A Circle of Strength

The Ujima group, which meets weekly in Southeast Washington, has been described by AIDS workers as the only one of its kind in D.C.
The Ujima group, which meets weekly in Southeast Washington, has been described by AIDS workers as the only one of its kind in D.C. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006

Every Wednesday the men come to see Gary Isler.

Like him, they are recovering addicts and ex-convicts. Unlike him, they are living with "the sauce," "the alphabets." HIV.

And each week they come to the fluorescent-flooded room in Southeast Washington and sit in the circle of plastic chairs that Isler has arranged for them. Sometimes there are five men, sometimes a dozen. Isler thinks there could be more.

Each week he knocks on doors, calls and calls, fishing for those who live on the margins of the marginalized. It is one thing to be poor in the District of Columbia, Isler explains. It is another to be poor and battling drug addiction. Add to that being an ex-convict trying to reintegrate yourself into a community, often the same one where you once stole and robbed, or worse. Now add HIV, and it becomes a world few see, unless you are a worker like Isler, or living inside it.

"They're like castaways," Isler says, "and they need a place to work on themselves."

About a year ago, he started Project Ujima, as the Wednesday group is called. It is, local AIDS workers say, the only one of its kind in the city. Theirs is not just a place in which poverty, prison, addiction and HIV intersect, the Ujima men say, but a place to heal. An unbroken circle where men with broken lives try to rebuild.

With a few exceptions, most allowed only their first names to be published. What they did share, over the course of six months, is what it feels like to inch toward success, or to hit a wall. To struggle toward a GED, or fall back into addiction. To find a job, or find yourself getting sicker.

* * *

At the D.C. jail, some 19,000 people, 90 percent male and black, are incarcerated each year, a third on drug charges. Some get infected while imprisoned. Others have no idea when they became ill. What's certain is, once they are released, if there is no support system -- a place to live, a family member to turn to -- then life is one precarious day after the next.

This summer, the jail became the first in the country to test all new inmates for HIV, says D.C. Department of Corrections chief Devon Brown. Currently 142 of 3,521 inmates in the city's custody have HIV, the agency says.

"The jail is like the city itself," says Marsha Martin, head of the District's AIDS office. "Both are still trying to figure out the reach of this epidemic. And it's less about the individual who goes to jail and more about the confining reality of the correctional system. We know that inmates are having sex inside. We know they're sharing needles. For drugs. For tattoos. And we know that when they get out of jail, they go back to our neighborhoods."

Then what?

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