More than 130 inmates at Lorton Reformatory and the D.C. Jail have tested positive for exposure to the AIDS virus in recent months, but the lack of a consistent policy for handling them has caused some to be kept in isolation while others are in the general inmate population, according to officials and inmates.
Inmates in seclusion and jail officials said that 36 inmates with exposure to the AIDS virus have been held in isolation for months in the infirmaries at Lorton and the D.C. Jail, while 100 others with the same medical condition remain in the general population.
Donald R. Soskin, administrator of health services at Lorton, said 16 of the inmates with exposure to the acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus were moved last week from the infirmary to an undisclosed location in the D.C. Jail.
"They're in protective custody, that's all we can say," said Soskin. He said several others with AIDS virus exposure recently have been released on parole and to halfway houses.
AIDS fear, an explosive force in the jail population, caused District officials last fall to segregate prisoners without symptoms of the disease if their blood showed exposure to the virus.
But as the District's selective testing has continued, officials have run out of room to isolate all those who test positive for exposure. At the same time, they have concluded there is no medical reason for the segregation. The result is that those who tested positive early remain in isolation while those tested positive more recently are kept in the general population.
Ollie Baber has been in isolation in Lorton since Nov. 19, and he is bitter that he cannot attend classes or religious services or use the law library. "I'm supposed to be getting exercise, but we can't go outside," Baber said. "They're trying to force this illness on me by cooping me up."
Baber had been living in minimum security at Occoquan but, after blood tests showed he had been exposed to the AIDS virus, "they had the whole dorm quarantined" and sent him to Lorton.
"They picked my property up while wearing gloves and a mask," Baber said. "Everyone thought I had AIDS."
Another inmate in seclusion at Lorton said, "They can't put us back in population because nobody wants to be around us. Even the officers don't want to work around us. They have scared our friends, family and loved ones -- people even think I'm dead."
There is widespread confusion in the jail and reformatory about the risk involved with AIDS virus exposure. Because inmates and corrections staff were not familiar with the different levels of the disease, the first prisoners whose blood tests were positive were given the mistaken label of having AIDS.
"There's a perception of them as having some form of AIDS," said Soskin. "They were stigmatized and they're in protective custody for their own safety. If they want to do things a general population prisoner can do . . . these are arguments they can make to their caseworkers."
Fewer than 25 percent of those exposed to the AIDS virus are expected to develop the disease, although they are at greater risk for developing neurological problems.
Guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control stress that these individuals do not present a danger unless they share needles or engage in sex with others. Federal corrections officials do not recommend isolation or unusual precautions for prisoners with exposure to the virus.
However, prisoners in some states, including Indiana, New Jersey, New York and Alabama, have filed lawsuits requesting that all inmates testing positive for AIDS virus exposure be kept away from the rest of the inmates.
Soskin said no figures have been collected on the incidence of AIDS virus exposure among the 6,500 inmates in the D.C. prison system or on the number of AIDS deaths. "We have had loss of life," he said. "We're aware that several D.C. General [Hospital] patients have passed away with AIDS."
Prisoners from Lorton and the jail are sent to the public hospital when symptoms of AIDS develop, Soskin said.
District corrections officials endorsed federal policies on AIDS only last month, Soskin said.
A lack of clear policies about AIDS in District facilities has persisted since inmates began dying of AIDS two years ago, according to several corrections employes.
According to records at Lorton, one inmate, Charles Jeter, complained of his symptoms for five months but was not taken to a hospital until two days before his death in December 1984. An autopsy revealed Jeter died of pneumonia, which was listed as secondary to a diagnosis of AIDS.
"He kept asking to be put on the sick list because he kept losing weight and had a hard time breathing," said his mother, Madeline Jeter. Infirmary records show Jeter received cough syrup and cold tablets.
"We can't discuss specific cases," Soskin said about Jeter's death. "In 1984, our knowledge base of the disease was modest."
Inmates with exposure to the AIDS virus are examined regularly by doctors in each facility. City-employed doctors have been running the medical units at Lorton and the D.C. Jail, but a private corporation, Professional Development Corp., takes over the operation of the medical unit at the D.C. Jail this week under a $3.5 million yearly contract.
The year-old corporation bid on the contract along with D.C. General Hospital, George Washington University Medical Center, Prison Health Systems and Basil Health Systems. Soskin said several of the jail's former medical officers are employed by the new private contractor. Other medical staff will be transferred to Lorton, he said.