Prevention Behind Bars
Inmates have graphic real-life questions that need graphic real-life answers from individuals who speak the inmate language.
I am a 44-year-old heterosexual male in recovery as an IV drug user. Both my wife and I tested positive for HIV in April of 1985. However, I am sure I have been HIV-positive since at least 1980, when my daughter contracted HIV during birth. Her mother, also an IV drug user, died from AIDS in 1986, and my daughter died from AIDS-related PCP in November 1991.
In 1996, I was diagnosed with AIDS. I was hospitalized with bacterial pneumonia and had a T-cell count of 100. I was 6'2" and weighed 114. I was told I would never walk again and would need nursing care at a nursing home. I was started on HAART and my T-cell count rose to 300. Today I am asymptomatic.
I am currently incarcerated at Southwoods State Prison in New Jersey. I have fifteen months left on my three-year sentence. In 1998 I did something stupid with a bad check, which led to my present incarceration here at Southwoods. It's kept quiet, but this is New Jersey's designated HIV prison. There are currently about 300 inmates being treated for HIV/AIDS. This is the only prison in New Jersey that has an infectious diseases doctor and nurse.
It would be safe to say that about 75 percent of the HIV inmate population has either hepatitis A, B, or C -- or all three! All inmates are tested for the hepatitis virus when they first enter the Department of Corrections in New Jersey. However, their results are not revealed to them unless they request it or it happens to surface later in an unrelated medical visit.
I have witnessed HIV disease from the start to the end, and how it claims so many innocent victims. In the February issue of Body Positive, there was an article about the state of emergency among African-Americans dealing with HIV/AIDS ("State of Emergency," by Miguelina Maldonado, reprinted from the September 1998 issue of Update, published by the National Minority AIDS Council). I see this epidemic every day here at Southwoods. I am an amateur student of human nature. I first took notice of young men who were not gay or IV drug users in the medication lines drinking Ensure three times a day. (Ensure is given only to HIV inmates here.) We also have on-person medication (medication we keep in our cells), and I see inmates with HIV on-person meds or bulging envelopes. Or you see inmates waiting to see the infectious diseases doctor.
Over a four-month period, I've gotten to know a lot of the positive inmates. Most are heterosexual or non-IV drug users. Most of these men caught HIV from heterosexual sex or from women selling sexual favors for money or drugs. There are presently about 3,500 inmates at Southwoods Prison. The Department of Corrections admits to treating over 300 inmates here for HIV. I would guess the same amount remains undiagnosed!
I am not writing this because I feel the medical staff is inadequate. The HIV doctors here are overworked, but they are decent doctors!
It is more about the innocent victims outside prison who could be infected by the undiagnosed or uneducated HIV-positive people here awaiting release. Presently there is no HIV education, or group support, or counseling available. Not even any AIDS literature! I approached Social Services about this, and they asked me for the names of the AIDS organizations that I network with. I gave them Body Positive, People With AIDS Coalition of New York, and Gay Men's Health Crisis. They want me to organize something, but to organize something takes one year or more. Time is something we don't have in this situation! A lot of infected inmates will be released in that time, and they will infect others, who will infect others, and on and on!
Inmates in here don't need DOC's idea of education -- cute little cartoon pamphlets they don't want to be seen reading! They have graphic real-life questions that need graphic real-life answers from experienced individuals they can relate to, like HIV-infected inmates who speak the inmate language!
Many inmates don't know that if they are being treated for chronic illnesses, such as HIV, they aren't supposed to be charged the standard co-pay charge for services. Inmates are in fear of excessive costs of medical treatment if they test positive and need regular treatment! We live on $30.00 a month state pay here, and a few co-payments could cripple an inmate monetarily. There's no one here who can explain the urgency of testing and reassure inmates that they won't be charged if found positive and in need of treatment.
I am appealing to anyone out there concerned enough to offer us here at Southwoods some badly needed help. Especially I'm appealing to our Governor, Christine Todd Whitman. Wake up, Ms. Whitman! You have our attention in here. Use it! You have a moral and job responsibility. Address this issue!
I look forward to the new millennium and a vaccine and a cure and the time you can change the name of your publication to The Chosen Survivors!
Any readers who can offer information or assistance to the author should contact James Leslie, #306370, S.W.S.P. 4-1-Left, 215 Burlington Road South, CN, 6000, Bridgeton, NJ 08302.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.