Special Pen unit for inmates with AIDS virus closes

November 11, 1990|By Ann LoLordo

At the request of inmates with the AIDS virus, the state Division of Correction has closed a special Maryland Penitentiary housing unit for them and returned the 12 prisoners who lived there to the general prison population.

The unit, known as the "Living Room," was opened in August 1989 to give inmates who had been hospitalized with human immunodeficiency virus -- HIV -- a place of their own when they were returned to the prison system.

But the 10-cell ward near the penitentiary's infirmary soon became a prison within a prison. The inmates staying there contend in a lawsuit now pending in federal court that they were denied access to educational, vocational and work opportunities that were provided to inmates in the general population.

As part of that lawsuit, the inmates asked that the unit be closed.

On Nov. 1, after negotiations with state officials, the unit was shut down and the inmates were placed in other prisons across the state, said Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, a corrections spokesman.

"Their primary concern was the absence of any meaningful programs," said Joseph H. Young, an attorney appointed by the federal court to represent prisoners who have tested positive for the virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. "They were restless. They were upset. They were depressed."

Mr. Young said the ward had created a "a hospice atmosphere for people who really aren't to the point where a hospice atmosphere is appropriate."

Sergeant Shipley, the corrections spokesman, said the decision to close the unit stemmed from a "combination of reasons," including prison officials' learning more about AIDS and a desire by Living Room inmates to return to the regular prison population. He said that since the decision to establish the Living Room, "more has been learned about AIDS, and the medical staff learned that the inmates were capable of living in the general population, and that it would be best for them."

He said that wardens of the various institutions receiving the inmates were not notified about their medical condition, but that staff doctors had been told so they could provide the inmates with appropriate treatment.

"All of them who moved, if they require additional treatment, they will be treated regionally in a Division of Correction facility or [at] a hospital if necessary," Sergeant Shipley said. "These people will not be put out there and forgotten. They will be monitored and medical treatment will be available to them if necessary." The division's decision to close the unit is expected to be discussed at a hearing in another federal court lawsuit, on the state's policies regarding the handling and treatment of prisoners with AIDS.

The hearing is set for Dec. 7 before U.S. Judge Frederick J. Motz.

The lawsuit was filed by a handful of inmates who sought mandatory AIDS testing of prisoners to determine if they and others in the system were at risk. Susan Gauvey, the attorney for this group, said she was "delighted" about the closing of AIDS unit. "The inmates weren't given any special medical care," she said. "They were just put there because nobody else wanted them."

However, the attorney said she would like to see the Department of Correction establish a special unit where inmates could voluntarily be tested for the AIDS virus.

In such a unit, she said, inmates who test positive could remain in the unit if they were aggressive or were known to engage in activity that could lead to a spread of the disease in the inmate population.

"If you know someone is an active homosexual and [has] been a prostitute, why would you put them back in the general population?" she said. "We are also concerned about the sharing of needles by addicts."

She said such inmates could remain in the special unit where they could get appropriate medical care, while HIV-positive inmates who were not regarded as high risks could be put into a regular prison environment. But, she said, they too must be able to get appropriate medical treatment.

In March, state prison officials said they intended to begin a voluntary AIDS testing program for inmates. The voluntary testing program has not yet begun.

At the time prison officials discussed the voluntary testing program, 110 of the state's more than 16,000 inmates were known carriers of the virus and 11 others had the disease.

The actual number of prisoners infected with the virus, however, is probably triple that number, based on a 1987-1988 study by Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

The study found that 8 percent of men and 12.5 percent of women coming into the prison system were HIV-positive.

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