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


AIDS in prison 1996 report

Judy Greenspan
Thu, 22 Aug 1996 21:45:10 -0700 (PDT)


AIDS in Prison -- the New Death Row for Prisoners?
by Judy Greenspan, Director, HIV/AIDS in Prison Project
Oakland, California 
        A great deal has been written lately about the barbaric resurgence of the 
death penalty.  Many states are passing laws to bring back capital punishment.  
Hundreds of poor people, mostly African-American, languish on death rows all 
across this country.
        But how many people are aware of the new death row?  The combination 
of HIV infection, poor medical care, a callous, uncaring prison administration and 
the day-to-day violence/stress of prison life can make a short prison term -- a 
death sentence.   That Us the case today for most prisoners with HIV/AIDS.
        Now in the era of runaway prison construction, three strikes you’re out 
and the dissolution of the inmate’s bill of rights, to be HIV+ in prison for 
however long you are incarcerated means that if you survive your 
imprisonment, precious years will be taken from your already shortened life.  A 
study in New York State in 1988 proved that prisoners with HIV/AIDS live half 
as long as a similar population on the streets of New York City.  
        Prisoners with AIDS have historically done what they could to fight this 
death sentence.  Here in California, in 1991-92, men prisoners at the California 
Medical Facility at Vacaville (CMF-Vacaville) organized outside supporters and 
actually inspired a legislative investigation of the State Assembly Public Safety 
Committee.  In the months following the expose of the inhumane conditions 
inside the HIV unit at CMF-Vacaville, a hospice was set-up, a peer education 
program began and pastoral care services for the dying were expanded and 
        At the women’s prisons in both southern and central California, first at the 
California Institution for Women at Frontera (1990) and later at the Central 
California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla (1993), women prisoners with HIV 
fought and died for peer education, compassionate release and decent medical 
care.  In April 1995, a major class action lawsuit charging gross medical neglect 
and abuse against women prisoners was filed as a result of the activism and 
advocacy of these women with HIV.

        One of the major mechanisms to get prisoners with HIV off of death row 
has been the utilization of the compassionate release procedure.  In the late 
1980Us, lawyers at the Prison Law Office, began to use the little known Recall of 
sentences statute to obtain early release for prisoners dying of AIDS-related 
complications.  In a few instances it worked.  Most times, however, the pleas for 
release fell on the uncaring ears of prison administrators and sentencing judges.  
Finally, in 1991-92, a small group of prisoners began to access what came to be 
known as the compassionate release procedure.  However, in most cases, the 
men and women prisoners who attempted to initiate the procedure (or their 
families) died before their release or were dropped arbitrarily from the process 
along the way.
        At CMF-Vacaville alone, over 400 men have died of AIDS over the past ten 
years.  There are countless, nameless women who have died at both CIW and 
CCWF also.
        Now in the aftermath of the most hopeful of international AIDS 
conferences where new treatments promising great things have been showcased, 
what lies ahead for prisoners with HIV/AIDS in California and across the 
        First of all, most of the newly touted drugs will not be made available to 
prisoners.  In California, only a couple of the men’s prisons are offering protease 
inhibitors (and probably not widely).  None of the women’s prisons are offering 
these new drugs.  In fact, most of the prisons are still offering AZT in high 
dosages to prisoners with low CD4 counts.  After watching their fingernails turn 
black and fall off from AZT toxicity, most women prisoners I have spoke with 
refuse to take any AIDS-related drugs.  Of course, to make matters worse, the 
women’s prisons in the central valley still have not hired an infectious disease 
specialist.  There are no special diets or dietary considerations (except for a 
limited supply of ensure) for women prisoners with HIV/AIDS.  Prisoners do not 
have access to any clinical drug trials in California or most states across the 
        California still stubbornly clings to the system of segregating prisoners 
with HIV into special units which are located in about 10 prisons around the 
state.  Each prison administers their unit differently and HIV/AIDS services (or 
none) vary from institution to institution.  One thing is certain, the system of 
segregated housing drives most of the HIV+ population further and further 
underground.  Most men and women prisoners refuse to come forward to admit 
their seropositivity even when they become symptomatic.  For those who self-
identify or who come into the system with medical records revealing their 
status, they are forced to languish in infirmaries and special medical units of 
reception centers for between 6-9 months (sometimes as long as a year) waiting 
to be placed in overcrowded HIV units.  During this waiting time, the prisoners 
with HIV are unprogrammed and unclassified thus earning only 1/3 good time 
instead of the 1/2 good time that programmed prisoners earn.  Thus, prisoners 
with HIV, (unless they aggressively R602S their loss of good time, utilizing the 
grievance process which is often stacked against them), wind up doing longer 
and harder time than the HIV- population.  This waiting period can be extremely 
stressful especially in prisons with little or no support services for prisoners 
with HIV/AIDS.
        Prisoners with HIV/AIDS are not eligible for participation in the family 
visiting program with their spouses.  Most choose not to have overnight visits 
with any family members because of offensive and invasive procedures and 
regulations promulgated by the Department of Corrections.  Prisoners known to 
be HIV+ cannot work in the kitchen or food line (except in some HIV units).  
        New and harsher sentencing guidelines adversely impact on criminal 
defendants with HIV/AIDS.  Criminal justice professionals such as judges and 
prosecutors (and even public defenders who allow it to happen) continue to 
sentence terminally ill prisoners to long prison terms that are bound to be the 
equivalent of a death sentence due to callous medical neglect.
        Prisoner-initiated peer education programs are growing in interest among 
prisoners and shrinking in actuality due to, at best, administrative disinterest, 
and at worst, outright hostility.  The latest National Institute of Justice update on 
HIV/AIDS in correctional facilities documents that there are fewer peer 
education programs today than two years ago.  Here in California, the availability 
of peer education varies from prison to prison.  However, one thing is certain, if 
there is not an HIV unit in a prison, there will not be a peer education program.  
The CDC (including many of its wardens) still has yet to grasp the importance of 
educating both the underground HIV positive prisoners and the uninfected.

