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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Protestors in Harlem want the state to provide better services for inmates with HIV and hepatitis C, as well as condoms.

Little HIV, hep prison aid

By Cyd Zeigler Jr.
Friday, May 07, 2004

Members of ACT-UP, the New York AIDS Housing Network and the Parolee Human Rights Project turned out in front of the New York State Building on 125th Street in Harlem Friday, April 30, to protest the lack of HIV and Hepatitis C treatment for inmates in state prisons.

Carrying giant puppets of Governor George Pataki, Commissioner of the State Department of Correctional Services Glenn Goord, and State Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello, the group chanted. Their signs declared "Health Care is a Right" and "Condoms in NY State Prisons Now." One protestor carried a picture of Homer Simpson with the caption, "DOH! Department of Health."

The issue has taken on new life in recent years with the release of several studies that demonstrate the breadth of the problem. According to the Parollee Human Rights Project, 14 percent of male and 23 percent of female prisoners are infected with hepatitis C in New York, a rate eight to 13 times greater than in the general public.

The Department of Correctional Services has estimated that 5,500 HIV-positive prisoners were currently in custody; and that over 1,000 have AIDS. The DOC also estimates that only 3 percent of inmates with hepatitis C are currently in treatment.

Several parolees spoke at the demonstration about their lack of treatment in the state prisons.

Robert Muriel, who was incarcerated for three years, said that he was repeatedly denied medication he needed to keep his HIV at bay.

"Due to negligence and interaction with my meds, upon release I saw an AIDS specialist who did a genotype and found that I had built up a cross-resistance to medication," Muriel said. "What was done to me is considered inhumane, barbaric and inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency, and society needs to know."

Muriel said that his right to privacy was also violated by doctors who discussed his HIV status in front of other inmates. Muriel said he filed grievances about this — ultimately found in his favor.

Mary Solomon is a former inmate who served time at the all-female Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan. While she said her treatment several years ago for her HIV was sufficient, she has witnessed a deterioration in the health care now that her girlfriend, also HIV-positive, is incarcerated at Bayview.

She said that the stress caused by withheld medication can lead to prolonged prison terms.

"If I get my medication, I can stay out of trouble, I can do my work, I can do my job and I can get out of there," she said. "But if I got to worry about if my refill’s gonna be there next month, that’s going to cause me depression, I’m gonna start getting mad with other inmates, I’m gonna get into fights, I’m going to get tickets and I might have to stay longer."

After the protest outside, the group went into the office of Lester Wright, chief medical officer for the New York State Department of Correctional Services. Wright was not in his office. The group left two dozen medication bottles with his secretary, each with a recommendation for better health care in the prison system.

Presently several bills, all sponsored by Assembly Member Dick Gottfried (D-West Side), are with the State Assembly that would force the Department of Corrections to provide STD and HIV education and prevention. The bills in the State Senate, mostly sponsored by State Sen. Tom Duane (D-Chelsea), have had little traction in that GOP-controlled body.

Gottfried was in attendance at a hearing the afternoon of April 30 to discuss these issues with the Department of Corrections. Muriel, other former inmates and concerned community members told their stories at the hearing.

"There is serious support for this issue, but I think they’re just not getting it done," said Graziela Tanaka, spokesperson for the Parolee Human Rights Project.

The group also protested the policy that forbids the distribution of condoms in state prisons. It is presently illegal for inmates to have sex with one another; the state has contended that by offering condoms, they would be encouraging prisoners — already incarcerated for breaking the law — to commit a crime.

"Giving condoms would embolden some inmates to commit aggressive and predatory attacks on weaker inmates," Goord has said. Prison systems in various jurisdictions, including New York City, however, do distribute condoms to inmates to limit the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

New York Blade Online