Denial of Health Care for HIV-Positive Florida Inmate Raises Discrimination Questions
By Kellee Terrell
January 5, 2011
Thanks to her mother's love and tenacity, Betsie Gallardo, a young, HIV-positive Florida inmate dying of cancer, is finally receiving the basic nutrition she needs to stay alive. But some wonder if she'd still be in prison at all if she didn't have HIV.
"Betsie is finally being fed, and thank God for that!" Jessica Bussert, Gallardo's mother, wrote in an e-mail update on Dec. 30 to reporter Todd Heywood. "She is very weak and thin, and I'm not sure how much longer she could have held on."
Gallardo, 27, was convicted in 2008 of battery of an officer and resisting arrest. She was sentenced to five years in prison. In early 2010, she was diagnosed with stage IV gallbladder cancer. While she received cancer treatment in prison, a tumor developed that blocked her intestines, making it impossible for her to hold down food and liquids. However, prison officials refused to provide Gallardo with nutrition intravenously. Without food, Gallardo would have eventually starved to death.
Bussert claims that someone in the "prison medical system" told her that her daughter was probably not given nutritional treatment because they had already concluded that Gallardo was going to die and they did not want to prolong her suffering.
As disturbing as this news might be, it becomes more so when we consider the circumstances behind Gallardo's incarceration. The Florida Independent reported:
Bussert is clear that what her daughter did is wrong, but she feels that her daughter shouldn't have to die for her actions simply because she is HIV positive. While Gallardo wasn't charged with attempted criminal transmission of HIV, many agree that her HIV status played a factor in her sentence. Catherine Hanssens, executive director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy, told The Miami Herald, "She's really serving most of that five years entirely for stigma."
Afraid that her daughter would eventually starve to death, Bussert went public by reaching out to the Bilerico Project to ask for help in raising awareness about her daughter's dire situation. On Dec. 23, the Bilerico Project asked for a "Christmas miracle" for Gallardo and urged its readers to help by e-mailing and calling Florida officials; signing an online petition; and reposting its call to action on Twitter and Facebook.
The media took notice. Shortly after the call to action was issued, The Florida Independent, The Michigan Messenger and The Miami Herald all published stories about Gallardo's predicament. After which Gallardo was moved from an infirmary at the Broward Correctional Institution to a local Miami hospital, where she began receiving nutrients through an intravenous drip.
While Bussert has achieved this victory, she is asking that the Florida Parole Commission release her daughter to her custody on compassionate grounds so that Gallardo can die under her care.
"I just want to take her home and let her die with her loved ones," Bussert told the press.
On Dec. 23, the Florida Parole Commission announced that it would review Gallardo's case in February. But Gallardo is expected to succumb to her cancer before then. On Dec. 24, Democratic Florida state Reps. Daphne Campbell, Hazelle Rogers, Ari Porth, Gwendolyn Clarke-Reed, Perry Thurston and Darryl Rouson, and state Sen. Christopher Smith sent a letter to the Florida Parole Commission asking that it review her case early.
The politicians' plea worked: Officials have agreed to review her case on Jan. 5.
Regardless of the outcome, Gallardo's situation never should have happened in the first place. Yet HIV criminalization cases, whether brought about by HIVers having sex and not disclosing or from something as ridiculous as biting or (in Gallardo's case) spitting, have become a serious concern for the HIV community. In 2009 in Michigan, for instance, Daniel Allen was brought up on bioterrorism charges after allegedly biting a neighbor during a fight. A circuit judge dropped those charges, but cases such as Allen's and Gallardo's continue to occur in the U.S.
UPDATE 1/5: In an emergency vote conducted this morning by the Florida Parole Commission, Gallardo has been granted a medical release and has been transferred to a Miami hospice. Bil Browning of Bilerico Project reported:
Last night Florida Representative Daphne Campbell (D-Miami) and contributor Michael Rajner took Betsie's mother to Governor Rick Scott's inaugural ball to plead for her release.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
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