The Post's editorial of July 18 "Protecting Prisoners from AIDS" was right on target. I speak from experience as a former member of Congress who is currently incarcerated at Petersburg Federal Prison, south of Richmond.
AIDS has people in prison terrified -- afraid for themselves and afraid for their families.
This prison facility has 200 inmates in a minimum-security camp and 800 across the road behind walls and wire in maximum security. Everyone is compacted together in the use of all facilities, with no choice or options. As your editorial stated, "They do not have the freedom to decide where to eat and sleep or the right to choose those with whom they must live in close contact."
This past week inmates in the camp were badly shaken when a prisoner was removed, reportedly for AIDS. He had been a resident for a month, sharing all the same facilities including drinking from common Thermos jugs at work and other activities.
This "AIDS case" had unusually long fingernails that badly scratched other players in basketball games. The scare among inmates was evident. In fact, one inmate remarked, "Every time I kiss my wife and children on a visit, I can't help but wonder what disease I might be giving them."
These prisoners have now actively joined me in a call for help. I have been pleading for action by federal officials for months in behalf of worried prisoners and their families and citizens everywhere. Recent letters of July 11, 1987, to Attorney General Edwin Meese and Federal Prison Director Michael Quinlan clearly point out that "the opportunities to contract AIDS are wholesale."
Meese was told that "Avoiding the blood and bodily fluids of others is virtually impossible by nature of the overcrowded conditions; the potential for violence and abuse; the homosexuality problem; the virtual disregard in many facilities for even the most basic sanitation, with general pressure for everyone to use a common razor, fingernail clippers and even a toothbrush."
I advised the attorney general that "people in the prison system are exposed to "conditions so terrible that inmates helplessly consider that any incarceration, whether it be for months or for years, could well be a death sentence." This was reinforced by the July 11, 1987, Post article describing the transmittal of the AIDS virus when an inmate in the Arlington jail bit another prisoner.
As a public official, I have seen firsthand prison systems and jails across this nation and the world where I witnessed appalling conditions. But more than that, I personally have been dragged through numerous prison (and jail) facilities during my incarceration over the past 13 months; and I have been recklessly exposed to everything from tuberculosis to violent schizophrenia to AIDS.
My letter to Prison Director Michael Quinlan stated, "I can tell you, sir, that new evidence found in the past few months convinces me, even more than before, that the record of violence and killing and scandalous health hazards brought on by criminal behavior and neglect by public officials in the prison systems of the nation is nothing short of alarming," and that "this is particularly true of the AIDS crisis."
I reminded both officials, who preside over the federal prison system, that I went to Quinlan's office six months ago "to present matters of urgent and even life-threatening concern to the nation's prison population (of 500,000 inmates) and even the public in general." The failure to respond, I said, "is all the more puzzling in view of the interest expressed to you by U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond, and considering the fact I was joined in the effort by former EPA administrator Anne Burford and Washington Rabbi Bruce Kahn."
The Post editorial clearly identified a laid-back attitude when it observed that "steps to protect the prison population are still in the planning stages, but those plans must be accelerated." And the stated conclusion was unavoidable that prisoners "must be protected and so must the families to whom they will eventually return," but that "the inexorable deadliness of the infection makes a swift effective response by prison officials imperative."
The 500,000 inmates, and tens of thousands of new prisoners each year, will soon recycle back into the general population, and we had better deal with this fact of life right now. My letter to Attorney General Meese strongly encouraged him "to take immediate and decisive action to clearly identify the AIDS carriers and hazards in the prison system, and press for the earliest possible shift in sentencing practices to drastically reduce the nation's prison population -- for better disease control, not to mention the billions in relief to the taxpayers in resultant spending reduction and increased tax revenues."
Law enforcement and prison officials need to know that inmates and their families are real people and that the fear of AIDS in prison is real -- as is the threat to Americans everywhere. Inmates and their families are deeply concerned that going to jail can be fatal -- and they pray for relief. We must act quickly and decisively to end this "chamber of horrors" we call a prison system. Former representative Hansen (R-Idaho) is incarcerated at Petersburg Federal Prison for violation of federal ethics laws.