SACRAMENTO — Amid new figures showing a near doubling in the last year of AIDS cases in California prisons, officials of the Department of Corrections vowed Monday to move quickly to open a second AIDS ward--at the California Institution for Men in Chino.
Dr. Nadim Khoury, the prison system's chief medical officer, told lawmakers at a legislative hearing that there are now 154 inmates in the prison system who have been diagnosed with AIDS or AIDS-related complex or who have tested positive for exposure to the deadly virus. That represents an 88% increase over the 82 cases reported by prison authorities last October.
Khoury and other officials noted that the increase in prison AIDS cases is slightly less than what has been observed in the population at large and that it is believed that most of the affected inmates contracted the virus while outside the prison.
Almost all of those diagnosed are segregated at the state's only AIDS prison ward in Vacaville. However, the ward is at capacity and department officials said they decided to establish a second ward in Chino that could hold as many as 180 additional AIDS patients.
Khoury told reporters after the hearing that the new AIDS ward will be completed by the end of this month or in early December at the latest. But he warned that creating a second ward is little more than a stop-gap effort since the number of AIDS victims in California prisons is expected to nearly double again by the end of next year--taxing the new facility beyond its capacity.
"All along we said that most probably our AIDS population would be doubled by (the end of) this year," Khoury said. "Most probably it will (double) again because that is what the statistics outside are showing."
The new AIDS ward in Chino will be located in a 400-bed unit that now houses 1,440 parole violators temporarily being held there before transfer to prisons elsewhere in the state. Officials said they chose Chino because it has its own accredited hospital and because the prison's design makes it relatively simple to isolate AIDS victims from the rest of the inmate population.
Nonetheless, the proposal has already raised some questions. Democratic Sen. Ruben Ayala, whose Chino district includes the prison, called Monday for an environmental study prior to opening of the AIDS ward to be sure that the public is adequately protected.
"We have to assume our responsibility and be able to house these people, we can't turn them loose," Ayala said. "But it should not be at the expense of the community."
Although the numbers of AIDS victims in prisons is still relatively low, there is concern among some officials that these AIDS wards will eventually balloon well beyond current expectations.
In fact, prison officials have no idea how widespread the problem may be since state law bars mandatory AIDS tests.
Legislation to allow such testing stalled earlier this year in the Senate. But the measure--which would require tests on all new inmates and give prison authorities discretion to require tests for current inmates--is expected to be reheard after the Legislature convenes Jan. 4.
James Rowland, director of the Department of Corrections, estimated that if widespread testing were allowed, 3%-5% of the state's prison population would be shown to have been exposed to the AIDS virus. That would mean a total of 2,000 to 3,400 prisoners who, under corrections policy now, would have to be isolated from other inmates.
'A Horrid Problem'
Sen. Robert Presley (D--Riverside), who chairs the Legislature's Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations, called Rowland's projections "horrendous," adding, "I don't know how we can avoid having a horrid problem on our hands in a few years."
Others, including Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Hawthorne), a member of the joint prison committee, predicted that the Department of Corrections eventually will be forced to build "California's first AIDS prison."
However, Khoury and other prison officials insisted that they have no intention of recommending construction of a separate AIDS prison--particularly at a time when the state is facing strong community opposition to any new prison project.