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Life Inside

I Survived Prison During The AIDS Epidemic. Here’s What It Taught Me About Coronavirus

COVID-19 isn’t an automatic death sentence, but the fear, vilification and isolation are the same.

As a harm reduction technician for an HIV/AIDS organization, I work with a lot of people at risk for COVID-19, including those who are homeless. I’m seeing some of the same magicalized and panicked responses to this virus that I witnessed when I was in prison at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

In the early 1980s, the New York State prison system was overcome by a strange phenomenon. All around me, guys began to experience sudden weight loss, sores in their mouth, a persistent cough, opportunistic diseases and other inexplicable problems. Rumors of “that gay disease” (its official name was “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” or GRID) were popping up on the local and even national news, but no one knew what was going on. It would take years for the medical profession to isolate and properly understand the HIV virus.

As for us, we were just prisoners: suspicious and superstitious. All we knew was that this new thing was a death sentence. During those years, the fear among inmates and staff alike was palpable. We behaved accordingly, by shying away from the problem, vilifying it and discriminating against it, as if any of that could eradicate it.

Coronavirus does not mean death every time, and it is transmitted differently. But the incarcerated people I’m talking to have that same fear that they can’t escape it. Just as they did with HIV, guys are panicking and giving the virus magical qualities like that it can be transmitted over the phone. The prison system too is employing the same tactics: isolate the people with the illness, don’t truly address it.

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, openly gay and transgender inmates were the first to be targeted. They were routinely assaulted by inmates and staff. Anyone with a persistent cough was next—their cells were torched and they were chased out of general population. Those suspected of having “The Monster” were sequestered in the infirmary, in deplorable conditions.

Gone was the unity forged by the Attica riot of the previous decade.

Each guy had a theory, a system, a strategy for combating AIDS. It was a government conspiracy, some said. A mouth full of raw garlic will keep it at bay, claimed others. We must get rid of the infected, most agreed.

One day, I was standing in the yard when a young kid walked up to Jessica, a transgender inmate. He sprayed her with a liquid, lit a match, and threatened to set her on fire if she didn’t “sign in” (which means request to be placed in solitary confinement).

That night, Jessica did indeed sign into protective custody. The kid who chased her out of the population was later diagnosed seropositive himself and committed suicide. The year was 1982.

Rumors about who had the virus only proliferated. When it was reported the disease have originated in Haiti, all Haitian inmates came under suspicion. Many hid their national identity, ashamed of it and afraid of being targeted.

Old Man Joe, a Haitian and a fixture in the prison scene, had been coughing for a few weeks, particularly at night. Someone whispered that he had “The Monster.” One of his neighbors set fire to his cell. Years later, Old Man Joe died of simple emphysema.

Popeye, an older prisoner with the biggest ears I’ve seen before or since, was convinced that mosquitoes were transmitting the disease. A lovable character, he could be seen chasing insects around the yard with a rolled-up magazine, covered from head to toe in clothing even on a hot summer day. He would sneak up and whack people with his magazine, professing to them that, in fact, he had just saved their life by killing the bug.

Ironically, despite our fears, prisoners continued to do what prisoners did. Intravenous drug use, tattooing, and high-risk sexual behavior remained the norm.

In 1985, concerned over a friend named David who had disappeared from the population, I convinced one of the nicer officers to sneak me into the infirmary so I could look for him. When the doors opened, I saw a dorm-like area with beds, neatly made with hospital corners, lining each side of the room like in a military barracks.

But the beds were empty. Confused, I looked at the officer, who pointed to the back of the room, which was much darker. I made my way to what appeared to be a glass wall.

The area had been sealed off with Plexiglas, quarantining the AIDS patients from the rest of the infirmary.

I peered inside, and what I saw stopped everything. The area held about eight beds, on which eight inmates lay: some on their backs, others in tight little balls, all staring vacantly into the distance.

These men are dying, I thought to myself. They were too quiet, and looked too thin to be alive. Their eyes were sunken into their skulls, their hair thinning; their arms looked like twigs and their fingers were impossibly long. Some of them were covered in sores.

One guy had a yellow fluid leaking from his eyes, and it was not tears. Another had swollen, purple legs, the skin so tight it looked like ripe fruit. He was softly moaning.

It was my friend David.

I’d met David in 1983, at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, aka “Comstock,” aka “Gladiator School.” It got the latter name because of its reputation for violence among inmates, and even between inmates and staff.

I was 17 when I arrived at that prison. I couldn’t read or write, and, with only a year of incarceration under my belt, I had no friends and no reputation. I got into so many fights that I lost count after the fifth month.

It was after a particularly violent encounter with a “booty bandit,” as sexual predators were then called, that I met David. He took me under his wing, showing me who to avoid and what not to do, while encouraging me to wear my glasses and stop eating my nails. I had no more trouble at Comstock. But David also had a history of intravenous drug use and, I suspected, continued using (and sharing needles) even while being such a brother to me.

In 1984, I was transferred from Comstock to Green Haven Correctional Facility, and David followed soon after. He arrived smaller, thinner, and not at all the strong, robust, confident man I remembered. His eyes roamed everywhere, searching, afraid to make contact. The fear he now seemed to embody was not of anything present, anything tangible—David could deal with all that—but of something intangible, an elusive enemy.

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David disappeared a few months after his arrival, from the population. That’s when I heard rumors of the secret ward and went looking for him.

The conditions in that AIDS ward were deplorable. The room was filthy and windowless, and inmates were dying alone. Porters almost never went in to clean, medical staff rarely visited, and officers refused to have any contact with them at all. There was no medication to give them, with the exception of over-the-counter stuff like cough syrup and Motrin. AZT was still years away.

Some of these guys, like David, had taught me how to read and write, others I had played football with, and all had sat across from me in the mess hall at one time or another. They were the “disappeared,” voids in the tapestry of the prison yard.

A few days later, I returned to the infirmary with a bag of food and toiletries, most of it donated by other inmates after I told them about what I’d seen. Soon, with the help of officers who were as moved by the scene as we were, I was sneaking in there weekly.

When David asked me to put lotion on the dry and cracked skin of his swollen legs, I cried.

Unfortunately, the AIDS epidemic was not limited to the prisoners in the ward. One day, Lucky, a tough old con, approached me in the yard and asked to speak in private. He suspected that he was seropositive, but was afraid to get tested or tell anyone for fear that “it would get out.”

In the ward, the disease was in your face: You witnessed it, smelled it, and you experienced the suffering. Lucky’s confession was the other side of the crisis—the insidious nature of a virus that haunted the infected person.

I cared for David and these other men from 1985 to 1987. He was proud to learn that I had finally earned a GED, happy to see me wearing my glasses, and amazed that I had stopped eating my nails. But his condition worsened, and he was transferred to Sing Sing and then to St. Agnes in White Plains, where we went to die, in 1988. By that time, I heard, he was suffering from AIDS-related dementia; his body was claimed by DOCCS, and he was buried in a potter's field.

The AIDS epidemic had a devastating affect within prisons, deeper than the public realizes. But something of the unity forged a decade earlier at Attica returned. The reason I am here today is because brothers like David—and Jamel, Mongo, Joe, Pierre and Larry—cared for me, corrected me, encouraged me, nudged me along the way. When I first met them, I was a teenager, a kid trying to survive in a violent place, and my life could have gone either way.

I went looking for David in that ward because men like him had saved me, too, from being broken.

Richard Rivera was released from prison in 2019 after serving nearly 40 years. He is working for two nonprofits, including for the Southern Tier AIDS Program as their harm reduction technician.