Roz Simpson Moore-Bey, HIV and AIDS activist

by Laura Whitehorn, Federal Correctional Institution, Dublin, California
On June 1, Rosalind Simpson Moore-Bey died at home in Washington, D.C. To anyone who has passed through the D.C. Jail or CTF (Central Treatment Facility), Roz’s name is not only familiar–it is well known. Roz was a warrior.
Roz did time in D.C. and at the old Federal Women’s prison in Lexington, Kentucky, in the 80s and 90s. It was a time when AIDS and HIV were surrounded by even more ignorance and prejudice than today. The medical establishment, the government and the media didn’t even recognize that women get HIV and many women suffered terribly and died quickly with AIDS, undiagnosed and uncared-for. The earliest mention of HIV, as a virus that infected women, was when men claimed to have contracted HIV from prostitutes. The sex workers remained faceless: they existed only as vectors of the disease, a danger to men.
Despite the extensive number of HIV-positive women prisoners at Lexington in the early 90s, there was absolutely no effort by the prison to educate women about HIV. When a group of prisoners got together to educate ourselves and conduct discussion groups, we found that the other prisoners were too frightened of being suspected of having HIV even to attend the events. Confusion, fear, and suspicion were rampant.
In this climate, Roz did one of the bravest things I’ve seen in over 13 years in prison. She stood up in a meeting of over 400 women and said, “I am living with AIDS. I am proof that AIDS is not just a death sentence. We have to love ourselves and one another.” Her words, her courage and her dignity forced a crack in the dam. What followed was an outpouring of interest, grief and need–all of which enabled us to do an enormous amount of education, counseling and support. Rosalind was at the heart of this work–even when she was stuck in the prison hospital for days and weeks at a time.
I know she saved some lives with her teaching and preaching; I believe she saved some souls, too. The cost to her was not insignificant: she often exhausted herself working when she should have been resting. And she was often the target of idiotic AIDS phobia. All the while she was doing battle with her own demons, including the pain of rejection by some people she loved. Roz refused to fight these battles for herself alone, but turned them into weapons to strengthen others. I once watched Roz lead a support group for an hour and a half, weeping the entire time, but never allowing her grief to silence her. She had to keep speaking, because the other 15 HIV-positive women present in the group were still so shocked and terrified by their disease, that they could not yet articulate what they desperately needed to say.
In 1993 Roz was one of the earliest beneficiaries of the D.C. Medical Parole process. Prisoners with AIDS could receive compassionate release on parole. Roz, who had been at death’s door enough times to be paying rent there, was a clear candidate. With the strongest spirit imaginable, she fought through illness after illness, amazing her wonderful doctors, medical workers, family and friends. A year after her release, she married a terrific partner, James Moore, and together they struggled for her life.
Not once in the 5 years since her release did she stop fighting for other prisoners with HIV and AIDS. Toting her portable oxygen tank, walking despite painful neuropathies that had her in a wheelchair for a while, she returned over and over to lead support groups at the D.C. prison, and to speak to any group that would listen and might help. When I meet women who have been sent into the federal system from D.C., they never say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve met Roz.” Instead, they tell me how she helped them, did something for them that no one else had been able (or willing) to do. How necessary she has been to so many people.
Every day for the rest of my life I will miss Rosalind achingly. None of the words meet the task of describing her–inspiration, example, heart, courage, dignity, perseverance, commitment–not one measures up. But any time a prisoner with HIV or AIDS manages to ease their pain, Roz would have been present. And any time any person decides not to turn their back on the needs of prisoners, Roz’s tremendous spirit will be felt.