HIV + Prisoner Commits Suicide
RAIL Notes February 1999
California prisoner Michael Van Straaten hanged himself in front of prison staff to protest the treatment he and other California prisoners with HIV/AIDS receive. Guards found him hanging in the corner of his cell and watched him for 18 minutes before they entered to pronounce him dead. His body was still warm and limber when they cut it down.(1)
Van Straaten, a 32-year old Canadian citizen, was transferred in the mid-90s to the HIV+ unit at Corcoran State Prison, which holds 230 prisoners. California is one of only three states (the others are Alabama and Mississippi) that segregate their HIV+ inmates by housing them in separate units in each prison.(2) Corcoran has become a dumping ground for HIV+ patients.
Corcoran's HIV+ unit is infamous for its poor health care. Prisoners get sub-standard treatment and their viral loads are not adequately monitored. The first AIDS fatality at Corcoran died of an easily treatable opportunistic infection. One former prisoner wrote, "Even with signs of the yeast infection in his mouth, his condition went untreated... He was allowed to remain in his cell for almost three weeks unattended and unmonitored by the medical staff. His condition rapidly worsened, he developed pneumonia and his lungs filled. By the time he was taken to the hospital he had wasted away to near nothing. He lasted three days in the hospital."(3)
Another prisoner at the unit wrote, "My greatest concern about Corcoran is that once I got very sick, I would not receive proper care, and I would die miserably."(2)
Van Straaten stated that his medications for his seizures (he also had epilepsy) and HIV were delayed and sometimes denied. With the help of California prisoners' rights activists, friends and family in Canada, and even the Canadian embassy, Van Straaten was fighting to be transferred to the medical facility at Vacaville or a prison in Canada. His requests for transfer were repeatedly denied over the course of several years.
Just before he committed suicide, Van Straaten was again denied a transfer and was placed in solitary confinement following an epileptic seizure.
Fellow prisoners said that the first two guards to arrive at the cell "actually yelled at him to come down, to stop his suicide." Van Straaten was pronounced dead 20 minutes later, after guards had taken no action to aid him.(4)
Van Straaten's frustration, the terrible medical care prisoners with AIDS receive, and guards callous disregard for Van Straaten's very life are the results of a system which considers prisoners to be slaves or bodies to be warehoused or worse. The dramatic four-fold expansion of the Amerikan prison population has been fueled in large part by harsh sentences for drug users - a population at high risk for HIV infection. The result is that many people already given outrageous sentences for petty, non-violent crimes in effect receive a death sentence, thanks to the poor care HIV+ prisoners receive.
Adequate heath care is a non-negotiable right. Certainly it is possible to provide prisoners with adequate HIV/AIDS care (and treatment for other diseases as well) - but the ideology which considers prisoners less than humyn and the increasing role that the profit motive plays in prisons denies them care. Prisoners should receive the same standard of care that non-prisoners do. Prisoners should also have access to basic measures which stop the spread of HIV, such as clean needles and condoms.
Ultimately, the best way to ensure adequate health care for prisoners is to overturn the systems of oppression which intersect in Amerikan prisons: National oppression, which denies economic opportunity in Black, Latino, First Nation and other communities and which locks people from these nations up at unjust disproportionate rates, and capitalism, which places profit before humyn needs.
We understand the desperation of prisoners like Van Straaten who see no alternative to protest the system that is torturing and killing them and many others, but we value the lives of our fighting comrades and encourage all who want to protest the injustice system to join with RAIL for the long fight. Work with us to expose the system and organize others into the struggle. Send us news and information about what's going on in your prison, support MIM and circulate MIM Notes to other prisoners, form study groups and work with us and other prisoners in the legal fight while we build a revolutionary movement to take down the injustice system.
1. Los Angeles Times, 19 Dec 98.
2. "POZ: Lethal Lottery," http://www.thebody.com/poz/survival/11_98/lottery.html.
3. "Conditions faced by prisoners with HIV/AIDS in California," http://www.igc.apc.org/justice/articles/conditions-faced-by-prisoners- with.html. (URL expired)
4. Los Angeles Times, 24 Dec 98.
Some facts about HIV/AIDS in Amerikan prisons:
*AIDS is the main cause of death in Amerikan prisons.
*The life expectancy of HIV+ prisoners is half that of HIV+ non- prisoners.
*The AIDS rate is seven times higher in state and federal prisons than in the general U.S. population.
*In New York, more than 25% of prison AIDS diagnoses were first made after the affected prisoner was dead.
*In New York, 47% of prisoners with AIDS were "Hispanic," 40% were Black, and 11.5% were white.
*California prisons which do not have special units for HIV+ prisoners provide no HIV/AIDS education.
*Few California prisons supply condoms and none supply bleach kits to sterilize needles to inmates. Unprotected sex and sharing dirty needles are two important ways that HIV is transmitted.
*More than 22 million people are released each year from Amerikan jails and prisons.
*In 1988, California voters passed Proposition 96, an initiative authored by the sheriff of Los Angeles County requiring prison and jail physicians to give lists of known or suspected HIV-infected prisoners to correctional staff.
"AIDS and HIV Infection in Prisoners," http://hivinsite.ucsf.edu/akb/1997/01pris.
"AIDS in Prison Project: Facts Sheet," http://www.aidsinfonyc.org/aip/facts.html.
"POZ: Lethal Lottery," http://www.thebody.com/poz/survival/11_98/lottery.html. "Welcome to Hell: HIV+ In Prison," http://sonomacountyfreepress.org/welcome/welhiv.html. (URL expired)
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