This spring marks the publication of the second edition of Turn It Up!: Staying Strong Inside, the health magazine expressly for and about (and even partly by) people in prison. It’s published by the HIV-decriminalization advocacy group Sero Project, so no surprise that it has a focus on living with (or preventing) HIV inside, as well as the frequent challenges of getting hepatitis C treatment while behind bars.
What sets Turn It Up! apart from many of the worthy nonprofit newsletters for people in prison is not only its glossy, professional format but the fact that its makers take the time (all via snail mail or phone, as people in prison rarely have email or internet access) to solicit both stories and art from people in prison and then to work with them on their pieces until they’re publication-ready. And to affirm for readers that people in prison are people, the magazine calls them just that — “people in prison” or “incarcerated people,” never “prisoners” or “inmates.”
This second issue, for example, has people-in-prison-driven stories on debunking HIV myths, aging, racism, observing Ramadan, running and exercise, support groups, diabetes, hep C, filing medical grievances and health self-advocacy, transgender health care, and more. Plus, there’s a massive (and heavily vetted) index of resources that folks in prison can mail away for.
It’s quite an extraordinary effort, which is why TheBody was eager to talk with the magazine’s co-editors: New York–based Laura Whitehorn, a longtime POZ magazine editor and current advocate for releasing older folks from prison who herself was incarcerated for over a decade, and New Orleans–based writer and editor Olivia Ford, formerly an editor for TheBody.
Tim Murphy: Thanks for talking today! Congrats on an amazing second issue. So what is the origin story of the magazine? [Note: Ford joined the team on the current issue.]
Laura Whitehorn: [POZ magazine cofounder] Sean Strub and I became interested several years ago in HIV criminalization statutes throughout the U.S. Personally, I can think off the top of my head of three people with HIV who have died in prison serving life sentences for spitting or biting. [Note: It’s next to impossible even for an untreated person with HIV to transmit the virus this way]. So Sean started the Sero Project to work to change these ridiculous anti-science and HIV-phobic laws. Right from the beginning, he started hearing from incarcerated people about the enormous lack of decent health care in prison, so he contacted several people, including me, and started raising money — I think about $50,000 — to fund the magazine and also so that families of incarcerated writers could make contributions to their commissary [in-prison store] funds, as we are not legally allowed to pay incarcerated writers.
So from there, we reached out to the excellent publication Prison Health News published by Philadelphia FIGHT, and they sent letters to their subscribers about our new magazine, and in turn we got back a huge number of manuscripts, or suggestions for stories.
In the first issue, exercise was a big topic. The whole concept of the magazine is what can you do inside to maintain your health when you usually can’t get decent food. You have your own body and mind, so we built from there — and a lot of people wrote us these fantastic stories on running, meditation, or accounts of how people who found out in prison that they have HIV going from zero to 60 in terms of learning about HIV and HIV drugs, so that they could advocate for themselves.
We also solicited lots of tips from people about how to survive in prison and grouped them under a “Worked for Me” rubric. When I was in prison, I hated it when people outside said to me, “You should do this,” because they had no idea what the conditions were inside.
TM: What was the response to the first issue like?
LW: It was so big, we had to put out a second! [laughs] The response was: “More, more, more!” And one thing we’ve included in both issues is a resource guide, which was the hardest thing, because many organizations on the outside don’t realize that people in prison don’t have internet access, can’t make phone calls whenever they want, or can’t get books unless they come a certain way [such as being shipped directly from Amazon]. So we really had to badger these groups and ask, “So when you say your guide is free, do you mean you can download it for free?”
Olivia Ford: Not having been incarcerated myself, this issue was an education for me as well. I had to ask each and every group, “Are you prepared to get thousands of letters from people in prison?”
LW: We had to tell them that people in prison might get five stamps a month, and that if they used one of those precious stamps to write to a group, would they hear back? And often there would be a long silence, and they’d say, “You better not list us.”
TM: How long did it take to put each issue together?
LW: More than a year. You have to get a letter from people in prison with an idea or a draft, then you write a letter back. Everything goes through prison censorship, so you have to be careful how you frame things. We’ll discuss the draft and send it back to the person suggesting or asking for changes. We make sure that no one opens the magazine and sees something with their name on it using language they didn’t approve. It takes a long time.
TM: There is so much that people in prison can’t do in terms of wellness and health. You have very little say over your daily routine, your diet, your health care options. How did the magazine shape its content given that?
OF: This comes up a lot in our advisory board meetings. Like, talking about nutrition — the food people are getting really varies from institution to institution, system to system. So we focus on things like drinking lots of water; making sure to move, run, walk; being physical as much as possible. One gentleman inside said to try to eat double servings of fruit or vegetables whenever they’re available, to avoid white bread — which is so plentiful in prison — and to lean toward meats that aren’t fried. In the article by Victoria Law on aging in prison, people brought up advocating for healthier snacks like nuts and protein bars instead of ramen packets.
TM: There is also a lot in the issue about how to go about advocating for yourself while in prison.
LW: A lot of people try to get on a special diet, like a kosher diet or the diabetes diet. But we had to be careful. In the first issue, someone mentioned in the tips section that they’d had a food strike for better food, and that issue was barred from prisons until lawyers stepped in. People on the outside should understand that when you advocate for people in prison, you have to know their rules, because if you don’t you can get them in more trouble.
TM: I know it’s hard to generalize across prison systems, but would you say that the general status for people inside with HIV has changed from the dark ages of the 1980s and 1990s?
LW: New York State has decent HIV care, partly because of the work of advocates on the outside, such as from the Correctional Association of New York. It also is giving hepatitis C treatment. But a lot of states now use privately contracted health care in prisons, which really stinks because it’s all about profit. Probably there are places where people can’t get an HIV test if they want it, or they’re getting HIV meds from five years ago.
TM: What about HIV stigma in prison?
OF: It’s still a huge issue, especially for people in prison on HIV-related charges. That’s partly why we did the HIV myth-busters story, to say, “These are the things you’ve been told, and they’re not true. HIV treatment is not toxic like it used to be.”
TM: What story from the newest issue sticks out in your mind?
OF: The cover story on racism in prison. That came out of a real-time phone conversation with Su’Ganni Tiuza, who is currently incarcerated in Massachusetts. [Note: Tiuza is the inside organizer for United for Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Progress]. Racism in prison is a reality that people are talking about, just like HIV stigma. We talked about racism as a health issue. Executing the call itself was challenging. Tiuza was able to sit in a quiet office for the call, but in prison that’s the exception, not the rule.
TM: What’s something that folks reading this can do for folks in prison?
LW: Look at the resources in the back of the magazine, and see if there’s one in your area you can volunteer for, like the Books Through Bars programs that get books to folks inside. You can also change your own thinking about issues of incarceration and get involved with outside advocacy groups. One of the articles is about aging in prison. Here in New York State, where we have the group Release Aging People in Prison, we said, “Don’t build nursing homes behind bars — let people out.” If you are in the HIV community and you write about HIV, include incarcerated people in your stories. And fight against all of the attempts by the police and Republicans and prison-guard unions to keep the same system we’ve had the last 40 years of locking people up for long sentences. It’s important to advocate for better conditions inside prisons, but if you asked people in prison what their first desire was, it wouldn’t be for better food — it would be to get out.
Contact The Sero Project if you want to arrange to have copies of Turn It Up! sent to people you know in prison — anywhere.