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“Peers” in the Colony

Who are peer counselors? Often they are “invisible” specialists. Invisible, not because they don’t do anything, but because they resemble their clients (“peers”), and know about life with a diagnosis based on their own experience and help different people in different places. One example is the following story that was told by Elena Titina, EVA Specialist and Director of the Vector of Life Charity

When you come to the medical ward of Penal Colony 28, it’s hard to miss Vika, in part because there aren’t many staff there, and there are even fewer inmates who work there.

Vika is bright and open, and when you interact with her, she smiles and laughs. Two visits was enough to understand that Vika acts as a Peer Counselor for HIV and hepatitis without realizing it. While there is always more to learn, genuine charisma and the gift of persuasion she certainly has.

In October we “got in” to Penal Colony 28. It was challenging, with lots of checks, and also the location is quite difficult to get to. Not that it’s so far away, but first one must travel to the ferry port, then cross the Volga river by a 20-minute boat ride, and then, if you’re lucky, they send a car to meet you and it’s a 10-15 minute ride to the prison, otherwise you must go by taxi. The village of Rozhdenstvo is located almost within the nature reserve, as is the prison. In the offseason it’s impossible to get there until hovercrafts start running. The prison is for women who are serving sentences for repeat offenses, many for article 228 (illegal acquisition, possession, transportation, production, or processing of narcotic drugs), and even more have a positive HIV status and viral hepatitis –  2/3 of the total number of inmates. It’s not by chance that Vika found herself there. After three months of regular visits, I decided to interview her and find out her story. She was happy to oblige. 

She was born and grew up in a small provincial city. Vika lived with her grandmother, relations with her mother did not work out. At age 16 she fell in love with a guy 4 years her senior. They dated, loved each other, the young man tried to make a living, and they wanted to start a family. He worked at the market, making money where he could. One day, a friend of his offered an easy way to make a lot of money. That was how drugs came into their lives — they tried them soon after. The young man was almost immediately sent to prison for 10 years.

Left alone, Vka found out that she was pregnant. She stopped using immediately, afraid for the child that she wanted very badly. She gave birth to a son. It was difficult. They lived on her grandmother’s pension and then she arranged for her son to attend nursery school and she began to work. Life started to fall into place. Drugs remained in her past. She worked at the bread factory, and met a man there. They began to date and soon after got married. When Vika was awaiting her second baby, she was diagnosed with HIV. Her husband insists he was unaware that he had HIV but she believes that he knew but simply didn’t believe it really existed, that it was a mistake. And Vika too decided that indeed, HIV does not exist. She gave birth to a second son, who was born without HIV. But not long after, her husband passed away, he declined quickly as he did not want to take treatment. Once again Vika and her children – one aged 1, the other, 5 – stayed with her grandmother. It was absolutely hopeless – no support, no money, and on top of it, HIV. The most familiar and simple way to cope with pain and emptiness for a person with dependency is drugs. “I went where I knew.” Three years flew by as if one: in the apartment of a dealer, with her parental rights in jeopardy, and her health declining. Her first sentencing was given conditionally, for drugs, of course. One day her mother-in-law took the younger son and Vika was sent with her older son to a religious rehabilitation center. A man named Alexey simply drove up and told her to gather her things. In rehabilitation, her condition worsened – she had a high temperature, anorexia and dystrophy, weighing approximately 40 kilograms. The ambulance was called and the doctors refused to admit her to the hospital, saying, “Take her to hospice, she will die.” From the hospice she was sent back to the rehabilitation center. Vika could no longer stand up, her legs were covered in ulcer; she was thin and gaunt. And somehow a miracle occurred. The religious rehabilitation center, with 60 people in unison asked God for health for Vika in a prayer. Those who have been in a protestant church know that such prayer is emotional and intense. Vika began to recover and then began to stand up. And the drugs returned. Her second sentence was also conditional. In 2010 some friends who were classmates who worked in the police came. The town is small and everyone knows everything about everyone. They said, “We’re going to put you in prison, it’s the only place you’ll remain alive, otherwise you’ll die.” At that point there was nothing to lose, everything was horrible – her children had been taken, her home was gone, she had nowhere to live and was not wanted by anyone. Vika understood this and therefore quickly agreed.

228 section 1. Sale and possession of drugs. She was given 4 years and 6 months. At that time her health was more or less okay and although almost all her hair had fallen out and ulcers had developed on her legs, Vika still did not believe HIV existed. Vika quickly got used to the prison, set goals and attained them, and became a supply manager. By the end of her sentence she had made a friend, a woman in her 60s who spoke of the need to take treatment. When she was released from prison, Vika’s immune status was a cell count of 50 and a viral load of 500 thousand. The house in Tolyatti where Vika went to live with her parents had no gas or ability to register. No registration, no treatment. The AIDS Center didn’t even receive her. She went to Samara, where by some miracle they took tests, but she did not go to receive the results and started using again. She began to date a man and he “turned her in”. He helped the law enforcement to make a controlled purchase with marked money. 0.45 grams of speed and a 10 year sentence. Her CD4 cell count was down to 30, but she was hospitalized only after being sent to the prison. There she immediately qualified for group 2 disability. “They say that with legs like this, people don’t walk, and I’ve been serving for 4 years. First I volunteered to substitute someone in the medical department, and when a position opened up there I was hired. I have a pension and I don’t need to work, but I like it. Sometimes I get hospitalized when my ulcers open up; I should rest more but I can’t. I need activity.”

She started to take treatment and began to delve into the details. Now she knows when whose pills are out and when, who needs what treatment regimes, and who is taking treatment and who isn’t. She urges them, sharing about her experience, but many are still not convinced.

Vika’s grandmother recently passed away and her older son, who was being raised by her grandmother, was left on his own. Relations with her mother never got better and she was not interested in seeing her grandson; she took the house as inheritance and kicked out the boy who was at that point 17 years old. He’s now 18, studies remotely at a technical school and works, and lives in a dormitory.Sometimes he comes to visit and Vika gives him some money as her pension is good. She doesn’t see her younger son. Her mother-in-law from her late husband is raising him and she has nothing to give him anyway. 

Vika was one of the first to sign up for the Peer Counselor School which was organized by the Vector of Life Charity as part of the implementation of a project in penal colonies in Samara oblast with funding from a presidential grant. But without even realizing it, Vika has long been acting as a volunteer and peer counselor. Thanks to her gift of persuasion she helped many start life saving treatment and manage side effects. “God has kept me alive for something, and probably for this too.”

Do you have HIV and are in need of help? You can reach out to the specialists in the Peers Online project, which is being carried out with support from the Presidential Grant Fund and GSK.

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