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A Circle of Strength
Project Ujima Gives Hope to Men Devastated by Drugs, Prison and HIV

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?

If they are fortunate, Gary Isler knocks on their door.

For more than a year, Isler has worked as an outreach coordinator for Family and Medical Counseling Service Inc. When HIV-positive inmates are released from the D.C. jail, it is Isler's job to make sure they get medical help if they want it.

Sometimes they don't. Sometimes, it's too late. By the time Isler reached one guy this summer, the man was using illegal drugs again. Four others were back behind bars. Another prospective client relapsed, ended up in a nursing home and died.

The stories haunt him.

A man needs more than medicine to heal, Isler says. Which is why he started the project and called it Ujima, also known as the Courage to Change group.

In Swahili, "ujima" means "collective responsibility."

* * *

Just getting to the weekly meeting -- on the second floor of an office building at 2041 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. -- is an accomplishment.

Lee, who has spent nearly half his life behind bars, usually arrives first. He and Isler go way back, to when they were locked up in neighboring buildings in the now-defunct Lorton prison complex in Virginia. Lee's four kids, ages 12 to 27, don't know he's HIV-positive, he says.

Kevin Robinson is usually the second to show. In a bad drug deal 10 years ago, he got whacked in the head with a baseball bat and was pronounced dead at the hospital, he says. Except that he wasn't. Three years later, he contracted HIV.

Russell is a chatty, barrel-chested sports fanatic who'll talk field goals and three-pointers to anyone who'll listen.

Often the guy who's listening most intently is Stanley Richmond. He's so good at listening that the others sometimes wonder if he talks at all.

Then there's Isler, a compact 51-year-old with graying stubble, a quick wit and an air of understanding. He knows where these men have been, because he's been there. Knows what it's like to count every single dime. Which is why each week he gives the men bus tokens for attending. And every third Wednesday, he passes out $10 gift cards from Giant or Safeway.

Lee, Kevin, Russell and Stanley have become Ujima's core. You could fill half a century with the combined number of years they've spent locked up. But in the short time they've known each other, they have learned to see themselves in each other's stories and their new goals.

Kevin, 37, is practicing his multiplication tables to earn his GED.

Russell, 49, is looking for a job: "No one's in a rush of hiring an HIV-positive ex-con."

For Lee, 51, who's on parole until 2011, it's a slow climb to routine daily life, where getting his first credit card application in the mail is a major event. Bank of America is offering a $200 credit line. "I couldn't believe it," he says.

And here are some more numbers:

Four hundred and three dollars. Kevin's monthly income.

Twenty-five. The number of years Stanley, 50, has lived with HIV.

Ten. The number of relatives Ujima men have lost to AIDS complications. A mother, cousins, sisters and brothers.

* * *

After walking out of Lorton on April 19, 1988, Gary Isler tried to do the right thing. He's held on to a job. He's been with the same woman for 15 years. He's stayed clean.

Still, adjusting is hard, he says, recalling several years ago when he bought a used black Mazda MX-3. He was sure someone was going to pull his criminal record and take the car back as he tried to drive it off the lot.

His life still amazes him, and he often wonders how it is that he survived all the dirty needles and unprotected sex with women, without contracting HIV.

"Only by the grace of God," he says. He's lost so many friends to AIDS that he's stopped counting.

* * *

"Where have you been most broken?" Isler asks in the circle one afternoon in mid-July.

The men are silent, then Russell clears his throat.

"I was applying for a job downtown. Administrative aide, something like that," he says. "I was filling out some forms. And I just thought, 'Am I good enough for this? Do I even have a . . .' "

Lee interrupts. "See, you have to have a different mind-set," he says. "You have to think, 'I can get it, I can do this.' "

A few weeks later, it is Lee who revisits the question about being broken. He talks about, of all things, a Curious George doll he picked up at a dollar store.

"I put it underneath my arm the other night, sat on the bed, and broke down like a child. My old lady came around the bed and said, 'What's wrong with you?' . . . And I just told her, 'I miss everybody. They're all gone.' It just hit me all [at] one time."

