I’ve worked as a prison librarian for a number of years. There’s a lot of ‘identity politics’ in the prison system – antagonism between whites and blacks and gays and straights and men and women. But there have been two periods when all the identity politics fell away…
The first was during the AIDS epidemic. Before AIDS there was a lot of prejudice against gay staff and inmates. When AIDS first hit it was called GRID (Gay Related Infectious Disease) and primarily affected the gay community. The gay prison groups started organizing together and figuring out how to address the epidemic.
But since HIV is spread via bodily fluids it also affected the drug users. All of the sudden the drug users and other affected communities started to rally around the gay population because they realized it was in their best interest to do so. The different groups held meetings to exchange information and support each other. In an instant all the homophobia I had witnessed for years disappeared when the prisoners were united against a common enemy.
The second time was after 9/11. Just before 9/11 there was a very ‘Afro-centrist’ movement – white people were called ‘Ice People’ because they were viewed as cold and uncaring, and the blacks considered themselves the opposite. When 9/11 happened all the antagonism between blacks and whites and gays and straight and men and women disappeared. There was an immediate sense of community and togetherness that lasted for a good period of time.
But when memories of the AIDS epidemic and 9/11 faded, the prisoners stopped looking at what united them against a common enemy and instead looked at what separated them as they fought each other.
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