        California is no closer to providing risk reduction tools to prisoners such as 
condoms, dental dams or clean needles.  In fact, only six jurisdictions in this 
country allow condom distribution in prisons and jails (Vermont and Mississippi 
state prison systems; and Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York City and 
Washington, D.C. jails).  This figure has remained unchanged for the past six 
years.  No prison or jail in the U.S. allows for the distribution of bleach kits or 
clean needles for injection drug users.  Canada and Europe are light years ahead 
in this area.
        A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics survey revealed that approximately 
25% of California's HIV+ prison population has an AIDS diagnosis.  Small wonder 
that so many prisoners entering the system with HIV become ill and go downhill 
fast.  Despite two legislative attempts to reform the current compassionate 
release procedure and strengthen its medical component, the process is bogged 
down at every step of the way.  The prison doctors and wardens are afraid to 
release prisoners who are dying because of public misconceptions about 
criminals and crime.  The CDC still has to answer to the governor and the 
politicians and chooses its cases accordingly.  And sentencing judges still don't 
understand the critical importance of a speedy compassionate release.   
        Last year, it took over six months to win the release of Peter Hatzidakis, a 
first-time nonviolent offender who was doing a short prison term at the 
California Medical Facility at Vacaville (CMF-Vacaville).  Hatzidakis, who had 
fullblown AIDS when incarcerated, suffered from active Tuberculosis (which he 
passed on unwittingly to his family), pneumocystis pneumonia and other serious 
complications. He also had a loving family that was willing to take care of him. 
The doctors at CMF-Vacaville took four months to approve his compassionate 
release request.  By the time that Hatzidakis was released, he was in critical 
condition.  He lived for two weeks with his family before passing.
        Prisoners with HIV/AIDS are still routinely treated more severely for rule 
infractions.  Dorothy Ware, a 21 year-old, African-American woman with 
fullblown AIDS, was sentenced to two years in the "hole" -- the prison's security 
housing unit -- for spitting on a guard.  She was also charged in an outside court 
with attempted murder (later reduced to battery).   The CDC maintains a written 
policy encouraging corrections officers and medical staff to charge HIV+ 
prisoners with attempted murder for merely spitting or biting.   In the real 
world, the Centers for Disease Control (ironically another CDC) decided several 
years ago that contact with saliva is not a mode of transmission for HIV.
        As bad as conditions are for men prisoners with HIV/AIDS, the care and 
treatment of women prisoners with HIV/AIDS (and other serious illnesses) is far 
worse.   One year after the class action lawsuit was filed concerning the medical 
neglect faced by women prisoners, very little has changed.  According to the 
prisoners' legal counsel, there is a growing intransigence on the part of the CDC 
to upgrade women's medical care.
        Unfortunately, the shrinking AIDS movement has turned its focus away 
from supporting the rights of prisoners with HIV/AIDS.  Prisoners with 
HIV/AIDS find themselves with fewer and fewer allies on the outside willing to 
advocate on their behalf.  It is more important than ever that issues affecting 
prisoners with HIV/AIDS be added to the agenda of both the AIDS service and 
activist communities and the movements to change (overturn) the criminal 
injustice system.  Activists on the outside by focusing on the new death row on 
the inside, can make a difference and save the lives of prisoners with HIV/AIDS.