Someone new always shows up. This time it's a 44-year-old named Michael, who excuses himself to go to the bathroom three times in 15 minutes, then tells the circle that he remains deep in a crack cocaine addiction.

"I always wanted to be a grown-up when I was kid," he says, "and now I'm a man and I'm acting like a boy."

And someone is always missing.

"Where's Drew?" asks Isler.

Drew accepted a role in a skit the men have been practicing, planning to perform it for Ujima's first anniversary celebration. In it, Lee plays an addict who gets jailed for stealing. Kevin plays a dealer. Stanley's the narrator. Russell, not much into acting, sits out. Last week, Drew, 53, was the arresting officer.

Isler turns to Michael. "Are you going to be here next week? I can tell in your face that you're going to be here. Can you play the part?"

"Nah, man," Michael says. "I got a lot on my mind."

"What's on your mind?" Isler asks.

"I think my parole officer is going to lock me up. . . . I don't want to be locked up . . . but I done enough things to get locked up," Michael says, his face in his hands.

Every meeting ends the same, the men reciting a creed: "We the men of the Courage to Change group are dedicated to resolve our issues, eliminate our pains and improve our circumstances for the better."

* * *

"How do I tell a woman that I'm positive? When do I tell her?" asks Drew. He tested positive three years ago. His three brothers -- Joe, William and Robert -- all intravenous drug users, died of AIDS complications.

Stanley shrugs.

Russell sighs.

"That's a real tough thing." Kevin says. "I gotta tell you, I'm at a point now where I'm cool with telling . . ."

Lee cuts Kevin off.

"Whatever you do, just make sure you tell her before you sleep with her," Lee says. "You don't want that guilt hanging over your head."

Lee learned he was positive in 1993, three days before he was released from a federal prison in New Jersey. He's not sure when he got infected.

"I was in denial about [HIV], didn't want to deal with it," Lee says. For four years, he kept using cocaine and heroin, kept sleeping around with "a lot of women." They didn't ask if he was positive, and he never said anything. "That was the lifestyle I was living."

Adds Kevin: "I'm not ashamed of this thing" anymore. "Any lady I get in contact with, believe me, she knows what I'm dealing with. . . . I don't ever want to give nobody this."

He is one of the few men to give his full name. One of the few who talks about what it has been like in his neighborhood, where the teenagers who once hung out at his place to watch movies, or a game, don't come around much anymore.

"Viracept," the name of an HIV medication, is printed on his backpack.

* * *

Lee is nervous, and Isler is nervous for him.

The audience consists of employees of Family and Medical Counseling Service, the men of Ujima and members of another support group, this one for HIV-positive women. The group of 25 or so is cramped in a windowless basement in late August. On a table in the back is a chocolate cake with yellow icing that reads: "Happy 1 Year Anniversary!"

Isler is explaining the skit he wrote, a moment that the men in Ujima all know: detoxing, alone, in a cell. There is hope, too, he adds, "because we all need some hope."

Lee's character is on his back on the floor, clutching his stomach, screaming:

"Lord! Oh Lord! Oh Lord!"

Isler pushes a button on the CD player and James Brown's "King Heroin" fills the room.

I came to this country without a passport . . .

I can make a mere schoolboy forget his books

I can make a good man forsake his wife

Send a greedy man to prison for the rest of his life

* * *

A year passes and the men of Ujima can measure their lives beyond Wednesdays now.

Kevin is planning to take his GED exam in June.

Stanley won a scholarship to attend next week's "Staying Alive" summit in New Orleans hosted by the National Association of People With AIDS.

A job cleaning Metrobuses didn't come through for Lee, but he recently started a 15-week class for a commercial driver's license. He tore up the credit card application, decided it was too soon.

Isler, himself a man of unfinished business, is taking a class to earn his high school diploma.

Drew hasn't been seen much lately. Neither has Russell.

But Russell landed a telemarketing job that pays $13 an hour, and moved into his own apartment. It's been three months now and counting.

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