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Personal Perspective: The HIV Merry-Go-Round

By Ismael Gonzalez

Fall 2005

My name is Ismael. I'm 44 years old and am incarcerated at the Marcy Correctional Facility in New York. When I was told that I was HIV-positive, at Rikers Island in 1990, I was in denial. It was like I was in a dream I couldn't wake up from. I kept it to myself, thinking about what I would say to my family and friends. It took me three years to finally tell my family, and they disowned me. They told me that they did not want to see me no more, and to this day they have not. In 1996 I was told that I had hepatitis C. This time I started blaming God and asking what I did in life to deserve this. I got HIV from shooting drugs, sharing needles and unprotected sex. I was selling my body for drugs to support my habit.

My experience in having HIV and hep C in prison has been a merry-go-round. When I was in Downstate Correctional Facility, the health care providers were very decent. They truly cared for inmates with HIV and had compassion toward me. But when I was transferred to Cayuga, things changed. The health care providers there were very nasty to inmates who were HIV-positive. The nurse always had an attitude toward inmates. Then, threatening letters were sent to the Deputy Superintendent of Security after an officer searching my cube found my antiretroviral medications. He questioned me about them and I told him it was confidential. That's when he figured out I had HIV and things began to get crazy. I eventually had to sign up for protective custody because inmates set my bed on fire when they found out I was HIV-positive.

In my current facility, the health care providers do not care about inmates. I go to sick call and right away they start using the kind of language that if I were to use, I would be issued a disciplinary ticket and be put in the box (solitary confinement). You ask the nurses questions about your CD4 and viral load and they get attitudes and tell you that you must see the doctor. But the doctors here, to be honest, do not know about HIV/AIDS. One doctor told me that I should stop taking my medication because it will kill me, and he always throws me out of his office when I ask him questions concerning my CD4 and viral load results. He just informs me that they are good and says, "Have a nice day." I filed a grievance on this doctor and now am being retaliated against by medical staff and correction officers. I've been here for two years and I've never seen an HIV specialist, and I am being denied treatment for hep C. Our Constitutional rights are being violated by DOCS staff -- the health services run by DOCS should be investigated.

Right now, I have to take my medication on the low-down: every morning and every night I go to the bathroom in one of the stalls to take my meds because I truly do not want nobody in this jail to know that I am HIV-positive. I'm concerned about my safety and I'm scared that one of the inmates may find out -- I do not want to go through what I went through in Cayuga. It is bad enough that I am being discriminated against because I am a homosexual, but I feel that I am a monster because I have HIV. I hang out in the yard by myself when they have recreation. I sometimes feel like taking my own life. I wonder if this is a punishment from God for all the things I've done to people in society. But it's still a shame that we convicts with HIV and hep C are being treated like animals.

Once I get released next August, I will be homeless. I have to start my discharge planning and to be honest I do not know who to turn to -- I'm kind of scared to go to a shelter when I get out. But I am a fighter. I've finished a program at this facility called PACE (Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education). I want to share and educate especially the young generations on how to protect themselves from getting the dreadful diseases that I've been carrying since 1990. I thank God for letting me live one day at a time, even though I would not wish this on my worst enemy. I am going to continue to struggle and fight this disease all the days of my life.

Thank you for letting me tell what I am going through being incarcerated and HIV-positive, and yes, you can use my name and the facility I am at. I truly want society to know how inmates who are HIV-positive are being treated by medical staff and correctional officers who work for NYS DOCS.

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