In January 2007, researchers from San Francisco State University’s Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality, HIV educators from the San Francisco Department of Public Health Forensic AIDS Project, and women incarcerated in San Francisco County Jail #8 will embark on an exploration of HIV/AIDS risk and safer sex negotiation. With funding from the University wide AIDS Research Program and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, university researchers, educators, and incarcerated women will bring the concerns and insights of incarcerated women themselves to the fore of discussions of HIV/AIDS and incarceration. JAILED WOMEN & HIV EDUCATION will contribute to broad efforts to illuminate and challenge the roles that incarceration, HIV/AIDS, education, and research play in women’s lives.

Social inequalities inform both incarceration and HIV/AIDS prevalence in the United States. Almost two-thirds of the women in U.S. prisons and jails are women of color. Women in jail and prisons have an HIV infection rate that is 6 times that of American women in general, and the rate of infection among incarcerated women has exceeded that of incarcerated men for more than a decade. African American and Latina women represent about a quarter of all women in the United States, but they compose over three quarters of 2004 AIDS diagnoses.

These rates reflect the social inequities in many incarcerated women’s lives. Incarcerated women are typically young, poor, unemployed, undereducated, and without affordable and safe housing. Many of these women have experienced physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and many are addicted to or abusing drugs. These conditions have many consequences, including undermining women’s sexual and reproductive health and putting them at risk of HIV/AIDS.

JAILED WOMEN & HIV EDUCATION will be one of the first projects to address these issues in collaboration with incarcerated women in California. The project adopts a “participatory action research” framework and approaches education keeping in mind ideas from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire and participatory action researchers prioritize learning for and with-not only about-disenfranchised people. Students, teachers, study participants, and researchers work together on shared concerns. People who might otherwise be only the objects of study act as “co-researchers.” They participate in research design and inquiry that will help them make meaningful social change in their lives.

In a series of workshops and training sessions, women prisoners will learn about HIV/AIDS prevention, examine the obstacles to implementing prevention methods, and explore strategies for challenging those obstacles. Incarcerated women will gain research skills as they interview one another about HIV/AIDS risk and prevention, and work with researchers to analyze the information they gather. They will also acquire skills and knowledge that prepare them to act as peer health educators in jail and after their release. No matter what role they play in JAILED WOMEN AND HIV EDUCATION, women incarcerated in San Francisco county jails will have an opportunity to voice their understandings and experiences of HIV/AIDS, wellbeing, and safety. In doing so, they will promote health and justice in their own lives, with their families, and in their communities.

JAILED WOMEN AND HIV EDUCATION promises to have far-reaching consequences. Women who participate while incarcerated will have the opportunity to fill paid researcher and educator positions with the project after their release. The team aims to produce an HIV/AIDS curricula for use in other California and U.S. jails and prisons. Presentations to researchers and educators will encourage others to think about how they too might work with the people they study to challenge social inequalities and make social change.

Jessica Fields, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Research Associate at the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality, leads the research component of JAILED WOMEN AND HIV EDUCATION. Isela Gonzalez, Counseling, Testing and Linkages Coordinator at the San Francisco Department of Public Health Forensic AIDS Project, leads the HIV education efforts. Undergraduate and graduate student members of RISE-Research on Inequality, Sexuality, and Education, a faculty/student research group at San Francisco State University, provide crucial project assistance. For more information about JAILED WOMEN AND HIV EDUCATION, contact Jessica Fields at the San Francisco State University Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality (415-437-3944; jfields(at)sfsu.edu).