FIGHT launches new HIV prison services

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Philadelphia FIGHT last week welcomed more than 100 service providers, criminal-justice workers and HIV/AIDS activists to celebrate the launch of its new Institute for Community Justice, which will provide resources and heighten awareness about HIV among those who were previously incarcerated.

Laura McTighe, co-director of the ICJ, said the agency’s opening has been nearly a decade in the making, as FIGHT has worked to strengthen and grow its prison services program.

“This is a chance to take the core messages and work we built there and bring it to anyone and everyone impacted by incarceration, regardless of their HIV status,” McTighe said.

The ICJ’s Reentry Organizing Center, located on the seventh floor of 21 S. 12th St., will provide a multitude of opportunities to former inmates.

“Our vision for the center was to be able to have a space where we could engage and empower people,” McTighe said. “So we have counselors and staff members who work with people in housing, employment, reuniting them with their families, teaching skill-building and other programs that will help us to support them in reaching their goals and dreams.”

One of the core programs of the ICJ is TEACH Inside/TEACH Outside, which allows ICJ counselors to work directly with the intake units at local prisons and focus on those who will only be spending a short time in prison. McTighe said ICJ staffers will work with the inmates as they are released, introducing them to the array of programs offered at the center and aiming to reduce recidivism.

The ICJ will also oversee FIGHT’s involvement in the Support Center for Prison Advocacy, a community coalition it helped launch two years ago that seeks to encourage leadership from former inmates and their families in fighting HIV and mobilizing their communities.

“We’ve been working in the neighborhoods hardest hit by incarceration, so it’s been massive in North Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia and, in May, we’ll be gearing up for starting in Germantown,” McTighe said.

The organization’s third major program is the Prison Health News, the nation’s only health newsletter written specifically by and for those who’ve spent time in prison, which FIGHT was influential in founding nearly 10 years ago.

Among other offerings, the quarterly publication features stories by those who’ve been released, highlighting some of their challenges and triumphs, and currently has about 3,000 people on its mailing list. McTighe said the ICJ is looking to increase that number as it encourages its clients to stay connected with others who are facing similar trials.

As the ICJ develops, McTighe said she hopes to redouble efforts to connect inmates with employment opportunities and strengthen the network of prison-justice agencies throughout the region and nation — which, she said, should be working together to meet their collective mission.

Support from the local community has been impressive, she said.

“Our open house brought people of every stripe, all of our stakeholders in the criminal-justice field. We’re very excited to see that the vision we had for our center is becoming what we hoped and what the community needs.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].