AIDS in prison 1996 report
Judy Greenspan email@example.com
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
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
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
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.