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“Over a Hundred Different People Used This Needle:” Michael Yantsos Describes Drug Use and AIDS in Prison

Michael Yantsos contracted AIDS through intravenous drug use while in prison in 1983. Yantsos was one of thousands who became infected before information about the disease or adequate treatment was available. As a result, Yantsos, like most Americans, knew next to nothing about the disease when AIDS struck during the early 1980’s. Many associated the disease with gay men, who were its first victims, but the epidemic soon spread to other populations – first to intravenous drug users, and then to heterosexuals. Reagan era cuts in drug treatment programs and the “war” on drugs that pushed thousands of addicts into prison also contributed to the disease’s spread.

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JOSEPH: Mike, when did you first learn that you had AIDS?

YANTSOS: In 1983. June of 1983.

JOSEPH: How old were you at that time?

YANTSOS: I was, let’s see, twenty-nine or twenty-eight years old. Twenty-eight I believe.

JOSEPH: Under what circumstances did you learn that you had this?

YANTSOS: I was doing a six-year sentence in Greenhaven Prison in the state of New York.

JOSEPH: On a burglary charge?

YANTSOS: Yes. On a second-degree burglary charge. I was given a three to six year sentence. Before I even got to state prison in Greenhaven I was on Riker’s Island in the city jail awaiting the outcome of the court case. Whether I would go to trial or plead guilty to a negotiated plea of some certain amount of time. Which I did. Anyway, I was on Riker’s Island for perhaps eight months. What they call “laying up” for a trial. Waiting for a trial. Waiting for the outcome of your court case. And I had a job there. I was captain of a house gang, which entailed feeding the other inmates, distributing food, cleaning up the tier. There were four of us on this house gang. And because we worked on this house gang, we were given certain privileges. We could use the phone a little more. We didn’t have to lock in at certain designated times like the other inmates, because we would be cleaning up. And we literally had a lot more freedom than the other inmates due to this position we had. And we could get around to various other tiers of the jail. And the fact that we could traffic in contraband was the main fringe benefit of having this job.

JOSEPH: Could you go into that a little more?

YANTSOS: Yes. Narcotics in jail is the most valuable thing in a prison. Everybody wants narcotics in jail. Most people incarcerated in the city prison system, the city corrections system, are in there for one form of narcotic use or another. There’s a constant moving of contraband and narcotics through the prison system. There are more than 11,000 people on Riker’s Island. So there’s a constant flow of contraband.

Well, I had this job. One thing that’s at a premium in prison is a hypodermic needle. You may have one hypodermic needle per tier, for thirty men. And sometimes it’s even less than that. Sometimes it’s like — between two tiers there might be one guy who had a hypodermic needle.

One time I had a hypodermic needle. And, unfortunately as it is now, I would let anybody use this needle who would give me narcotics in return for the use of my hypodermic syringe.

And being that I had all this movement and people come off visits, they would constantly be asking me, “Mike, let me get the spike. Let me get the needle. You know, I got something for you.” So I would being my needle over to the cell. And I would stand outside the cell. He would hook up the shot, he would get off and he would put something in the cooker for me. I would get off. I would be high. I was getting high probably three times a week through renting out this needle. Three times a week for eight months. Probably over a hundred different people used this needle. This is where — and I can only make this assumption — I contracted this AIDS virus. This is where I believe I contracted this AIDS virus.

I went upstate. I wasn’t sick yet. I didn’t even know what AIDS was at the time. This was 1982. I thought it was some kind of disease that only homosexual men got and that’s — I heard very, very little about it. It was some kind of mysterious disease. And no one knew anything about it. There was no education about it.

Source: Interview by Herman Joseph September 6, 1987
Courtesy of Columbia University Oral History Collection http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/indiv/oral/