[Pnews] How People with HIV Forced California to Reform HIV Care in Prisons
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu May 25 11:09:20 EDT 2017
"Out of Flames and Fear": How People with HIV Forced California to
Reform HIV Care in Prisons
By Victoria Law <http://www.thebody.com/index/contrib/vlaw.html> - May
"Imagine a prison, one single prison, where hundreds and hundreds of
inmates died." That's how Brian Carmichael describes the California
Medical Facility in Vacaville during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Carmichael's education around HIV and AIDS began in 1987 at California's
Folsom Prison. It started when Carmichael's friend Rick received a visit
from his wife, who told him to get tested for HIV. Rick did and, when
his test came back positive, Carmichael recalls, "guards came onto the
yard in HAZMAT suits, handcuffed him and took him to R&R (Receiving and
Release) where he was transferred to CMF-Vacaville [the California
Medical Facility]." There, he was placed in a segregated unit for people
Less than a day after Rick's transfer, prison guards returned to his
cell in Folsom and ordered the other men to remove all of his belongings
from it. The men refused and, says Carmichael, were ordered again, this
time at gunpoint. The men dragged Rick's possessions -- his mattress,
his clothing, his photos and everything else -- to the yard in front of
the cellblock. Then, using the gasoline from a prison lawnmower, the
guards set everything alight.
"Everyone ran," recounts Carmichael. "Not from the flames, but from the
fear that now AIDS was floating in the smoke and air."
Out of the flames and fear, Carmichael, then age 26, became an HIV
activist and educator. He says he was "determined to learn everything I
could about HIV/AIDS and keep it from killing me or any more of my friends."
Segregated HIV/AIDS Unit: "Death Row"
Two years later, in October 1989, Carmichael was transferred to
Vacaville for a psychiatric evaluation. There, he walked by the
segregated HIV/AIDS unit every day. "Most of the guards referred to
these units as 'Death Row' or worse," he says. Those in the unit were
not allowed to work, which meant that they were unable to earn work
credits to reduce their prison sentences. They were not allowed to go to
the yard or mess hall. Instead, their few activities were limited to
that unit or a small fenced-in area just outside it. The prison had one
dedicated HIV physician, German Maisonet, M.D., whom Carmichael
describes as "an absolute hero." But Maisonet was both overworked and
frustrated that prison administrators ignored his warnings and efforts
to develop a five-year plan to address HIV in the prison system.
The inaction led to deaths -- and many of them. "These weren't peaceful,
dignified deaths," Carmichael points out. "They were horrible, agonizing
and torturous deaths. People screaming in pain, begging for attention,
often locked alone in punishment cells -- or even those 'fortunate'
enough to be in the prison infirmary, they were verbally abused, ignored
and isolated, dying in fear."
Seeing the treatment of Rick and others isolated in the HIV unit
dissuaded many, including Carmichael, from even getting tested. "I'm
afraid to test!" Carmichael remembers telling a reporter from Bay Area
radio station KPFA . "I see how all these other guys are doing the
socially responsible thing and getting tested, and then they get
punished and start losing privileges, visits, jobs that reduce your
prison sentence. So, I'm not sure if I'm HIV-positive or not."
Carmichael was not alone in his fears; many others, both in California
and prisons across the nation, were hesitant to get tested and be
subjected to similar punitive measures.
But, Carmichael wasn't afraid to help those with HIV and AIDS. Father
Patrick Leslie, the prison's Catholic chaplain, had recently implemented
Pastoral Care Services (PCS), which trained people to visit sick and
dying people in the prison's hospital and HIV segregation units.
Carmichael and Laos Schuman, whom Carmichael had met on his first day
behind bars in 1983, signed up. "We wanted to make sure that no one else
there died alone in a cell, begging for help, attention, comfort … just
company," he recalls. The work wasn't easy; when a person neared death,
Carmichael, Schuman and other PCS volunteers signed up for
round-the-clock vigils. "We would sit in shifts, 24 hours a day, and
never leave their side until the next guy showed up."
Both then and now, prisons across the nation routinely stop all activity
several times a day for "the count," a process through which each and
every incarcerated person is counted to ensure that no one has escaped.
The count typically requires that every person be in their housing unit
or cell, but in Vacaville, prison staff allowed PCS volunteers to be
counted in the hospital room so that they did not have to leave a dying
man alone, even for an hour. They weren't the only ones to join. Among
the other volunteers were Charles Perry, whom Carmichael describes as a
"big, violent, tough guy," who was living with AIDS himself, and Peter
Yvanovitch, who played both chess and piano.
