaningful way. I was able to cover that up with more drugs. We talked intermittently over the years. I later learned he had transitioned to live as a transgender man.

I have been HIV positive since before I came to prison. This is at the heart of my passion for harm reduction. In Washington State, where I am imprisoned, only 1 percent of the population is known to be HIV positive. Much work has been done to reduce incidence of HIV infection within prisons. But Hepatitis C runs wild through our system, with about 20 percent of men and 25 percent of women in Washington State prisons known to be positive. That makes Hepatitis C about 20 times more common in prison than in the free population of Washington State. There is a real need for harm reduction techniques to be available to incarcerated people, most of whom will one day return to society.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I facilitated several classes that provided students with information and techniques on how to reduce risk for themselves and others in their peer groups. These classes were wildly popular among a diverse range of communities here in prison. Since the pandemic, however, the return to old programs has been sluggish — and a program that teaches safer injection techniques and discusses sexual risks and solutions is likely to be last on that list.

In the meantime, I have made myself available as a source of information if people need it. I am well received by the prisoner population because of my lived experience as both a person living with HIV/AIDS and a prisoner with 28 years inside. I am able to contribute in a way that the contracted staff who come to teach the classes cannot. Sometimes the prisoner population doesn’t trust what the staff has to say, as they have little or no experience being incarcerated or with drugs. Most of the participants have already heard of me and are able to relate to me.

The fact that I am now 13 years clean also helps. People aren’t concerned that I’m interested in their drugs. I have a rule: I won’t help you find drugs. I am not a go-between or a facilitator. I cannot be. Not just for my own health, but also because it would detract from the integrity of what I do. It’s important that people trust me. Besides, I’d rather not know so the prison administration leaves me alone.

In my work, harm reduction, it’s all about the people. I want to help make the world a better, safer place. In my addiction, I caused harm to myself and everyone around me. My family was not exempt from this harm. Neither were my fellow prisoners.

In prison I joined a group of white supremacists that controlled most of the drug trade inside. The harm I caused there does not go unnoticed, by myself or others. Some of the reasons why I am accepted as a messenger of harm reduction is because of this past. Many of my fellow prisoners understand my transformation. I am able to meet them where they are by relating to their individual circumstances and helping them navigate their struggles.

Another way that I engage in harm reduction is sharing my experience through writing. This sheds light on the issue to people who may not understand there is a problem — and could even inspire them to explore further, connect with a local harm reduction agency or donate money to the cause.

Locked away in a small 8 by 12 foot cell in a tiny out-of-the-way town in the middle of nowhere, the world seems so distant and unreachable. I am sometimes overwhelmed at just how immense it is. But technology and my writing have allowed me to reach beyond these walls into the world in a way I’d never known. I am building relationships and developing a sense of belonging to the community I hope to return to one day.

Recently, I wrote a short piece about the trauma of experiencing solitary confinement during the height of the HIV epidemic. A friend of mine in England read it, and told me she had discovered a YouTube video about harm reduction that made her think of my article.

This video was about a man in Athens, Georgia. He’d been assigned female at birth, and experienced gender dysphoria that contributed to his addiction. During this time, he contracted Hepatitis C. Now, in Athens, he runs a small harm reduction site called Access Point of Georgia, where he and his staff are dedicated to preventing the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. Access Point offers free HIV and Hepatitis C testing and access to clean needles. They also do warm drop offs, which involve helping someone who has just tested positive connect with the necessary medical services for treatment.

Although my friend didn’t know it, the man in the video was my brother, Riley. I had last spoken to my brother about two years ago, when our father died. We had sent only a handful of letters to each another in the nearly three decades I’d been in prison. Though I knew a little about his story, I knew nothing of his wonderful work in Georgia.

My friend suggested that we connect. I was reluctant at first. Those doors were closed for a reason. Riley didn’t know the entirety of my life, or about how much of a bigot I had been before getting clean. If I did make this effort to connect, I might be turned away. And I was afraid the pain of knowing he would reject me would be harder to deal with than not knowing.

Eventually, I called Riley. The first good sign was that he accepted the call. The second was the joy in his voice — he said “brother” in an almost questioning voice. We spoke a lot that day, and most days since.

Riley and I speak now two or three times a week. Besides getting to know each other, much of our conversation is about harm reduction. I ask for advice about certain situations and for resources I can offer. Riley for his part asks a lot about incarceration and the work I do. I bring a different perspective that is informative. I am able to learn some more updated language that can really help me build deeper relationships with people. A really big help has been in books and resources on the subject that are hard to acquire inside.

Riley’s work is arduous. The people who work at Access Point must balance securing funding, meeting the communities’ needs, and juggling the crises that drop in each day. It’s a life filled with loss and pain — one where fentanyl can claim a life without warning, a friend can die by suicide when self-medicating no longer works, and the local government’s policies can make the crisis even more fatal. The front lines are littered with casualties.

So here we are, on opposite sides of the country, doing the same work for two very different communities. I had originally thought that the story was in the reunion, but as I write this it’s clear that the story is in the work we do. Harm reduction isn’t just a technique — it’s caring. It’s finding a way to relate, despite the distance and the razor wire. Sometimes it’s more rewarding than we expect.

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