Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Long Run Down at the City Jail

Bill Andrews goes to jail every Friday morning. For six years this Memphis man has taken himself to 201 Poplar, downtown Memphis, on a weekly basis. A distinctive man, Bill is tall, good looking and charming. His smile and cheerful greeting infect the faces of guards, visitors, chaplains, counselors and inmates. They are pleased to see him over and over again. Bill voluntarily teaches a class on HIV Prevention and Treatment at 201 Poplar. Teaching up to sixty inmates at a time he begins by making it clear that HIV is a disease that nobody needs to catch. “It’s a problem we all end up paying for.” Bill’s voice has the sound of absolute authority. People listen as he explains the high cost of ignoring this killer disease.

You know Bill’s voice and face from his stage appearances at Playhouse on the Square and at Theatre Memphis. His company, Good Show LLC, designs and builds sets for major events in theater, entertainment and industry within the Memphis area. Bill has enough work and a to-do list that is on-going. Yet this high profile, white, heterosexual, happily married successful business man remains committed to talking to male inmates about risky behaviors like unprotected sex and needle sharing. He explains how the HIV virus most often gets into the human body through mucous membranes, the pink moist places in our bodies. It lives in air-tight places like the inside of human bodies. The virus lives in blood, semen, vaginal fluid, cerebral spinal fluid and breast milk. Bill describes the destruction of the human immune system as untreated HIV infection takes over the body’s defenses. He urges the men to use condoms and to take advantage of multiple opportunities for free HIV testing. As Bill sets up his overhead projector he asks, “How many of you have heard me give this lecture before?” A river of hands, perhaps one third, goes up across the room. “How many of you have heard me give this lecture more than once before?” Eight hands go up in the air. Bill is a common sight and an uncommon warrior in the war against HIV infections. “Nobody is talking about this disease any more. Not the television news and not the printed news. The politicians have forgotten all about it. It used to be up front and center, back when Hollywood was losing its brightest and best to AIDS. The most glamorous and high profile people were all wearing red ribbons and donating large sums of money for research and treatment. But now the newly infected people in our community are mostly poor and African American. The disease is no longer making headlines. It is as if people have stopped caring. But the disease has not gone away. Our silence won’t heal anybody.” Bill refuses to be silent. His commitment to the health and well being of the men in our city jail is awesome.

“Your beliefs are your own and I cannot take them away from you,” he maintains the interest of his restless audience in spite of doors clanging, voices calling and machinery humming in the concrete and metal background. “If you believe you can’t get this disease because the only sex you have is getting head, your belief can make you sick. If you believe this disease is passed only by men having sex with men your belief will leave you exposed to the virus when you have unprotected sex with an infected woman. If you believe your HIV diagnosis is a death sentence so you refuse to get treated then your belief will keep you from possibly living long and well on a prescribed regimen of drugs. If you believe that HIV is a virus created by the United States government to get rid of poor black people then I can’t make you believe otherwise. But you can choose not to get this disease, no matter where or how it came into Memphis. You can protect yourself and your partner with a latex condom every time you have sex. There’s no need to change your belief. Just change your behaviors.”

Bill served on the board of Friends for Life for many years. Friends for Life is a local nonprofit that exists to provide services to people living with HIV and AIDS. Bill has seen what the HIV virus can do to people and to the community. He takes his lecture where he finds a captive audience of mostly poor and African American men, many with a history of risky behaviors. There is no way for him to measure the effectiveness of his investment. That does not seem to bother Bill. He believes he is doing a good thing so he keeps presenting the truth about HIV to new, long-term and returning inmates, Friday after Friday.