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'Out of Flames and Fear': How People With HIV Forced California to Reform HIV Care in Prisons

May 24, 2017

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Five weeks later, when none of these demands were met and a fifth person, Ricardo Rodriguez, who had participated in the strike, was found dead in his cell after his calls for help had gone unanswered, Carmichael and Charles Perry decided to increase the pressure. With the help of ACT UP, they invited media to interview them on Wednesday, October 21. Prison administrators were bombarded with phone calls from media asking to interview the two men. Carmichael recalls prison guards grabbing him that morning and questioning him about the calls from reporters to attend the "inmates' news conference" that day.

Surprisingly, prison administrators allowed the reporters into the prison, where Carmichael and others handed out a typed statement announcing that Perry and Carmichael were embarking on a hunger strike until their demands were met. Their statement grabbed the media's attention, which began covering not only the strike, but also medical care and conditions inside the prison.

Retaliation was swift. Carmichael recalls frequent cell searches, in which his and others' belongings were tossed around and sometimes stomped on or literally torn apart. He says they were stopped and searched any time they went to their work assignments or to recreation or moved through the prison. Once, Carmichael was carrying a stack of copies of a recent article about the strike as well as an ACT UP decal. As reported in the book, Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis, he was handcuffed, locked in a holding cell and charged with being part of a prison gang called ACT UP. Fortunately, men who were passing by on their way to rec witnessed what happened and told Schuman and Yvanovitch, who contacted both ACT UP and the media. Within minutes, a reporter called the prison and asked whether Carmichael had been handcuffed and locked in a cage as retaliation for speaking with the media. "The lieutenant screamed and slammed the phone when he was done," Carmichael recalls, but he then told the sergeant to let Carmichael out.

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The following week the prison announced that it would begin force-feeding anyone who refused to eat for ten straight days. In response, Carmichael and Perry began eating, but ten other men took their place for the next five days. At the end of those five days, another ten men took their place, instituting a rolling hunger strike that circumvented the threat of force feeding. That same week, ACT UP in San Francisco called a 24-hour vigil at the State Building and at Harvey Milk Plaza to draw attention to and demonstrate its support for the hunger and medication strikes. In December, it rallied approximately 100 protesters to picket and hold a die-in outside the prison.

On November 12, 1992, the front page of the Daily Republic announced "Inmates’ Demands Met," reporting that the three-week hunger strike had ended and that all of the men's demands had been met. The California Department of Corrections had announced that it would be building a hospice with $5.8 million appropriated by the state legislature. Three months later, in 1993, the prison opened a 17-bed, state-licensed hospice, the first one inside any U.S. prison.

In addition, Assembly member John Burton ordered the Committee of Public Safety to investigate the prison's HIV-related care. The ensuing report noted a lack of adequate HIV care, extreme prejudice among medical staff and the lack of medical staff trained in HIV. The legislature gave the prison 90 days to improve these conditions.


Compassionate Release

Although they had won their demands, contemporary news reports say the organizers again faced retaliation: Charles Perry, who was in the last stages of AIDS, had applied for compassionate release, which would allow him an early release from prison to spend his final days at home. But, prison administrators issued him a write-up for disruptive behavior and threatened not to process his compassionate release application so long as he spoke with the press. Carmichael was charged with conspiracy to assault an officer and placed in isolation. ACT UP advocates intervened on their behalf, contacting media which reported the retaliation and pressuring prison administrators. The charges against him were dropped, but not before he had missed a week of previously scheduled media interviews.

In 1993, Perry was granted compassionate release; he was released in 1993 and returned home where he died with his mother at his side. That same year, Carmichael finished his ten-year sentence and was released from Vacaville. He moved to New York in 2001 and continued HIV education and advocacy, first with Positive Health Project and Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education (PACE) and now with Know the Risks (KTR), organizations through which he has counseled thousands of people behind bars. Yvanovitch was eventually moved to the new prison hospice for which he had fought so hard; he died there. Schuman was transferred to another prison and, Carmichael says, because of sustained pressure from ACT UP, Burton's office and other outside supporters, he was not subject to further retaliation.

Looking back 25 years later, Carmichael says, "I don't regret anything we did there or all the trouble it caused us. My time at Vacaville showed me what one person, or a small group, can do."


True Heroes

Though this article centers on Carmichael's acts and experiences, he wants readers to know that these protests and victories were because of a group of people, not just him. This group included Laos Schuman, Charles Perry and Peter Yvonovitch, as well as Dr. German Maisonet, who went on to run an AIDS unit in a federal prison; Father Patrick Leslie; Assembly Member John Burton; Judy Greenspan; Jim Lewis; and numerous activists in Northern California.

He says, "They were the true heroes of the hospice movement and fought for those guys living and dying in the HIV/AIDS segregation cellblocks when no one wanted anything to do with them."

He also wants readers to know that many HIV-positive people within the prison also supported and encouraged their efforts and, in many cases, participated in the strikes and actions. "I might have been the face of the movement and a leader, but lots of guys fought alongside us, or we'd never have accomplished anything. We'd have been squashed like bugs."

Carmichael says that several years ago, his nephew, who is imprisoned and has non-HIV-related medical issues, was transferred to Vacaville and came across his uncle’s legacy:

"He was amazed at the medical services and all the programs they had for people with HIV. He told me he went down to the chapel and was hearing about the Pastoral Case Services program and stories about how 'back in the day' prisoners at Vacaville had banded together, protested, organized, went on hunger strike, and fought to change the system. Then, looking at the scrapbook and all these old newspaper articles on a corkboard on the wall, he shouts, 'Hey, that's my Uncle Brian!' and all the old stories came back to him, hearing about all the stuff I was doing 20 years earlier..."

"There's still a lot of work to do and the fight to end the criminalization of HIV is more important than ever, but it can't be denied that things are so much better now than 25 years ago," Carmichael concluded. "And I am proud, honored and humbled that I played a small part in it, with all those other people I've told you about. We did good."

Victoria Law is a freelance writer and editor. Her work focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. You can find more of her work at Victorialaw.net.

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