[Pnews] How People with HIV Forced California to Reform HIV Care in Prisons

Prisoner News 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 
24, 2017
"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 
with HIV.

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.

    Round-the-Clock Vigils

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 
<http://articles.latimes.com/1992-11-19/news/mn-941_1_state-prison>. The 
legislature gave the prison 90 days to improve these conditions.

    Compassionate Release

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."

    True Heroes

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 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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