Patients Are Prison’s ‘Lepers,’ Lawsuit Says

Times Staff Writer

Prisoner rights attorneys alleged in a civil suit Wednesday that inmates housed in the AIDS ward at the state medical prison at Vacaville are treated like “lepers” in inhumane conditions that further endanger their lives.

Attorneys for the Prison Law Office, American Civil Liberties Union and two large San Francisco law firms said the federal suit filed in Sacramento is the first “comprehensive” action challenging the imprisonment and treatment of prisoners with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The suit charged that 136 prisoners in the AIDS wing of the California Medical Facility at Vacaville “are treated as a new class of lepers, cut off from contact with their peers” and denied equal access to the prison law library, exercise facilities and proper medical and psychological help.

The state transfers almost all prisoners diagnosed with AIDS and many who have tested positive for the virus to the Vacaville facility. A second prison ward for AIDS patients is scheduled to open at the California Institute for Men at Chino in February.


The suit stopped short of demanding that AIDS patients be integrated into the main prison population. But attorneys said at a press conference here Wednesday that they may include such a demand later.

The suit, in addition to challenging the treatment of prisoners with AIDS, is a broad attack on the nation’s most populous prison. A class action on behalf of all of Vacaville’s 8,035 inmates, the suit contends that the prison is overcrowded and unsanitary. It says treatment of all patients, from AIDS and cancer victims to inmates with deep psychological problems, is inadequate. The prison, with a capacity of 4,730, has about 6,500 inmates who need medical care.

Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office called Vacaville “vermin infested” and said “it’s so overcrowded that you have prisoners sleeping on mats on the floor and you have 80 prisoners in converted day rooms with two toilets and a shower.”

In the California prison system, 154 inmates have AIDS or AIDS-related complex or have been infected with the virus. Most are at Vacaville.


Officials say they keep AIDS patients segregated to protect them from other inmates, to prevent the spread of the disease and to make treatment easier.

‘Wholly Adequate’

“We feel it is wholly adequate,” Corrections Department spokesman Robert Gore said of medical treatment at the prison. “If an illness cannot be treated at the prison, it is treated at a community hospital.”

The suit, however, is only the latest complaint against the prison. A separate suit is pending in state court over conditions in Vacaville’s 343-bed hospital, a facility that officials hope to have accredited by the state Department of Health Services by 1989. The U.S. Justice Department inspected the prison hospital in 1986 and 1987 and concluded in a very critical letter to Gov. George Deukmejian that medical care there constituted cruel and unusual punishment and cited staff shortages, lack of timely treatment, unsanitary conditions and use of inmates as medical aides.

In the press conference Wednesday, attorneys cited as an example of poor care an October, 1986, incident in which a psychiatric patient, Yale Wilson, was subdued with a stun gun and died after receiving medication that was supposed to calm him.

ACLU attorney Matthew A. Coles called the care on the AIDS unit “even worse than the care in the rest of the prison.” Attorneys said that the drug AZT, which has been used on AIDS patients for months, was made available only two weeks ago at Vacaville, and only one inmate is using it. Prison officials, however, said that three inmates are being administered AZT and that its use will be expanded soon.

Bob Houston, program director of the AIDS wing at Vacaville, said doctors visit it twice a week, although the attorneys who sued said the visits come only once a week. Houston said that while there is a small exercise yard for the inmates now, another will be available soon, and he said there is access to legal material. He denied allegations that inmates help provide medical care. The prison has 18 doctors and 14 psychiatrists on staff.