Freed AIDS Patient Seeks Prison Reform : HIV: Woman urges other infected inmates to fight for better services. Activists say officials respond too slowly to compassionate release requests.
An AIDS patient who recently secured a compassionate release from prison joined activists on the outside Wednesday, calling for major reforms in the way the California penal system handles the AIDS crisis.
Judy Cagle, a convicted armed robber who has become a symbol of redemption and a celebrated cause among AIDS activists, tearfully urged other inmates afflicted with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to press their fight against the disease and often unresponsive prison officials.
“I want people I left behind to know I love them,” said Cagle, a 37-year-old mother who doctors believe has less than six months to live. “Just don’t give up. You’ve got to fight. You got to know your lives are important.”
Activists who worked to win Cagle’s freedom introduced the visibly weak and trembling woman at a news conference at the Silver Lake headquarters of Being Alive, an AIDS service agency. She was released Friday after serving more than seven years of a 14-year sentence for a series of armed robberies.
Cagle is the first prisoner with AIDS granted compassionate release by California prisons and courts who has survived longer than 48 hours after release, according to Mary Lucey of ACT UP/LA (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), although California Department of Corrections officials said they could neither confirm nor dispute the assertion.
Terminally ill inmates, who doctors say have less than six months to live and who are not considered dangerous, are eligible for compassionate release, prison officials said.
To activists, Cagle was an example of the need to streamline the compassionate release procedure. No one was injured in Cagle’s armed robberies, they note, and Cagle had kicked the drug addiction that had taken root in her early teens. At the California Institute for Women in Frontera she became a published poet and made videos warning others of the dangers of drug abuse and sexually transmitted disease.
Cagle, whose immediate plans include a reunion with her 16-year-old son, said the procedure for compassionate release needs to be streamlined because the process often takes more than six months. Activists launched appeals for Cagle’s freedom more than two years ago. “We started early,” Lucey said.
Activists, who are organizing a demonstration in Sacramento on May 4 against the Department of Corrections, said other necessary prison reforms include improved treatment for HIV-positive inmates, expanded HIV testing, access to clinical trials and equal access to visitation rights and prison programs.
Leonard Bloom of AIDS Project Los Angeles noted that people infected with HIV in prison often infect other people after their parole. “From a public health standpoint, the prison system is letting down all the people of California,” Bloom said.
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