Depression and HIV in Prison
It wasn't until the mid 1980s that Colorado's Prison System decided to first acknowledge and then finally to address the growing problem of HIV/AIDS in the correction system. Before then, it was treated with the familiar "out of sight, out of mind" philosophy that so many other prisons across the country had adopted and put in place. They reasoned that as long as inmates were not tested the problem didn't exist. This policy and attitude collapsed and crumbled, however, when increasing numbers of HIV positive inmates began arriving into the system who were not only already aware of their status, but who were also in dire need of medical treatment and support, not to mention psychological support.
As more and more inmates arrived with the same conditions, the Colorado Department of Corrections realized that some type of action was imminently necessary, in so far as the safety of inmates, both HIV positive and negative came into question. The final decision was made to segregate their HIV positive inmate population. Not only was this the trend in Colorado but throughout prison systems throughout the country. For those of us who were infected, this was the beginning of some very dark days. The Department of Corrections (DOC) chose Building or Cell House Three as our isolation area. This was an antiquated, aging and seldom-used cell house in major disrepair with the old sliding bar front iron doors. Cell House Three once housed Colorado's Death Row and now just one floor above us, it's notorious gas chamber.
Now denied the privilege of working to pass our time we were instead, confined to an 8x12 cell for 23 hours a day with very few glimpses of daylight, we had to roughly guess the time of day by the delivery time of our meals. These meals were prepared by general population (non HIV) inmates who would regularly foul our serving trays with everything from human urine to broken glass. The guards who delivered them, despite a mounting body of evidence showing that HIV can not be transmitted through casual contact, hurried up and down the tiers of the cell house practically throwing the meals through the tray slots on the cell door. I recall asking one guard for the time one night. "What could it possibly matter to you?" came his reply. I found myself in such despair that I couldn't respond, partly because of the callous nature of his response and partly because I knew he was absolutely right.
Although we felt like lepers around cell house staff, Dr. Jay Richter (the DOC HIV Specialist) restored our dignity. Not only was he one of the few people we saw every day who was not donned with a mask and gloves, he treated us with skill, respect and great care and attention. In short, for one day, every two or three months he returned to us our dignity. Unfortunately, there was little he could do to immediately change our circumstances. Instead he bolstered our spirits and encouraged us to be patient and to hold out for effective HIV treatment. Some could not, but Dr. Richter gave us the incentive and will to continue on.
With looming legal battles over the segregation of HIV inmates and the continuously increasing numbers of HIV positive inmates, the decision was finally made to reintegrate those of us who remained in Cell House Three back into the general population and to immediately do so for new arrivals with HIV/AIDS. The process began slowly, first with meal times, where prison security as well as National Guardsmen stood by to insure our safety. If they only had begun by developing and implementing mandatory education classes a month or two prior to our release into the general population teaching inmates how HIV can and cannot be spread, perhaps the tension in those early days would not have been so evident. As I have said many, many times in my writing, ignorance can indeed be our worst enemy. Forcing us upon hundreds of ignorant men (through no fault of their own) was among the most reckless decisions imaginable, but over time the general population became accustomed to our presence and tensions were diminished. Eventually we decided to leave our now open cells and join the other inmates during general population recreation yard times.
Among the first realizations that the general population inmates made was that for the most part, HIV/AIDS inmates were virtually if not totally unrecognizable. The larger more outgoing inmates paved the way for others. We can lift weights and play softball etc. as well as the others and so we blended in with the general population almost to a point of invisibility. "Out of sight, out of mind" became a perilous norm for the very people who found us so objectionable in the not so distant past. Once again, we were developing a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy for what still remained a deadly disease.
It wasn't until well after the first sero-conversion (passing HIV from an infected person to one previously not infected) that DOC decided to hire educators to address this extremely important and volatile issue. Ten week courses were developed and taught by skilled teachers to educate inmates about HIV, HCV and other infectious diseases, as well as how to develop healthier personal lifestyles, choices and habits. The sections of training relating to HIV/AIDS are very thorough and current. In fact they are so exhaustive in teaching these subjects from every conceivable angle that students have complained about repetition (a far cry from where we were just a year before). Because this information is so well absorbed and processed by inmates who are ultimately released into our communities or who are given community corrections, as well as by those who merely move on to another job assignment, it does nothing less than save lives both inside and outside of prison. It is important to note also, that the education and training of all prison staff was vital to the success of the integration of the entire prison population. From guards to support personnel -- education was vital.
Needless to say it has been a long, sometimes demeaning and definitely a very frustrating road to where we are today and speaking as someone who has been here from the start, I am thankful for every turn the process has taken. I thank God for HIV positive peers, their sero-negative counterparts, Dr. Jay Richter, and the superb administrators and educators who have come to the realization at last that the evolution must go on.
"If we fail to learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it."
Your comments and ideas are always welcome. Danny can be contacted at:
Walter D. Meyers #69486
Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility
Unit 7, Box 1010
Canon City, CO 80215-1010
Back to the Summer 2004 issue of Positives for Positives.