Four Questions with Robin Barkins: Empowering Formerly Incarcerated Individuals Re-Entering Society

Stories@Gilead - July 23, 2020

Robin Barkins, a Peer Re-Entry Community Health Worker at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in Los Angeles, provides support and resources to formerly incarcerated individuals living with hepatitis C or HIV who are re-entering society. Robin embraces her mission to support the re-entry community, particularly women who have experienced substance use issues.

Robin was one of more than 140 HIV community advocates to receive a Gilead scholarship to attend the 23rd International AIDS Conference – AIDS 2020: Virtual. The scholarship program provided recipients access to the conference when they may not otherwise have been able to attend.  

We connected with Robin to talk about how her takeaways from the conference will impact her work and community for the better.

Q: What inspired you to get involved in healthcare advocacy?
I was diagnosed with HIV at age 15 while growing up in New Orleans. When I received this news, I spiraled into self-destructive activities and ultimately found myself incarcerated.

Once I moved to Los Angeles, I decided to seek help for my substance use issues. I was able to receive support from people who treated me not as an addict or as a formerly incarcerated person, but as a whole person. Through this experience, I learned how to be an advocate and speak up for myself. This ultimately inspired me to start advocating for others and empowering people, especially women, to stay strong and seek proper help.

Q: How would you describe your work supporting formerly incarcerated individuals re-entering society?
As re-entry community health workers, we connect individuals who are coming out of incarceration and living with HIV or hepatitis C to resources that they would otherwise have a difficult time accessing.

We take a whole-person approach to our support, from addressing behavioral health issues to physical ones and providing access to everyday necessities to help individuals re-enter society. What sound like simple tasks, such as getting a government ID and a birth certificate, can actually be quite complex. We help people navigate some of these key steps to successful re-entry. We also help ensure food security, transitional housing and transportation to healthcare.

Q: What did it mean to you to receive a scholarship for AIDS 2020 and what takeaways from the conference do you plan to implement in your advocacy work?
This scholarship and attending the conference have enabled me to receive the most up-to-date information about what is going on in the world of HIV. I have been able educate myself, and also my family and friends about the ins and outs of the latest HIV research findings, allowing us to take better care of each other.

A key takeaway for me from the conference was around transportation. A lot of the individuals we work with say they were unable to get proper care for HIV or other diseases while incarcerated because of the lack of transportation from jails and prisons to health clinics. I plan to share the updated HIV initiatives and materials from the conference with my team so we can create a human-centered approach to bridging this gap.

Q: What do you hope to raise more awareness about through your work?
There needs to be more awareness about the full range of people impacted by HIV to help this population. People who are or were incarcerated make up a significant portion of the HIV community. We also need to talk more about access to healthcare and transmission of HIV while incarcerated, through sexual encounters and activities that involve needles, such as tattooing.

Educating ourselves and the community about ways to take care of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals living with HIV and hepatitis C is a good place to start. Conferences such as AIDS 2020 are an important part of that process.