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Women Prisoners With HIV Speak Out

Summer 1994

At Muncy, PA

My name is Kimberly Morris #OB4212. I'm an inmate at SCI-Muncy, a maximum institution for women, in rural Pennsylvania. I'm 28 years old and I've been HIV positive for seven years. I'd like to say a few things about the way that women with HIV & AIDS are being treated at this institution.

Since my arrival here at SCI-Muncy with a 1 to 3 year sentence, I've finally discovered what it means to be a woman with AIDS. We aren't treated as human beings but, outcasts within a prison system. There is no one to help us, or give us moral support. We're being treated like sub-human caged animals and have no one to defend us. We endure daily humiliation and demoralization. We are constantly being asked a thousand of questions by prison employees and inmates in order to relieve their fears about contracting this disease.

I have feelings just like any normal human being and yes, I deserve to be treated as such. Will there ever be a cure.

I'm scared to death because no one in here wants to understand me or my disease. I believe in myself and my fight against this madness called AIDS.

Muncy is just a stepping stone for me. I will continue my fight in the free world. In the free world, at least I have the support of my family. My son, Desmond has given me the will power to stand up and fight for what is mine. And that is my right as a human being and my own life.

I want SCI-Muncy and superintendent, Mary V. Leftridge Byrd to know that my fight won't end here. I will take it to the streets and once I'm done, you will never forget Kimberly Morris, AKA Bam Bam. My number will not be #OB4212 but, Number Success.

I'd like to thank Women Being Alive for giving me insight into my disease, my mother, for her strength & knowledge, my sister, for her wisdom, my two brothers, for being there for me. A special thanks to all the HIV+ inmates here at Muncy, and last but not least, three lovely ladies who taught me to laugh instead of cry; Butter, Kim & CoCo. May God bless us all, I love you.

At Frontera, CA

I am writing out of concern, anger, sorrow, and deep fear about my HIV status and being incarcerated.

I am one of many HIV positive women housed at the California Institute for Women in Frontera, Ca. (C.I.W.) We live each day in dread of facing bigotry and intentional outright discrimination. We are faced with deliberate indifference about our health status and gross negligence in regard to our medical care.

There are drugs that could treat some of our symptoms. There are drugs that could relieve some of the pain of neuropathy that many of us suffer with. These drugs are not approved for use in the prison because they say that they cost too much. We get AZT but no medications for symptoms or side effects. Pain killers previously approved for use have been discontinued, leaving us to suffer.

We have a so-called "specialists" who come into the prison to examine us and offer advice. In reality, a doctor checks our reflexes. He listens to our complaints about our pain and our symptoms. Then he writes in our medical records that it's all in our heads. We are all perceived as dope fiends, who only want drugs. HIV is not in our heads, and we need medicine for it. Neuropathy is not in our heads, it's in our hands, our feet, and our legs. And we need medicine for that.

We have a gynecologist who refuses to touch us. When we are referred to her she refuses to let us in her office.

We have a dietitian who makes recommendations about our nutritional needs. Yet, they are ignored. Some of our families are willing to send us supplements and special food boxes from home. But, we are denied access to proper nutrition because permission to receive our boxes has to be approved by the institution. This takes a long time and permission is often denied.

Most of the HIV positive inmates are housed in the isolated AIDS unit. HIV positive inmates who live in general population, live in constant fear knowing that any disciplinary infraction (physical altercation, verbal altercation, homosexual behavior) can send them to lock up for six months to a year. A year is the most common disposition for an inmate with AIDS. Other women in the general population go to lock-down for thirty days for these types of infractions and then are released back into population. When the infraction involves two women, the one with HIV gets a more severe punishment than the HIV negative inmate.

One woman with HIV, who is living in disciplinary housing (the hole), for having in her possession two Tylenol #3, administered by staff. She gets a new roommate every 3 to 4 days. The roommate is then moved out within 24 hours because of the woman's HIV status. This constant change of people moving in and out causes extreme stress, not knowing who you'll be living with next, and having to adjust to new personalities. Another woman went to the hole and was then shipped to Madera, for no other reason than the fact that she was the roommate of the HIV positive inmate.

Dr. William Harrison, who cares for the HIV patients, tries to get us the proper medical treatment. He is a very compassionate man. Everything he tries or suggests is either denied or ignored. We are told by prison staff that we can just suffer and that we should just "deal with it". If you had a mother, sister, daughter, or any loved one living under these hideous circumstances, you would not want them to suffer and have to just "deal with it". You would want better for your dog!

I cannot begin to tell you the blatant medical abuse we have to deal with in here. Once we're told we are HIV, there's no information available to us concerning the virus, other than what we're told by Dr. Harrison. There is no counseling, nothing to inform us of how to care for ourselves or how to deal with it, physically, mentally or emotionally.

