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“Every Two Or Three Weeks Someone Would Die:” Michael Yantsos on Protesting AIDS Treatment in Prison

As the severity of the AIDS epidemic increased during the mid-1980s, the inadequacy of AIDS education and treatment came under assault from activists, many of whom were themselves infected with the disease. Michael Yantsos, who became infected with AIDS in prison in 1983, was one of those who spoke out when conditions at Rikers Island Prison Hospital in New York City became unbearable. In 1986, as prisoners were dying at the rate of one every two weeks from AIDS, Yantsos and his fellow inmates went on hunger strike to publicize the unsanitary conditions in the prisonís AIDS ward, which included leaks, rodents, insects, and inadequate food and medical attention. The prisonersí efforts succeeding in publicizing the issue and winning some reforms in the wardís conditions.

Listen to Audio:

YANTSOS: As a matter of fact, the day after I was arrested—this is in February of '86—I was admitted to Bellevue the following day. I was very sick. And I was in Bellevue for about eleven days. And after I got out of Bellevue, I was brought back to jail, but instead of being brought to the general population I was brought to Riker’s Island hospital. And when I got to Riker’s Island Hospital, there were seven other AIDS patients on a tier. The tier being thirteen cells. And with three metal tables in front of the cells, black and white TV. That being the ward—cold, damp. Ceilings leaking, rain coming in. I was given paper sheets to sleep on. Very, very depressing. Very. Unbelievably depressing. While I was there, new people would come in. A person would die—once every two or three weeks, someone would die.

The inmates did not want to go to the emergency rooms even though they were very sick, because they had to sit in the emergency rooms for sometimes up to twenty hours before they were finally admitted to the hospital. It was a big production going from Riker’s Island Hospital to the regular emergency room hospital in Bellevue or King’s County. The inmates used to have to—were handcuffed, put in a special van—to go up to the hospital, made to wait in that special part of the emergency room away from everybody. They were laying on, usually you would lay on a stretcher in the hallway, like I said, up to twenty hours. It was exhausting.

And just the trip would worsen their condition more than it was. And a lot of the inmates felt that if they just lay in their cell under blankets, they would probably get better than the trip to the hospital. So if a person didn’t have pneumonia, he didn’t want to go. That’s why you had so many people up on the Riker’s Island ward that were bedridden. Other inmates would have to help them to the toilet, have to help them sit up, have to bring them to the showers and actually have to wash them. Other inmates had to do this. Other AIDS patients up there had to do this. The medical personnel at Riker’s Island Hospital would not do this under any circumstances. As a matter of fact, the policy was if a person couldn’t get up out of the bed for the medication and come to the front gate, he didn’t get his medication. So this was—these were all the grievances in the first strike we had there at Riker’s Island. It was a lot of hardship people were going through. And people were dying on account of this hardship. It seemed like nobody would listen to us, nobody would pay attention to us, that nobody cared, we were at the bottom of a totem pole that nobody even wanted to look at.

There was absolutely no pain medication given to anybody on that ward. These people had rare forms of cancer, these people had rare forms of tuberculosis. They had toxispomosis, which is a disease that attacks the nervous system and the brain. And it’s unbearable pain. These people went through unbearable pain. All kinds of infections in their esophagus. Trouble with their breathing. The most pain medication that we seen was two Tylenols or two aspirins. There were no protein drinks. There was a regular prison diet that the rest of the population ate. There was no extra food. There was a lot of suffering up there. Lots of suffering.

The plaster on the wall was very old, there were cracks in the wall. The water used to come in any time it rained for more than one day at a time. The water used to come right in. You would have to mop up the tiers. You would have to keep a mop and a mop bucket on the tier to keep mopping up the water. You had a large—and still do—a large rodent population with hundreds of mice up there that actually run wild during the night. You have roaches and giant water bugs. These are very unsanitary conditions, very, very, unsanitary conditions.

And the wind would come in off the river and it would be a bone chilling wind. It would be very cold. And the windows—there were no seals in the windows. So that the wind would just naturally go through like there were no windows at all. And so you’d want to keep turning the heater on. Then it would become too hot. And you would want to turn it off. Like I said—back and forth, back and forth. And the weak would die. That’s what would happen. Because of that the weak would die.

You know what, it just, I think I myself must have said “I had enough of this. I’m not going for it anymore.” It was after a good friend of mine had died up there. He didn’t die actually on the tier, but he died three hours after they took him to the hospital. And I liked this guy a lot. And it was very distressing to me. And I knew that if he was taken care of better at the time, he would have had a better chance of living longer.

And as this population increased, I said to a few of the inmates up there that we couldn’t go on like this. That we would all have to so something, we would have to focus some of the attention on our situation here, on our plight here. And they said, “How are we going to do that” and I said "We would go on a hunger strike. And we would call various news agencies, and broadcasting agencies. And see if we can get some publicity on this situation to some who change our plight.

JOSEPH: How did you get the news people involved?

YANTSOS: Well, what happened was—it was the funniest thing I ever saw. First of all, to get these—I believe what we call the strikers—like sixteen people up there on both sides. Everybody was willing and eager to along with the strike. This is how horrible the conditions we were under there. And we called the strike, but in order for an incident to be written, a correctional incident to be written, a strike has to go on three days before it becomes an incident. You just can’t miss a meal and they write it up, you know, you didn’t eat. You have to go three days. Se we went for three days. A lot of the people were in very weakened states. And we also struck the medication that they were giving us which amounted to nothing anyway.

We called a couple of newspapers. We called the Daily News, the New York Times, We called a couple of television stations at the time. Each prisoner was able to have a phone call for seven minutes at a time each day. But when they saw that we were calling all these news agencies, they turned the phone off on us so we couldn’t have any type of outside contact. But we managed to get through to a couple of agencies.

And the Daily News sent a reporter up, Miss Marry Ann Orenberg (?) came up with a photographer. And they let these people up there. I was the spokesman for everybody on the ward at the time. I went in and described the conditions like I’ve described on this tape. They let these people come on to the tiers. The woman was visibly upset when she saw the conditions we were living under. And she wrote an article in May of '86 which said as much. And after that, the warden, deputy Warden Pollard came up and said that we would be given linen, we would be given clothes for the indigent, we would be given a better diet or more of the same rather. Not a better diet but more of the same diet.

After this first strike, we did get some results. Not a lot, but more of—they tried to pacify us to keep us out of the newspapers. Because at the time AIDS was a hot topic within New York City, and still is. So they wanted to keep that ward out of the newspapers in New York. So they gave us a Band-Aid, so to speak. They gave us a double portion of food, they gave us minor things. They gave us liquid protein drinks, but instead of three times a day like they were prescribed, they only gave them one time a day. They still didn’t give us any pain medication. And it was only a couple of months later that we had the second strike, which I would say was a major strike.

Source: Interview by Herman Joseph September 6, 1987
Courtesy of Columbia University Oral History Collection