The AIDS Quilt Goes to Prison
Bringing comfort to those dying of AIDS wasn't their only aim. Once
Carmichael, Schuman, Perry and Yvanovitch saw the conditions inside the
segregation units and the treatment meted out to those with HIV, they
wanted to expose these conditions. According to Carmichael, the four
began writing to reporters, politicians and attorneys. They reached out
to the NAMES Project and asked whether the AIDS Quilt could be brought
to Vacaville. The Project agreed, marking the first time the AIDS Quilt
was brought inside a prison. The men at Vacaville, meanwhile, decided to
make their own panel to commemorate those who had died inside the
prison. Instead of making several 6-by-3 foot panels, the men made one
12-by-12-foot panel listing the names of 96 men who had died from
AIDS-related complications at Vacaville. Carmichael notes that, from
their own records along with those of Maisonet and Father Leslie, they
knew that more than 200 people had died, but in the end, they were only
allowed to sew in 96 names. "Still, try to imagine that," he challenges,
"200 or even 96 guys dying in one prison." (In contrast, between 2001
and 2012, California's 33 prisons altogether had 114 AIDS-related deaths
In February 1992, the AIDS Quilt arrived at Vacaville. But, prison
security took precedence, and the quilt was searched, panel by panel.
Carmichael recalls that drug-sniffing dogs walked across the panels
checking for drugs. For Carmichael, the blatant disrespect was
symptomatic of the entire prison culture towards HIV and AIDS. "That's
what we were up against, every day, trying to get access to the
segregation units, hospitals, etc.," he reflects. But, despite this,
Carmichael remembers that the display was a huge success. Hundreds of
people came through the chapel to view the dozens of panels exhibited.
"Everyone was crying, and it was another life-altering event for a lot
of us," he says. At that event, Maisonet also dropped a media bombshell:
He was resigning in protest of the prison's continued disregard for the
well-being and care of people with HIV and AIDS.
Refusing Food and Medication to Demand Better Treatment and Hospice Care
Carmichael says that from that event emerged plans for a hunger strike
to demand not only better HIV treatment, but also the establishment of a
prison hospice. The inside activists met with activists from ACT UP and
formulated a plan. ACT UP agreed to press local media to pay attention
to the deteriorating conditions inside Vacaville, send out press
releases and helped build support for the men's actions inside.
Meanwhile, Carmichael wrote to reporters, lawyers and politicians whose
addresses he could get his hands on, sending information and
documentation about conditions inside the prison. When the Senate Rules
Committee held its required hearing to confirm a new Vacaville warden,
ACT UP marched in protest in Sacramento.
Three months later, Vacaville had four deaths from AIDS-related
complications. On September 19, 1992, people inside Vacaville began
refusing their medications
effectively launching a medication strike. Carmichaels says strikers
included not only the 275 people on the HIV unit, but also dozens of
lifers, drag queens and psych patients. "That first day, it was
incredible," he recalls. "More than half of the prisoners who took ANY
medication in the prison refused." Given that Vacaville was a medical
facility, that meant that at least half of the 3,000 people were
participating. They demanded an outside investigation into both the
deaths and the medical and custodial staff who were assigned to care for
the men when they died. They also demanded a legislative review of the
prison's compassionate release policies and practices, a meeting with
the director of the California Department of Corrections, and the
establishment of a hospice inside Vacaville.
The medication strike lasted for over a month, says Carmichael, though
some participants tapered off when their medication refusal began
severely impacting their health. He says that even after the first ten
days over 100 people were still refusing their medications.
Five weeks later, when none of these demands were met and a fifth
person, Ricardo Rodriguez, who had participated in the strike, was found
dead in his cell after his calls for help had gone unanswered,
Carmichael and Charles Perry decided to increase the pressure. With the
help of ACT UP, they invited media to interview them on Wednesday,
October 21. Prison administrators were bombarded with phone calls from
media asking to interview the two men. Carmichael recalls prison guards
grabbing him that morning and questioning him about the calls from
reporters to attend the "inmates' news conference" that day.
Surprisingly, prison administrators allowed the reporters into the
prison, where Carmichael and others handed out a typed statement
announcing that Perry and Carmichael were embarking on a hunger strike
until their demands were met. Their statement grabbed the media's
attention, which began covering not only the strike, but also medical
care and conditions inside the prison.
Retaliation was swift. Carmichael recalls frequent cell searches, in
which his and others' belongings were tossed around and sometimes
stomped on or literally torn apart. He says they were stopped and
searched any time they went to their work assignments or to recreation
or moved through the prison. Once, Carmichael was carrying a stack of
copies of a recent article about the strike as well as an ACT UP decal.
He claims he was handcuffed, locked in a holding cell and charged with
being part of a prison gang called ACT UP. Fortunately, men who were
passing by on their way to rec witnessed what happened and told Schuman
and Yvanovitch, who contacted both ACT UP and the media. Within minutes,
a reporter called the prison and asked whether Carmichael had been
handcuffed and locked in a cage as retaliation for speaking with the
media. "The lieutenant screamed and slammed the phone when he was done,"
Carmichael recalls, but he then told the sergeant to let Carmichael out.
