In his wildest dreams, former inmate Freddie Williams, 57, never imagined that he would contract the HIV virus.
But the HIV prevention counselor became a statistic when he was diagnosed with the disease 13 years ago.
A former heroin and cocaine addict, Williams, who grew up in South Los Angeles, was a keynote speaker at the recent Eighth Annual KJLH Women’s Health Forum at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and said that he became seduced by the streets at an early age.
“My father was an alcoholic,” Williams revealed. “After he drank, he would get violent with my mother and my sisters and brothers. I was the victim of child abuse,” Williams admitted. “When I was eight years old, my father abandoned the family.”
Williams said that after his father left, he and his older brother became the main breadwinners for their mother and four siblings.
“My brother and I used to go downtown and shine shoes for ten cents a shine. I made friends with some of the pimps, players, and drug dealers. They became my role models,” recalls Williams. I admired them because they always dressed nice and they had shiny cars and pretty women around them. At eight years old, I made a conscious decision that I wanted to copy their lifestyle.”
As he pursued the hustling lifestyle, Williams got hooked on drugs. “By the age of 27, I was drinking alcohol, shooting heroin and cocaine into my veins, and smoking crack. I was constantly in and out of jail due to my criminal activity,” said Williams, who said he was incarcerated six times over a period of twenty years. “I was arrested for theft, robbery, burglary, selling drugs, and shoplifting.”
Williams said that he continued the hustler’s lifestyle until the age of 51. “When I was growing up, I emulated the hustlers and the pimps who always appeared to have a glamorous lifestyle. But they never told me about the other side of street life, which meant that you frequently got harassed by police and that you also spent a lot of time in jail.”
Arrested on drug charges, Williams was sent to Soledad Prison in Central California for three years. He said prison was a volatile atmosphere where life was always unpredictable and violent. “In prison, your life is not guaranteed from day to day,” Williams asserted. “If the prisoners don’t kill you, the guards might kill you or you might get caught up in a race riot. Prison is very traumatic. You are living on the razor’s edge twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”
Due to the tenuous life in prison, Williams revealed that some inmates indulged in ‘trauma bonding.’ “We bonded with each other so that we could survive the psychological and emotional trauma brought on by living in the harsh prison environment. Some of the inmates turn to each other for comfort. Often that meant indulging in homosexual activity.”
After Williams was released from Perryville Prison in Goodyear, Arizona, he enrolled in an outpatient treatment program in Phoenix, Arizona. “When I got there, I told my case manager that I had used drugs intravenously for 27 years. She said that I was high risk for contracting HIV and that I should be tested. At the time, my girlfriend and I were having unprotected sex.”
Williams said he went into shock when the results came back positive. “I completely shut down and I relapsed back to injecting heroin and cocaine. In my mind, HIV was only for gay people. I felt that I had received a death sentence.”
Williams said that for the next six years, he rode an emotional roller coaster. “I tried to hide the fact that I had HIV,” he admitted. “I tried to commit suicide by overdosing on heroin about six or seven times.”
Despite his attempts to commit what he called “slow suicide,” Williams said he miraculously survived. “God just wouldn’t let me go,” marveled Williams. “No matter how many times I overdosed, I kept surviving. I thought, Maybe God wants me to stay here on earth for some reason. I made a decision that I wanted to live,” Williams recalled.
Standing in court during another drug bust, Williams received a break from the judge. Aware that Williams was a long-time substance abuser, the judge sentenced Williams to the Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center.
“That is where I got clean and sober and I haven’t looked back since,” said Williams, who credits his recovery to an excellent substance abuse program and a caring counselor. “I started going to school and taking courses to become a substance abuse counselor.”
Williams said he was startled after he read statistics indicating that African American women between the ages of 25 and 44 had the highest infection rates for HIV and AIDS.
“I felt that since I was infected with HIV, I needed to break the stigma and the demonization of HIV in our community,” Williams maintained. “I felt that by disclosing my HIV status that I could educate other African Americans. Our silence about this disease is contributing to genocide in our own community.”
Aware of the “down-low” activity that was rampant in prison, Williams made it his mission to warn unsuspecting females about ex-felons who could possibly infect them with HIV.
The HIV prevention counselor now lectures throughout Los Angeles County about HIV and AIDS and the prison community.
“Statistics indicate that ninety two percent of all the prison inmates come from Los Angeles County. Most of the time, once they get paroled, they return to the county they were convicted in. That means that a huge number of inmates are going to return to Los Angeles County who are going to have sex with unsuspecting women,” he pointed out.
Williams said that men who have served time behind bars are notorious for hiding their sexual history. “If you reveal that you have engaged in homosexual activity while in prison, that’s considered taboo in African American and Latino culture,” maintained Williams. “So, because of the stigma, ex-inmates keep their former sex life in the penitentiary a secret because they don’t want to be labeled as gay.”
The counselor said that it is crucial for women to engage in open dialog with post-incarcerated men and demand that unless they get tested together, they cannot indulge in sex. “The bottom line is, women have power over men,” Williams pointed out. “Women have to empower themselves and stand up and protect themselves because the formerly convicted aren’t going to reveal their sexual history.”
Williams added that there should be reforms in the prison system to curtail the threat of HIV and AIDS. “We have to find a way to distribute condoms in prison and to make it mandatory to test the inmates before they go in the prison system and when they come out,” he urged.
Williams was also concerned that the message about HIV and AIDS has been slow to infiltrate the African American and Latino communities. “We need to mobilize as a community around HIV and AIDS and stop waiting on the government to solve our problems. Our churches need to get more involved in the HIV and AIDS crisis. And if a person has AIDS, we also need to heal each other instead of stigmatizing each other.”
Williams felt that the black community needed to become more aware of HIV and AIDS and how it continues to decimate communities of color. “The face of HIV and AIDS is no longer a gay, white disease; it is now the disease of people of color,” Williams pointed out.