ACT UP Calls for Prison Condoms

Activists demand that state department of health take over HIV care among inmates

A small but determined group of advocates demanded Tuesday that the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) take over the health care system in state prisons because, they claim, the Department of Corrections (DOCS) is not fighting a crisis of HIV and hepatitis-C infections among inmates.

Members from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power-New York, or ACT UP-NY, stood outside the Lincoln State Correctional Facility in Harlem to call attention to the crisis, which they say is caused by inadequate health care for infected inmates, a lack of testing for these infections and a ban on condoms in state prisons.

A handful of ACT UP members gathered outside the inconspicuous state prison facing the north side of Central Park to bring attention to problems with the DOCS health system, but also to announce a new web tool for reporting substandard or denial of health care in prisons. By logging on to prisons, inmates, health care providers, and friends and family can post reports that will automatically be emailed to ATC UP/NY and the office of NYSDOH Commissioner Antonia C. Novello.

Emmaia Gelman from ACT UP-NY described the prison system as a fortress when it comes to access to health care information.

“Prisons have to be accountable to the rest of society, but DOCS prefers to operate in secret,” she said. “So this web tool will help break the secrecy.”

Gelman pointed out that state and federal health care officials promote the use of condoms as a means of protection against HIV and hepatitis-C, but in state prisons, condoms are contraband.

“Condoms are the basic and fundamental element of HIV prevention,” Gelman said. “The CDC insists that people use condoms, but 60,000 inmates do not have access.”

Sex between inmates is illegal in prison, but according to Gelman it is a reality.

“Rape does happen, but so does consensual sex,” she explained.

Joe Capestany, a 48-year-old released prisoner living with HIV and hepatitis-c, also attended the rally and spoke on the issue of sex in prisons.

“Homosexual inmates still live their lives as far as relationships are concerned,” he said. “A lot [of guards] let it happen and condoms are like drugs. They are smuggled in like drugs.”

Capestany said that in prison he asked to be tested for hepatitis-C, but was refused. It was not until he left prison that he found out that he had contracted the disease.

Melvyn Stevens, from ACT UP-NY, said access to condoms is a small part of the issue of prevention. Stevens believes a lack of education, confidentiality, and access to medication are all part of the prison health care problem.

“Only two or three out of 70 prisons give a course on HIV. The monster, that is what they call HIV in prison,” he said.

When it comes to treating HIV-positive prisoners, Stevens supports a “keep on-person” approach to administering medication. This approach would allow inmates to keep their own medications for a month at a time so that they are responsible for taking them. Too many inmates are unable to follow the strict drug regimens in prison because they depend on the corrections officers to administer them.

Chino Hardin, a 23-year-old who spent time at Rikers Island, a New York City correctional facility, tested positive for HIV while she was incarcerated. When she was released, she re-tested herself because she didn’t think that her behavior was high risk. All her tests came back negative. Hardin believes they told her she was positive because she is queer.

“The same thing happened to a friend,” Hardin said. “I think it is happening on purpose. It’s a form of punishment. It depresses people’s spirits.”

Hardin added that many HIV-positive inmates are put in queer housing regardless of their sexual orientation.

“They act like you got HIV/AIDS and you got to be gay,” she said.

Since Hardin was labeled HIV-positive, she experienced what it was like to be dependent on the correctional officers for health care. “People are denied their medication,” she said. “If you was bad, they will deny you.”

The activists all believe that NYSDOH should be responsible for the health of prisoners––not DOCS––because the issue affects the general public as soon as prisoners are released

“The state taking over is the real issue,” Stevens said. “There is a conservative mind set in the U.S. that people in jail deserve to be in jail.”

This attitude about the health care of inmates is dangerous, the activists say, because prisoners are released without being educated about HIV/AIDS, without being tested, and they are having sex in prison.

“People will be released,” Hardin said, “and one day they may want to date your daughter.”

Ronald Johnson, the associate executive director of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, said that these horrors of the prison health system show a definite need for change. Three bills will be discussed in a state Assembly Committee of Health hearing on November14. Assemblymember Richard N. Gottfried (D-Manhattan) is sponsoring the two most important bills. Together they would define the health care systems of local and state correctional facilities as hospitals, bringing them under the oversight of the NYSDOH, and require correctional facilities to implement HIV and STD education and prevention programs, including the distribution of condoms.

“These are not earth-shattering proposals,” Johnson said. “It would just bring prison hospitals into line with the rest of the state.”

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