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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.

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"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:

Gallardo was convicted in 2008 of battery on an officer and resisting arrest. Her crime, according to a letter Bussert sent to the Indiana-based LGBT blog Bilerico [Project], was that she is HIV-positive and spit on a police officer during a traffic accident investigation.

Bussert says her daughter was adopted from Haiti, along with her sister. While living in Haiti, she says, her daughter was regularly sexually abused by a police officer. When the police showed up at the scene of her car accident, she had a traumatic flashback to that sexual abuse. ...

Bussert says the charges and the subsequent prison term were the result of her daughter's race, poverty, national origin and HIV-positive status.

"Anyone with a brain knows, the virus doesn't get transmitted that way," Bussert says. "If I held a super squirter up and shot a cop with it would I be arrested for shooting the cop with something that looked like a deadly weapon?"

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.

The Florida Parole Board met in an emergency meeting this morning to hear Betsie's case. The board approved a conditional medical release in a 2 to 1 vote; Betsie is being released to a Miami hospice to live out her final weeks of life surrounded by her family. She is currently on house arrest and will only be allowed out of the facility for medical appointments and church services.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

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Copyright © 2011 The HealthCentral Network, Inc. All rights reserved.

See Also
HIV-Positive Prisoner Betsie Gallardo Passes Away
More on Incarceration and Women With HIV/AIDS

 

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