Adding their voices to the chorus of criticism aimed at the California Institution for Women here, protesters from a militant AIDS-awareness group charged Friday that inmates infected with the HIV virus suffer from substandard medical care and are unfairly segregated from other prisoners.
About 80 members of the group ACT UP traveled by bus from Los Angeles and staged a two-hour demonstration outside the San Bernardino County prison, chanting and marching with signs attacking the treatment of AIDS-afflicted inmates.
“The care these women receive is completely inadequate,” said Lauren Leary, a group spokeswoman. “Just because they commit a crime, they should not be deprived of medical treatment. That’s what’s happening, and it’s cruel.”
Susan Poole, warden at the nation’s largest women’s prison, was unavailable for comment. Spokesman Lt. Floyd Huyler disputed most of ACT UP’s claims and said that the prison provides “proper medical care.”
The protest was billed as a peaceful one, but authorities were clearly expecting something different. The prison’s border was sealed with yellow police tape, and dozens of camouflage-clad correctional officers in riot gear lined the parking lot.
Officers from three law enforcement agencies set up command posts nearby, and normal prison visiting hours were canceled for the day.
Friday’s demonstration was the latest in a series of events spotlighting conditions at the prison, a low-slung facility in the Chino Valley that houses 2,025 inmates in space designed for half that number. The prison is the only unit in California for female inmates who reveal that they have AIDS or are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes the disease. Prison officials said 24 women were in that unit, called Walker A, on Friday.
In 1989, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, that Walker A inmates receive inadequate medical care from untrained staff and are segregated from other prisoners in violation of their right to privacy.
Earlier this year, a joint legislative committee on prisons issued a scathing report charging that the prison is plagued by poor medical care, drug trafficking and sexual assaults involving inmates and staff.
In September, an inspection by the state Department of Health Services found chronic deficiencies in the prison infirmary and other aspects of health care. Last month, the facility’s chief medical officer, Dr. Krishna K. Srivastava, resigned after he was suspended after an investigation by the state Department of Corrections.
Rebecca Jurado, the ACLU attorney representing inmates in their suit against the state, said access to AZT--which has been shown to reduce the severity and frequency of infections that plague AIDS patients--has been limited to the very sick and charged that a lack of AIDS training has created an inept, insensitive staff.
Because the infirmary is not licensed by the state, Jurado said that certain medical procedures often required by AIDS patients cannot be performed there. As a result, she said, severely ill patients are “shuttled back and forth” between the prison and Riverside General Hospital, a 30-minute drive.
Huyler disputed charges that patients have trouble obtaining care when they need it, and denied that AZT was reserved only for the sickest patients. A health specialist for the Corrections Department in Sacramento said AZT is provided systemwide according to guidelines established by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
Mike Van Winkle, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, conceded that there have been “some problems” with medical care in Walker A but insisted that “we have taken very aggressive steps to correct” them.
State Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), chairman of the Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations, agreed that prison officials “are trying very hard” but called the progress “disappointingly slow.”
ACT UP and the ACLU charge that segregating HIV-infected inmates a practice that applies to male inmates as well as females--violates their right to privacy by stigmatizing them as victims. Jurado said HIV-infected inmates have been denied access to outside work and educational programs and overnight, conjugal visiting privileges accorded other prisoners.
Huyler said overnight visits with spouses and minor children are forbidden because of the risk of transmitting the AIDS virus. As for access to work and educational programs, he said HIV-infected inmates who meet certain criteria are allowed to participate under a pilot program established after the lawsuit was filed.