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Inmates in Nation's Largest Prison for Women Shooting Heroin with Potentially Tainted Needles


September-October 1997

In Chowchilla prison in central California, inmates are shooting heroin with used syringes stolen from the prison infirmary, where the needles are often used to treat HIV/AIDS infected patients (Mark Arax, "Doing Time and Drugs, in Chowchilla," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), September 4, 1997, p. A1).

The prison is 35 miles northwest of Fresno and 100 miles east of San Jose. Half of the 3,500 inmates in Chowchilla, the nation's largest women's prison, are incarcerated for drug crimes or thefts related to their drug addictions.

Chowchilla warden Teena Farmon said, "Just like the federal government has had a problem stopping drugs from coming over the border, I've had trouble keeping drugs from crossing my border." Many drug users say they depend on the flow of drugs to numb the effects of prison life. To shoot the dope, inmates use dirty syringes stolen from medical waste bags from the prison infirmary where AIDS patients are treated. A released inmate said that the inmate janitors do not throw the needles away; they steal them and sell them to inmates for $50 to $100 a piece. Farmon said that the allegations of needle theft have not been investigated.

AIDS counselors and prison watch dog groups estimate that at least 150 Chowchilla women may be infected with HIV, many having contracted it inside the prison. "The women know these needles are dirty, and they're trying to clean them with prison bleach. But the bleach is powdered and cut with detergents. It's not strong enough to kill the virus that lives in the barrel of the needle," according to Janine Biagi, a former inmate at Chowchilla.

Inmates at Chowchilla have started a peer counseling program to help educate inmates about drug use and AIDS infection. The program, which operates in seven California prisons, has been credited for encouraging at least 500 inmates to get tested for HIV since January. State officials have agreed to spend $250,000 to fund on-site HIV staff coordinators at Chowchilla and four other prisons.

California State Senator Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) is sponsoring a bill intended to curb drug abuse at correctional facilities like Chowchilla. The bill would create "community correctional facilities" outside prison walls, which would be managed by private firms or public agencies, for nonviolent female addicts. They would provide better drug treatment than that available in prisons, and would separate nonviolent addicts from violent inmates (Editorial, "Hooked Behind Stone Walls," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), September 10, 1997, p. A10).

California State Senator Richard Polanco - State Capitol, Room 2032, Sacramento, CA 95814, Tel: (916) 445-3456.