We are in this institution for breaking the law. We are well aware that prison is a punishment for that bad judgment. We do not expect things to be pleasant or comfortable. But it is also not meant for those of us with HIV, to be faced each day of our sentence with contempt and abuse just because we have a virus. There is such a vast gap between us and the control of our health, our sanity and our sense of still being a human being.

We are still a part of humanity that fears, and loves, and feels pain, both physical and emotional. We have families but many of us are separated from them. We do have real needs to be treated as you would treat someone who is not afflicted with the virus. No one should be treated this way, yet sadly we are, daily. We cannot always access the intervention of our families and those who care. Doesn't anyone care?

Maybe this letter will fall on deaf ears. Maybe it'll help relieve the isolation of the women with AIDS left to deal with it alone in a California institution. Maybe someone will read this letter who does care. The HIV women in this prison pray that someone will care enough to help us. We have to try! Enough is enough!

Many of us will die, we know that, and we do our best to accept the inevitable. But we also have the right to die with dignity and to know that everything was done to prolong our lives and to give us some quality of life, even inside the prison walls. But instead we are punished for having a disease and shoved into a corner because no one wants to have to deal with us.

The H.I.V. Women of C.I.W.

At Chowchilla

Despite a demonstration of over 100 people at the gates of Chowchilla prison, the daily medical neglect and abuse continues unabated. Since the beginning of the year, three women prisoners, two of whom had AIDS, have died at the Central Women's Facility at Chowchilla (Chowchilla prison). The recent deaths of Sonja Stapels, Molly Reyes, and Jackie Jenkins sparked a public outcry for an immediate, impartial legislative investigation. The coalition to Support Women Prisoners at Chowchilla called this week upon State Assembly Committee on Public Safety to begin an immediate investigation into both the deaths and quality of medical care.

Sonja Stapels died on January 2, 1994 of AIDS-related pneumonia and other complications. Stapels was not discovered to be HIV+ until two weeks before she died. Her cell mates tried in vain for over a month to bring her poor condition to the attention of medical staff. She never received any preventive care, monitoring, or treatment which may have extended her life.

Jackie Jenkins, became ill after working with pesticides on the prison farm. Her cell mates tried unsuccessfully to get her appropriate care and later compassionate release. Jenkins was finally taken to a hospital where she died from Kaposi's Sarcoma and other AIDS-related complications.

Molly Reyes suffered an internal rupture and was violently vomiting blood all over her cell. She and her cell mates had to scream for over an hour to get any medical attention. Reyes was finally placed in the infirmary and died shortly thereafter.

Death and medical neglect are nothing new to women prisoners, and is not unique to Chowchilla. We hear similar horror stories from women prisoners with AIDS housed in institutions across this country.

Women inside have a 3-4 week wait to see a doctor, a retired pediatrician, with little knowledge of women's health and no knowledge of AIDS. Guards with a first aid course (called MTA's) dispense medication and diagnose illness. The prison contends that a gynecologist has been hired. However, none of the women, including those with level 4 (cancerous) pap smears, have seen the gynecologist.

Most of the identified HIV+ women live in C yard. Big signs that warn "Beware! There are HIV infected Inmate Persons in this Facility." What's lacking is real HIV and AIDS education. The only AIDS education has been done by a loose-knit group of women prisoner peer educators organized by inmate, Joann Walker. The prison refuses to sanction or support this program. Walker has been forced to choose between organizing and peer educating. The prison allowed Walker to facilitate a support group, then took that privilege away when she refused to stop talking to the media.

A year ago, women prisoners with HIV contacted ACT UP/San Francisco and WORLD on the outside to help them to expose the poor care and abuse faced by women prisoners with AIDS. Joanne Walker's organizing inside led to the formation of the Coalition to Support Women Prisoners with Chowchilla on the outside. Walker and other women with HIV formulated four key Demands:

  • Quality health care for all women prisoners -- hire an HIV/AIDS specialist now;
  • High nutritional diets and vitamin supplements for HIV+ prisoners;
  • Support Peer Education Efforts; and
  • Compassionate release for all terminally ill prisoners!!

Walker spearheaded a successful campaign to win compassionate release for Betty Jo Ross, a woman prisoner with end stage AIDS. Walker got over 1,100 signatures on a petition demanding Ross's release. Women prisoners pinned protest notes to their clothing, "Free Betty Now!" Outside, the Coalition organized a phone and fax "zap" campaign to the Director of the California Department of Corrections. Ross was finally released to her family in January 1994.

Supporting the demands, over 100 people made the journey to the prison to demonstrate. Speakers at the rally, included former women prisoners with HIV and members of a variety of AIDS rights groups.

A statement from the women inside was read. Several hundred women prisoners were out on the yard and saw the demonstration. Members of the Coalition chanted and yelled messages of support for the women inside and released a banner that floated over Chowchilla prison.

To find out how you can help, see the advocacy section of "The Loop".

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This article was provided by Women Alive. It is a part of the publication Women Alive Newsletter.
See Also
More Personal Accounts and Profiles of Prisoners With HIV/AIDS