AIDS inmate's prison gave him will to live

In a Shanghai prison where inmates normally receive "orientation" before being sent to prisons, a special ward was created last year to house male lawbreakers who are HIV-positive.
Dong Jun / SHINE

The twin towers of Global Harbor mall in Putuo District illuminated with the Red Ribbon logos last night to show solidarity and mark World AIDS Day today. 

In a Shanghai prison where inmates normally receive “orientation” before being sent to prisons according to the severity of their crimes, a special ward was created last year to house male lawbreakers who are HIV-positive.

It’s part of national efforts to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS in China, which will be observing World AIDS Day today along with the rest of the world.

According to official data, China has about 718,270 people living with HIV/AIDS. As of June 30, 221,628 people have died of the virus.

China’s central government spent 4.6 billion yuan (US$695 million) on HIV/AIDS control and treatment in 2016. 

Shanghai alone has 19,524 HIV cases including 6,465 AIDS patients since the city reported its first HIV/AIDS case in 1987.

One of them is Lu Tao, an inmate in the special prison ward. He was convicted of murder and received a suspended death sentence in 2008. The sentence was later reduced.

“It’s odd to say this, but this prison is home to me,” said Lu. “Not just as a place to be but also as a place that hasn’t given up on me.”

Lu smashed a man with a hammer and hid his body under a bed after a drunken brawl one night. He went to prison carrying a secret. He had contracted the HIV virus in 2000 after homosexual sex.

“I didn’t tell anyone, not even my family,” Lu said of the disease. “Imagine a gay who is HIV-positive in a rural area of Shanghai! People would shun me.”

Mao Bingbing, the warden of the HIV ward, said Lu was a desperate man who wouldn’t talk and wanted to die when he came to the prison.

“At that time, being HIV-positive was a kind of death penalty,” Lu said. 

He had received no treatment for HIV before entering prison, said Hu Shuiqing, one of 20 officers on the ward.

“To cure his body, we first needed to give him heart,” said Hu.

Hu and his team encouraged Lu to open up. They conveyed messages to him from his family and had doctors examine him.

“They held my hands and told me not to be afraid of who I was,” Lu said of the team. “They told me to look to the future. They taught me hope.”

Lu began taking antiretroviral drugs for HIV in 2012. Because of his improved attitude and good behavior, his sentence was shortened twice since his incarceration.

“I may have led an unfortunate life, but I’m fortunate enough to have the chance for salvation,” Lu said. 

Han Mengjie, with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in September that up to 30 percent of HIV/AIDS patients are either unaware of their infection or have not reported it.

That was the case with inmate Zhou Hui, who didn’t know he had the virus until he went to prison following a fraud conviction. The diagnosis gave him a nervous breakdown. 

“I needed money for drugs,” he said of his crime. “I must have caught the virus from a needle I shared with others.”

Before his foray into crime, Zhou was a successful e-commerce businessman.

“It was the golden age of e-commerce,” he said. “I was living the kind of high life I had always dreamed about. The drugs ruined everything.”

Warden Mao said most HIV-positive inmates simply want to give up on life. The goal of the ward is to help them rebuild their lives.

However, reintegration is not easy among those who are rehabilitated and released from prison after serving their sentences. “We must tackle discrimination to end this vicious cycle,” said Hu.

Prejudice stalks prison staff as well as inmates. “There needs to be a lot of public education outside the prison to change attitudes about HIV and AIDS.”

To that end, Hu said he plans to recruit volunteers to give public seminars on HIV/AIDS outside of prison. In prison and in conjunction with Shanghai Open University, inmates are offered the chance to take diploma courses.

Next year, Zhou will be released. He said he wants to open an online store with his family so that he can spend more time with them. 

“I have missed out on a lot because of my stupidity,” he said, “but it is not too late to make up for it.”

 Note: Names of inmates have been altered to protect privacy.


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