The following week, Carmichael recalls, the prison announced that it
would begin force feeding anyone who refused to eat for ten straight
days. Carmichael says that in response he and Perry began eating, but
ten other men took their place for the next five days. At the end of
those five days, another ten men took their place, instituting a rolling
hunger strike that circumvented the threat of force feeding. According
to Carmichael, that same week, ACT UP in San Francisco called a 24-hour
vigil at the State Building and at Harvey Milk Plaza to draw attention
to and demonstrate its support for the hunger and medication strikes. In
December, it rallied approximately 100 protesters to picket and hold a
die-in outside the prison <http://newest.prisons.org/newsletters/cpf15.pdf>.
On November 12, 1992, the front page of the Daily Republic announced
"Inmates’ Demands Met," reporting that the three-week hunger strike had
ended and that all of the men's demands had been me t. The California
Department of Corrections had announced that it would be building a
hospice with $5.8 million appropriated by the state legislature
Four years later, in 1996, the prison opened a 17-bed, state-licensed
hospice, the first one inside any U.S. prison.
In addition, Assembly member John Burton ordered the Committee of Public
Safety to investigate the prison's HIV-related care. The ensuing report
noted a lack of adequate HIV care, extreme prejudice among medical staff
and the lack of medical staff trained in HIV
legislature gave the prison 90 days to improve these conditions.
Though they had won their demands, Carmichael says he and other
organizers again faced retaliation: Charles Perry, who was in the last
stages of AIDS, had applied for compassionate release, which would allow
him an early release from prison to spend his final days at home. But,
prison administrators issued him a write-up for disruptive behavior and
threatened not to process his compassionate release application so long
as he spoke with the press. Carmichael was charged with conspiracy to
assault an officer and placed in isolation. ACT UP advocates intervened
on their behalf, contacting media which reported the retaliation and
pressuring prison administrators. Carmichael says the charges against
him were dropped, but not before he had missed a week of previously
scheduled media interviews.
In 1993, Perry was granted compassionate release; he was released in
1993 and returned home where he died with his mother at his side. That
same year, Carmichael finished his ten-year sentence and was released
from Vacaville. He moved to New York City in 2001, where he continued
HIV education and advocacy, first with Positive Health Project and now
with Prisoners AIDS Counseling and Education Program (PACE) and Know
Your Rights (KTR), through which he has counseled thousands of people
behind bars. Yvanovitch was eventually moved to the new prison hospice
for which he had fought so hard; he died there. Schuman was transferred
to another prison and, Carmichael say, because of sustained pressure
from ACT UP, Burton's office and other outside supporters, he was not
subject to further retaliation.
Looking back 25 years later, Carmichael says, "I don't regret anything
we did there or all the trouble it caused us. My time at Vacaville
showed me what one person, or a small group, can do."
Though this article centers on Carmichael's acts and experiences, he
wants readers to know that these protests and victories were because of
a group of people, not just him. This group included Laos Schuman,
Charles Perry and Peter Yvonovitch, as well as Dr. German Maisonet, who
went on to run an AIDS unit in a federal prison; Father Patrick Leslie;
Assembly Member John Burton; Judy Greenspan; Jim Lewis; and numerous
activists in Northern California.
He says, "They were the true heroes of the hospice movement and fought
for those guys living and dying in the HIV/AIDS segregation cellblocks
when no one wanted anything to do with them."
He also wants readers to know that many HIV-positive people within the
prison also supported and encouraged their efforts and, in many cases,
participated in the strikes and actions. "I might have been the face of
the movement and a leader, but lots of guys fought alongside us, or we'd
never have accomplished anything. We'd have been squashed like bugs."
Carmichael says that several years ago, his nephew, who is imprisoned
and has non-HIV-related medical issues, was transferred to Vacaville and
came across his uncle’s legacy:
"He was amazed at the medical services and all the programs they had for
people with HIV. He told me he went down to the chapel and was hearing
about the Pastoral Case Services program and stories about how 'back in
the day' prisoners at Vacaville had banded together, protested,
organized, went on hunger strike, and fought to change the system. Then,
looking at the scrapbook and all these old newspaper articles on a
corkboard on the wall, he shouts, 'Hey, that's my Uncle Brian!' and all
the old stories came back to him, hearing about all the stuff I was
doing 20 years earlier..."
"There's still a lot of work to do and the fight to end the
criminalization of HIV is more important than ever, but it can't be
denied that things are so much better now than 25 years ago," Carmichael
concluded. "And I am proud, honored and humbled that I played a small
part in it, with all those other people I've told you about. We did good."
/Victoria Law is a freelance writer and editor. Her work focuses on the
intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She is the author
of/ Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. /You
can find more of her work at Victorialaw.net./
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
More information about the PPnews