MARCH 21, 1986 / MONTROSE VOICE 7
Prisoners with AIDS Find Themselves
Targets of Another Epidemic
By Kevin Krajick
Pacific New Service
Special to the Montrose Voice
Fear of AIDS, not the disease itself, is
becoming epidemic in U.S. prisons, with
the result that those few prisoners with
AIDS often live out their last days segregated from inmates and guards alike in
In all, some 530 cases of AIDS have been
diagnosed among nearly half million
state and federal inmates across the country, according to surveys by the American
Civil Liberties Union and others.
In New York's Clinton Correctional
Facility, inmates in a disciplinary segregation block broke into a small riot last
year when they found they had been sharing a bathroom with AIDS sufferers. Now
AIDS victims are routinely placed in isolation cells or special infirmary wards, as
much to protect them from the threats of
other inmates as to protect them from
infections, say prison officials.
Prisoners in Alabama, Indiana, New
-Jersey and New York have filed lawsuits
demanding that all inmates be tested for
antibodies to the virus, and that all those
proving positive be segregated.
Despite the prevailing medical opinion
that the disease cannot be spread through
casual contact, guards have also pressed
for the tests, and sometimes refused to
work with AIDS victims.
Jail officers in suburban Westchester
County, N.Y., invented what a brochure
advertises as a "biteproof, scratchproof,
waterproof, fireproof" jumpsuit made of
nylon and teflon. It is supposed to defend
officers against the "Dread AIDS Riots" of
the near future, according to one local
Violent outbursts among AIDS victims
are rare, however, according to prison
medical personnel. Said Margaret Wyke,
director of the medical unit of Sing Sing
prison in New York, where eight of 12
AIDS victims are kept in a special isolation ward, "It's worse when they're passive, because it means they're giving up."
Indeed, the inmates' wait for almost certain death is augmented by the mind-
twisting isolation and boredom of their
prison within a prison. When Renaldo
Ortiz's mother and sister—his wife left
him many years ago—first learned he was
dying, they made the 35-mile train trip
from New York City once a week to visit
him for an hour or two. But soon they
could no longer afford the $8.50 fare, so
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"What's hurting, boy, is that I have to die
right here. As it is, they've taken away all my
rights. They've taken away my dignity. Then
they make me die in prison. That's the only
thing I'm truly afraid of."
now he sees them only once a month. They
are his only visitors.
The rest of this time is spent "walking
from this bed to that room," Ortiz said,
pointing weakly to the dayroom down the
corridor where three dying inmates stared
quietly at a television.
Asked what runs through his mind,
Ortiz, 44, said, "I don't think about
nothing. Whatever is coming is coming,
and that's it. If I live till August, maybe I'll
make my time (be released). When I die I
want to die on the street."
Another inmate, 28, who asks not to be
identified, is suffering from meningitis, a
common illness among AIDS victims.
Emaciated and confined to a wheelchair,
he spoke slowly, sometimes slurring his
He said he hasn't seen his two young
children since he began serving a 5-10
year sentence for armed robbery two years
ago. This has been his choice. "I don't
want them to see me here," he said.
But his chances of ever seeing them
again appear small unless he relents. His
next parole hearing is 17 months away.
His parents, who live in Brooklyn, have
told him that if he lives long enough, he
can come home. They have a room ready
for him. But few victims at his stage last
Most of the ward's patients are kept in
the big communal room until they are
about ready to die, or until they need acute
care. Then they are moved to a nearby
hospital to gasp out their last few hours or
days. Some 50 men have left Sing Sing in
The inmate who has seen the most come
and go is Daryle Morsette, a stocky 27-
year-old who was diagnosed as having
AIDS 16 months ago. Morsette is suffering
from Kaposi's sarcoma, a purplish cancer
that erupts on the skin of many AIDS victims. His case is especially bad, but on one
day a few months ago he beamed with
Mother Teresa had just visited the ward,
going from bed to bed, leaving each man a
little bag of candy canes and a medal
depicting the Virgin Mary.
"I feel so honored," smiled Morsette
from his bed when she had gone. "I can't
believe Mother Teresa came to see me."
Morsette said that he is not afraid to die.
"What's hurting, boy, is that I have to die
right here. As it is, they've taken away all
my rights. They've taken away my dignity. Then they make me die in prison.
That's the only thing I'm truly afraid of."
He and other inmates have filed a lawsuit claiming that Sing Sing does not have
enough medical professionals or equip
ment to administer such things as IV—
dripping antibiotics, chemotherapy, or
special diets that could prolong patient's
lives, or pain killers that could make them
Sandra Johnson, nurse administrator
at Sing Sing, agrees with many ofthe complaints, saying, "We're always down on
items. We really don't have sufficient people to take care of (the patients)."
During the past several years, Roman
Catholic clergy and lay workers have
appealed for the release of dying inmates.
Finally last December, corrections officials did place Morsette and two other
Sing Sing AIDS sufferers into the care of
Mother Teresa, who had them admitted to
St. Clare's Hospital in New York City.
Sing Sing has released no other AIDS
sufferers since. Spokesman Andrew
Minor said the corrections department
will consider releasing only individuals
"who can't possibly rape or beat anyone
over the head. I mean minimally ambulatory people."
"Frankly, we can't take the chance that
the public is going to pick up the paper and
say, 'How come they let this guy out of
Wyke said she is not convinced that all
inmates with AIDS would be better off
released. Even non-convicts with AIDS
have found themselves evicted from apartments, fired from jobs, shunned by their
friends, she pointed out
"Out in the free world, fending for themselves, a lot of them would just become
bagmen," she said. "I don't think this is
the right place for anyone to die, but out
there, there aren't that many people who
want them either."
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