Viewpoint -- Alternative to Jail: Hope for Incarcerated PWAs

New York's Alternative To Incarceration Program (ATI) is a lifeline for rescuing HIV-positive pre-trial detainees from the cruel and unusual punishment they are subjected to at Rikers Island. I am Executive Director of the Black and Latino AIDS Coalition (BLAC) and have had the opportunity to hear other members of BLAC share their prison horror stories. In my estimation, the best argument for alternatives to incarceration for people with HIV/AIDS are the stories of the people who have been in prsion. Here are a few.

In 1996, Miguel S. went on a crack-cocaine-driven crime spree after learning that he was HIV-positive. Miguel was not a seasoned criminal; his hustle was simple. He went into retail stores and stole items small enough to put into his pocket or under his shirt. The petty theft worked for the first few days. Miguel was supporting his habit. His girlfriend discovered his crack pipe and kicked him out of her apartment. Miguel lived on the street from then on. In time, the crack binges and street living took a toll him. One day, an alert store manager called the police after seeing Miguel put something in his pocket and the rest was history.

Miguel entered the system like most of Rikers Island's 17,000 mostly black and latino inmates. He was put in a large holding pen with approximately 40 other inmates at AMKC (C-95), the jail on the island which houses most of the male IV drug users. Many of the inmates were in various stages of withdrawal. Miguel was taken to a small room for a medical examination. Miguel revealed his HIV status to the doctor and requested special housing during intake. His request was denied. Later, it was discovered that the doctor was careless with Miguel's medical record, so another inmate saw his medical status. Suddenly, inmates didn't want to talk to Miguel. He found himself completely alone. He carefully avoided eye contact and tried to be invisible. Finally, things snapped. An inmate went into a rage, claiming Miguel was trying to infect him with AIDS. A fight followed, and Miguel was beaten by four men and left writhing and crying for help. The guards came around fifteen minutes later and asked what happened. Someone told them Miguel had AIDS. They wouldn't touch Miguel. Instead they called the hospital, and twenty minutes later doctors appeared with latex gloves carrying a stretcher. Miguel was thrown on the bed and carried away to the isolation cell block.

AIDS awareness among prisoners and guards is practically non-existent. Rikers Island houses inmates in 10 separate jails. Of a total 17,000 prisoners, 92% are black and latino. Women of color are the fastest growing segment of the population. Most of the prisoners are there not because they have been convicted of a crime but because they have been accused of a crime and cannot make bail while awaiting trial. A significant number of the prisoners are IV drug users or crack-cocaine abusers charged with non-violent drug-related crimes. Seventy-five percent of the drug users are HIV-positive women and men who one day will return to our community.

Donna M. was a crack user who prostituted for crack or money. She was arrested last year in a drug sweep. Donna was suffering with full-blown AIDS at the time. The drugs kept her functioning in a state of denial about the poor quality of her life. After crashing in a dirty bullpen overnight at Central Booking, Donna awakened to her personal nightmare. Hardened repeat offenders surrounded her, and the language of the women "scared the shit" out of her. Donna shook the cobwebs out of her head and began to think about getting out. She was a first- time offender.

"...the Judge didn't care about my AIDS condition nor was he willing to entertain some kind of alternative to incarceration." The Judge had ample evidence of Donna's AIDS status. She was given $10,000 bail and remanded to Rikers Island. She ended up serving one year on the island awaiting trial. During that time, she came down with Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia and almost died. Tragically her condition still didn't speed up the trial. Finally, sick from another O.I. and thin from the prison diet, Donna was given a plea bargain. Donna took it and was released in June of this year.

There are Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) programs in New York City. The Osborne Association's, El Rio is one such program for drug users. There are also other drug treatment and education facilities where those on parole or bail can receive outpatient treatment in rehabilitative clinics or high disciplinary programs that include "shock" camps at upstate facilities. However, none of these programs are designed specifically for non-violent first-time offenders with HIV/AIDS. Why not? We must also increase awareness and sensitivity about AIDS among judges and correction officers. The Legal Aid Society and the 18K-assigned counseling programs must be included. We must remember the thousands of black and latino women and men with HIV/AIDS incarcerated at Rikers Island and in upstate prisons.

Back to the October 1997 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.