[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1936365502″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41sdSInRUwL._SL160_.jpg” width=”102″]Page 4: Inside this Place, Not of It [Excerpt] Irma Rodriquez’s Story
Excerpted from Inside this Place, Not of It edited by Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi. Published by Voice of Witness Books.
In Prison, You have No Information,
You Don’t Know the Truth
In the middle of 1990 I was diagnosed with HIV. While I was in jail, I was seen by officers from the public health department, interviewed and counseled, and given a blood test. It came back positive, and I have to say I wasn’t surprised. With my history of drug use and the prostitution, it made sense. But you can imagine this diagnosis was devastating to me. I even tried to commit suicide.
I was sent to the prison’s Chronic Care Program (CCP), where they kept people with chronic illnesses. In the CCP I had restrictions galore. I couldn’t go to any other prison, I wasn’t eligible for transfer to less restrictive institutions, and I was medicated. For almost ten years I was on three combinations of HIV therapy. They’d test my white blood cell count and it would come back really low. They’d screen my blood for my viral load, and the results would be terrible.
The side effects of the medication were awful: vomiting, diarrhea. Every day I had to stand in the med line, sometimes for hours in the heat. I was also regularly sent for chest X-rays with the other HIV women. And of course, because of the open treatment and the marked bags of medication, everyone knew I was HIV positive. People would harass me, the Cos would discriminate against me. The whole system discriminated against HIV patients. For example, in 1999, I wanted to transfer to Val- ley State Prison for Women. They had just opened a dry cleaning vocational training program, and I was a perfect candidate for it. The prison agreed that I fit all the criteria and should be sent to the program. Then they decided they weren’t going to house HIV inmates at VSPW; they were going to keep them in one place so they could be treated together.
Then, in 2007, after more than a decade and a half of aggressive treatment, the prison finally decide to retest me. The test came back negative. Negative! It turned out that I was not HIV positive, that I never had been. This negative result was confirmed in 2008. The first HIV test they did back in 1990 was wrong.
I’ll never know what happened to the original lab reports, whether they were falsified or whether it was just due to incompetence. They’ve retested me a few times, as recently as last year, and I’m still testing negative. But at the same time, I worry that maybe I have a special strain of HIV that’s just not showing now. Am I gonna pop up with full blown AIDS a few years from now? I can’t stop thinking, how could I have had so many lab tests that showed high viral loads in my blood? I’m scared. As it is there are so many diseases, like with the hepatitis they’ve got the whole alphabet now. How do they know that I don’t have a silent strain of HIV that’s just hiding? I have no access in prison to medical information beyond what they tell me. That’s what it’s like to have a disease in prison. You have no information, you don’t know the truth. In fact, I don’t even know if I can trust this last test. Am I really negative? I don’t know what to believe right now. I don’t know what to do. I wish I could go see a doc- tor out in the free world who could screen my blood and see once and for all if I’m really HIV negative.
After all this happened, I petitioned for a hearing with the Chief Medical officer. Before prisoners can bring a law suit against the Department of Corrections, they first have to file an in-house grievance. It took me exactly nine months from the time I filed the grievance for the Chief Medical officer to hear it and interview me. When I walked into the hearing room, there was a whole panel of people— medical officers, public health officials, nurses. They were ready for me. The public health nurse who initially sent me to be tested claimed that she’d never interviewed me. But how else would I have been referred for treatment? She insisted that she had no record of that, that she didn’t recall it. It was ridiculous. We all knew that I’d been treated for HIV, but she kept insisting that she’d never given me the diagnosis.
The people on the panel claimed that it wasn’t their fault, that they simply treated me for a disease they were told I had. They refused to acknowledge that they were the ones who told me that I had the disease.
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