Paul’s first interview with me was one of our most read posts ever. It’s here if you haven’t read it. Clearly his unique dedication to HIV work touched a lot of people, so I contacted him again, to see if he would expand on one of the themes we had touched on earlier. I wanted to explore his prison years, and the realities of living with HIV behind bars. So I contacted Paul again, and as before he couldn’t have been more cooperative.
I gave Paul the option of skipping any questions that made him at all uncomfortable, but he answered them all like a trooper. Here is the interview in its entirety
Bob Leahy Paul You mentioned in your last interview with PositiveLite that you had spent some time in prison and that conditions for people with HIV were not good. Are you OK talking about that?
Paul Gallegos Yes, I am.
BL Tell us in as much or as little detail as you want how you ended up in prison
PG I tried killing some FUCKING guy I HATED by shooting at him with a .45 (handgun)
BL And you were incarcerated for how long?
PG He didn't want to testify against me, so I took a deal for 2 1/2 years.
BLThis was in California?
BL You were HIV Positive at the time, correct? Do you know how you became HIV positive?
PG I was a junkie, so I would share needles with anyone. I didn't give a FUCK! I just wanted to fuckin get high. I started putting a needle in my arm at 15.
BL How did you find out you were (HIV) positive?
PG Getting ready for a big construction job, I had to take a physical and blood work.
BL What’s the process for disclosing your status in prison? Do they give you an HIV test, or ask you, or what? How do they know you’re HIV positive I guess is what I’m asking?
PG You let them know during the booking process; for some reason they don't believe you. Then you move on to a physical, blood work, and see a doctor. The doctor makes you wait for your blood work to come back before giving you any meds. It's a long process, weeks and months go by before getting your meds. Then the doctor will ask you what meds were you taking on the streets.
BL Is there any pretence of confidentiality?
PG Hell no!
BL So who knows (in the prison) that you are HIV positive and how?
PG Everybody knows, the staff makes sure that everybody knows.
BL I think you said earlier that HIV-positive prisoners are segregated from other prisoners, right?
PG They house you in a special unit. It even has another gate around it to keep you away from other inmates. Everybody knows what type of inmates are in those cells.
BL Do poz and non-poz prisoners ever meet?
PG Not always, sometimes going to medical or sometimes during yard.
BL Do people who find out that someone is poz assume they are gay or use gay insults?
PG Shit, these MOTHERFUCKERS would call us all kinds of names. No respect; it's a good thing they were in their cells when doing it. You got to say shit back, if not you can get hurt. It's not a gay disease, I get tired of that shit. HIV/AIDS doesn't always mean a person is gay, people need to get over that shit. IT'S HIV NOT GIV!
BL Do you think the guards treat you any differently when they know you are poz?
PG Fuck yeah, they are uneducated when it comes to HIV/AIDS.
BL Do they treat you any differently if you are from a particular ethnic background?
PG I don't know if I should answer this one, but some of them, if not a lot of them do. They do tend to stick together.
BL How do people with addictions to various substances cope while in prison?
PG No doctor will help with detox, so we help one another out and if there is drugs around, which there usually is, it's gonna be ok.
BL Can they in fact obtain drugs if they try?
PG Whatever you want you can get, it's like being on the streets, a lot of drugs on the inside.
BL Do they share needles?
PG Oh yeah.
BL So do people who share needles know or care about the risk involved?
PG I don't think so; you’re more worried about getting caught by a C.O.(correctional officer) and you want to get high so everything is done in a hurry.
BL Were you aware of much unsafe sex going on between inmates?
PG Yes, I've also seen some guys get raped.
BL How is this viewed by prison authorities?
PG Sex is illegal in prison, so you can get written up. Some C.O.s cared, some didn't.
Bl How is sex between two inmates viewed by other inmates?
PG When it comes to that we mind our own business.
BL How do other prisoners treat fellow inmates who are openly gay, or even suspected of being gay?
PG Gays try to stick together; some are afraid of being attacked or even raped. Some inmates will date gay inmates while locked-up.
BL Is there any way to get condoms while in prison?
PG Not at all.
BL How about tattooing? Does this go on much, and how safe is it, do you think?
PG This is something that always goes on. Not very safe, you can hold on to your own tattoo needle, but the ink is made. You always run the risk of getting Hepatitis.
BL Do people know or care about the risks involved?
PG If they know, they don't care or they just don't think about it.
BL Is there any kind of HIV education while you’re in prison?
BL What about getting treatment. First of all, how easy is it to get to see a doctor, or say a specialist in HIV in particular?
PG To see a doctor you have to send a request, which can take a while to get a response. The doctors there don't know too much about the virus. Getting treatment can take a while.
BL Can this be done without other inmates finding out what’s going on?
PG Not usually.
BL How easy is it to get your meds?
PG It's a difficult process. It took me a few months if not a little longer before I started getting any meds, even when my lawyer gave the court my meds and doctors notes. Someone dropped the ball and I think it was the state of California.
BL Are they dispensed daily or what?
PG Yes, morning and evening.
BL How often is your health monitored - quarterly or something like that?
PG Try nothing like that. If you don't put in a request you don't get seen.
BL Don’t laugh at this question, but how easy is it to practice healthy eating in prison?
PG The doctor has to request that you get an extra bag lunch and an evening snack, usually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
BL If you develop HIV complications, what happens?
PG If you’re lucky, they’ll take you to the prison hospital or if they can't do anything you'll be lucky to go to an outside hospital, although heavily guarded.
BL How bad is being in prison generally, in your experience?
PG What I experienced was not good, I was a level 3-4. So I was in my cell 23 1/2 hours a day for days at a time. It's not a place you want to spend the rest of your life.
BL Is it bad enough to keep anyone out of trouble so that they never want to go back?
PG I don't want to go back.
BL Did being in prison teach you anything about yourself?
PG Yes, it taught me how to live a life without being a badass all the time.
BL Did you have people on the outside that supported you? How often did you have visitors?
PG Yes I did. My wife and kids would come see me every weekend. My mother would also visit me.
BL Anything else you’d like to say, Paul, on the subject of being in prison with HIV?
PG There needs to be some changes done in the prison system when it comes to HIV/AIDS. When I was in prison there was a cell they called the death cell. Anyone in that cell had AIDS and was going to pass away soon. I hated walking by that cell every day, and seeing one guy there for a while and then he was gone, but there would be someone else to take his place. You die alone. Your family is not notified until you pass.
BL How is life treating you now? Tell me what’s going on in your life.
PG Life is great. I'm a very happy man today. I have a wife who loves and supports me in everything I do. I have another child on the way any day now, who will be born free of HIV. He won’t be my first born free of HIV. For many years my wife and I had unprotected sex; she is negative and so are our kids. We had a doctor who, before passing away, did some blood work on us to do a study on why my wife had not picked up the virus from me. We'ill never know, I guess, but if you know of any studies like that, please let me know.
PG Also, I want to thank everyone at PositiveLite for your support. I personally want to thank Bob Leahy for the interview and of course Brian Finch. Thank you again!
BL Thank you so much, Paul, for talking to us. And good luck with the new baby.