'I remember how devastating AIDS was in the New York State prison system. It was much worse than the public realizes or would imagine.'

AIDS in Prison, and My Lost Brothers
Story & Recording by Richard Rivera

My name is Richard Rivera, and I remember how devastating AIDS was in the New York State prison system.  It was much worse than the public realizes or would imagine.

All around me during the early 1980s, prisoners began to experience sudden weight loss, sores in their mouth, a persistent cough, and other inexplicable medical problems. Popping up on the news were rumors of “that gay disease.”  Its official name was Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID.  But no one really knew what was going on or how it was transmitted.  All we knew was that this new thing was a death sentence.

Ironically, despite our fears and superstitions, 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 general population, I convinced one of the nicer officers to sneak me into the infirmary for a visit. When the doors opened, I saw a dorm-like area with beds neatly made with hospital corners lining the wall like a military barrack. But the room and the beds were empty.

The officer pointed to the back of the room, which was much darker. I made my way to an area sealed off with Plexiglas. It had an additional eight beds, on which eight prisoners lay: some on their backs, others in tight little balls. Their eyes were sunken into their skull, their hair thinning; their arms looked like twigs and their fingers were impossibly long. Some of them were covered in sores. One had swollen, purple legs, the skin so tight it looked like ripe fruit. He was softly moaning. It was my friend David.

I met David in 1983 at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, aka “Comstock.”  Prisoners called it “Gladiator School,” because of its propensity for violence.  I was 17 when I arrived.  I couldn’t read or write, and I had no friends and reputation.  I got into so many fights that I lost count after the fifth month there.

It was after a particularly violent encounter 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 fingernails. I had no more trouble at Comstock. But David had a history of intravenous drug use and, I suspected, continued using and sharing needles.

In 1984, I was transferred 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.  Then a few months later, David was transferred.  That’s when I heard rumors of the secret ward and went looking for him.

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

But every week from 1985 to 1987, I went there to care for David and the other men. David’s condition worsened, and ultimately, he was transferred to St. Agnes Hospital in White Plains, where he died.

The reason I am here today is because of brothers like David — and Jamel and Mongo and Joe and Pierre and Larry — who cared for me, corrected me, encouraged me, nudged me along the way. I went looking for David in that ward, because men like him had saved me, too, from being broken.