HIV-infected prisoners live new life behind the bars

In 2004, Feihe Prison in Anhui Province became one of the first in China to designate separate wards for HIV-infected prisoners and offer them medical care.

Xiao Yu (pseudonym), 30, was sentenced to prison for 15 years for drug trafficking in November 2016. Infected with HIV, he was sure his life behind bars would end very soon.

Xiao was suffering from HIV symptoms such as a constant high fever and diarrhea when he was sent to Feihe Prison in Anhui Province.

In 2004, the prison became one of the first in China to designate separate wards for HIV-infected prisoners and offer them medical care.

"My days are numbered. It's meaningless having treatment inside because 15 years is too long for me. I would rather die," said Xiao, who was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS long before he was detained.

Unlike Xiao Yu, a lot of prisoners were not even aware they had HIV until they were jailed. After hearing the diagnosis, many would give up treatment for two reasons. First, it is painful to receive antiviral treatment. Second, many prisoners do not believe they can outlive their prison terms, according to Guo Tao, a doctor who has been working at the prison for 14 years.

"I tried several ways to refuse physical examination in the cell. There were several times I even spit out the medicine I was given," said Xiao.

To persuade Xiao to change his attitude, the prison police officer had many talks with him. In one such talk, they noticed that the young man showed great interest in dance and singing.

Born into a small village in northeast China, Xiao displayed a gift for dancing at a young age and was admitted to a famous dance academy in Beijing after high school. He was even invited to a Singaporean art school as a one-year exchange student for his excellent performance at college.

"Would you like to join the art troupe?" an officer asked. He was referring to the "red ribbon art troupe," which the prison established to better help patients with rehabilitation.

The invitation gave Xiao a sense of hope, and it was since then he decided to begin receiving medical treatment.

On the eve of World AIDS Day 2018, Xiao stepped on stage and performed a self-choreographed dance with more than a dozen inmates. He called the dance "rebirth," a token of his life in the prison.

"I was moved to tears when I saw their dance. They paid the price by losing their freedom. We didn't give up on them, and they didn't give up on themselves," said Guo.

"Prisoners are also members of society. They come from society and some will return to it sooner or later. They should have the right to life and health as everybody else," said Wang Guochun, warden of the prison.

According to China's law, prisons should set up necessary medical institutions to ensure the sanitation and health of prisoners.

At present, 133 HIV-infected prisoners are serving their sentences like Xiao in Feihe Prison. More than 500 prisoners with HIV have been incarcerated in this prison since 2004, among which many have come out healthy and well.

"We have cooperated with several hospitals in the province to conduct telemedicine so that the patients can get timely treatment," said Wang.

"More and more members are joining the troupe. The number of members has risen from 12 to 29, and we have given over 10 performances so far," said Xiao, who is now the leader of the troupe.

"We are working on a new song to celebrate this year's World AIDS Day," he said. "It's called 'metamorphosis.'"

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