Former Prisoners and Activists Speak Out on HIV Behind Bars

by Urszula Wislanka
The HIV in Prison Project (HIP) held an event last July 29th which attracted close to 100 former prisoners, activists and supporters in Oakland. Judy Greenspan, Chairperson of the HIV in Prison Committee of California Prison Focus, discussed the growing crisis in prisons. There are many epidemics, not just HIV. The medical care is horrendous in the prisons. There are 280 men at the HIV unit in Corcoran, for example, where they are isolated and given no care. That unit should be closed and prisoners moved to appropriate care facilities.
Cynthia Chandler, Director of Women’s Positive Legal Action Network, described how much she learned about courage and dignity through her work with HIV+ women prisoners. The medical staff is totally inadequate. Medical coroners do not do an autopsy on any HIV+ woman. Thus women can die of virtually any cause, and there is no way to investigate it!
Corey Weinstein of California Prison Focus asked how the care can be so bad when the state spends millions and millions on prisons. The inhumane treatment of prisoners shows that are treated as the enemy in California. SHUs (Security Housing Units) were supposed to isolate the most violent prisoners. But violence in prisons has increased since the SHUs were built. It is not a case of “few bad apples” among the guards. These are systemic wrongs.
Former prisoner, jailhouse lawyer and organizer Ezra Davis found out he was HIV positive 8 years ago. He was put in a room, not allowed to see anyone and given no care for 3 months. He survived. But while in the Security Housing Unit he saw many who could not do anything for themselves. That’s when he became a jailhouse lawyer, filing suits on behalf of those prisoners. Ezra described life in prison made as inhuman as the guards can make it. He said, “Hope for us is people like you caring to come to an event like this.”
Paulette Santos Martinez has spent time at Frontera and Chowchilla. She has watched many women die. Most are not getting any meds at all. As a woman with AIDS she says it helps her to help others. She writes for them if they have trouble expressing themselves.
Bunny Knuckles, of WORLD, Women Organized to Respond to Life-threatening Diseases, has been working since ’92 with HIV positive men and women coming out of prisons. Many are homeless or living in shelters where there are no refrigerators to keep their medications. Pointing to the picture of Joann Walker on the podium, Bunny said “Joann was my friend. She was a fighter. We have to keep the fight going.”
We heard moving stories from families of prisoners who have died or who are still inside, living with HIV/AIDS.
All of the speakers stressed the need for forming a movement on the outside to support prisoners on the inside. They did not want to dwell on the horrors of prisons, but rather chose to focus on the importance of prisoners knowing that there are people outside who care, who would come to hear about them.