Op-Ed: Inmates Released from Jail With HIV/AIDS Need Specialized Support


On a chilly evening, Angel, a frail, sick man wearing nothing but a tank top to shield him from the wind, gathered just enough energy to brave his way to the nearest subway station. Angel was living with AIDS and also suffered from late-stage cancer. He barely spoke English and had just been released from Rikers Island Prison Complex, New York City’s main jail.

Angel found his way to Lutheran Hospital in Brooklyn—the only place he knew he could find help at that late hour. He struggled to tell hospital attendants what had happened.

Eventually the hospital connected with the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) at Rikers Island, which was familiar with Angel’s story.



Rikers Island contacted me, Nilda Ricard, the director of the Drop-in Center for the Fortune Society, a New York City-based prisoner re-entry agency that provides an array of services, including transitional healthcare for HIV-positive individuals coming out of jail and prison.

When I received the call from DOHMH about Angel, I jumped into action. As soon as I arrived at the hospital, I located Angel. He looked close to death. I connected with the hospital’s social worker. Together, we were able to get him admitted so he would receive the medical attention he so desperately needed.

The reunion of his family brought Angel great joy. Over time, he grew healthier, living another full year. At the time of his death, he was surrounded by family who loved and cared for him.

I also knew that he would need access to long-term care. I located a skilled nursing facility that could take him—the Highbridge Woodycrest Center in the Bronx—and made immediate plans for his transfer so that he would have access to the best medical support and services available. 

On our way to the facility, Angel pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to me. It was the phone number for the one and only close family member he had—his sister in Puerto Rico. I contacted her immediately. After learning that her beloved brother was still alive, she reached out to relatives who lived in New York.

The reunion of his family brought Angel great joy. Over time, he grew healthier, living another full year. At the time of his death, he was surrounded by family who loved and cared for him.

The harsh truth is that everyone is not as lucky as Angel. He could have died that night on the steps leading down to the subway or in his attempt to make it to Lutheran Hospital.

Every day at the Fortune Society, we meet men and women like Angel with HIV/AIDS, who are released from jail and prison and left on the streets. A majority of the time, if they are not immediately connected to services, they become disconnected from care, which results in unfilled prescriptions, missed medical appointments, and a return to behaviors that often lead back to jail.

We work with the Department of Health & Mental Health and Hygiene, the Department of Correction and our sister organizations to intervene the minute released inmates step out those doors and offer the services they need to survive—which is exactly what my work at the Fortune Society’s Drop-in Center entails.

Helping more than 3,000 individuals annually, the Fortune Society, founded more than 40 years ago, offers myriad programs and services to help formerly incarcerated men and women rebuild their lives.

In fact, the Fortune Society was one of the first organizations in the nation to recognize and address HIV/AIDS in jails and prisons. In 1990, it implemented an HIV Health Services program in response to the high rates of HIV found among the criminal justice population. Services focus on identifying HIV-positive individuals in jail and facilitating post-release linkages to essential healthcare services—including doctor referrals, counseling, HIV-specific housing, transportation, substance abuse and mental health treatment and more.

A recent grant from Kaiser Permanente, one of America’s leading healthcare providers and not-for-profit health plans, will enable Fortune Society to continue, and to connect an even greater number of formerly incarcerated individuals with the services they need to stay on track, as well as provide them with intensive long-term follow-up care. It will also support prevention education that will help reduce the likelihood of HIV transmission to others in the community.

The problem of HIV/AIDS is not going away any time soon. New York City still has some of the largest numbers of people in jail who are HIV positive, and more resources are always needed—both for services and for advocacy to change the way that the criminal justice system impacts the lives of people with HIV/AIDS.

As Fortune continues to work with this vulnerable population, we will focus not just on connecting them to appropriate healthcare and services, but do our best to ensure that they have a chance to live healthy, fulfilling lives.

Not everyone is always as lucky as Angel.

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Nilda Ricard is Director of the Drop-in Center at the Fortune Society, a nationally recognized non-profit that helps formerly incarcerated men and women re-enter their communities. Visit the Fortune Society | @thefortunesoc