December 23, 2010

December 23, 2010
Women with HIV Dying in Prison

Welcome to another day in my life. Today is Thursday and I hope you are having a safe and great Christmas week so far. Dab the AIDS Bear and I are still on the run this week.

I read a very disturbing story that I would like to share today about a woman with HIV in Broward County prison.

Betsie Gallardo may die in a Broward County prison this Christmas, her 27 year old body ravaged by stage four cancer, her family unable to take her home to Indiana to live out her final days, her life's journey ending as it began with little hope.

``She is going to die alone in some prison hospital in the state of Florida,'' said Jessica Bussert, who drove to Pembroke Pines from Indiana this week to be with her daughter.

Gallardo is serving a five year sentence in Broward Correctional Institution for biting and kicking a Collier County sheriff's deputy.

Now her family fears Gallardo will die of cancer in prison without a loved one to hold her hand or hear her final words.

How Gallardo arrived at that point is a story that begins in Cité Soleil, an impoverished and populous neighborhood of the Haitian capital, where Gallardo was born HIV positive and raised as an orphan.

Subjected to sexual abuse, neglect and starvation, Gallardo and her younger sister, Germaine, were sickly and near death when an American couple on a missionary trip from Indiana met them in 1993.

Joshua and Sharon Bussert adopted the girls, and took them home to Lafayette, Ind., raising them along with their own biological children and several other adopted children. Years later, Joshua had a sex change operation and is now Jessica.

Despite her difficult early years, with three meals a day and access to HIV inhibiting drugs that can be hard to find in Haiti, Gallardo blossomed into a 5 foot 2 inch, 116pound ballet dancer who graduated high school with her peers, Jessica Bussert said.

``The drugs she got on were miracles,'' Bussert said. ``Her T-cell count went through the roof, and her viral load went through the floor, and she got healthy.''

But after high school, Gallardo grew distant and troubled.

She bore two children, but Indiana officials removed them from her care, Bussert said.

Her marriage failed. She left Indiana for South Florida to be nearer to a half brother in Naples and a Haitian community where she hoped to belong.

``She was involved in one of the big churches down here. She was active in her faith,'' said Jessica Bussert, who along with Sharon Bussert and Germaine plan to spend Christmas at a Pompano Beach motel, waiting to take Gallardo home.

``The fact of the matter is my kid's not a perfect kid,'' Jessica Bussert said. ``But you know, if you look at her life, it is amazing that she has gotten as far as she has.''

But the criminal charges came in August 2008, when Gallardo was arrested in Naples for child neglect. She had left her boyfriend's child home alone for more than 30 minutes and driven his car into a ditch after taking Xanax, a prescription drug for anxiety.

According to the police report, Gallardo was taken to the Naples Jail, where she bit one deputy on the forearm and wrist, and kicked another in the knee as they tried to restrain her.

The child neglect charges were later dropped, but Gallardo was convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer, and resisting arrest with violence. She was sentenced to five years in prison a term that critics contend is unfair.

``She is really serving most of that five years entirely for stigma,'' said Catherine Hanssens, executive director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy, a legal advocacy group for people with HIV.

Florida courts traditionally have treated HIV-related battery cases very seriously, particularly when the victim is a law enforcement officer, said Alvin Entin, a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney.

``The key was the biting,'' said Entin, who is not familiar with Gallardo's case, ``because that is a transmission of fluids, and this officer has to basically get tested for years and even if, God forbid, one of them comes back positive, then [the officer] has a lifetime of living with it.''

Jessica Bussert agrees her daughter did a stupid thing, but argues Gallardo should not have to die in jail for those actions.

Four months after beginning her prison sentence, Gallardo was diagnosed with stage four cancer of the gall bladder in April.

Bussert said the cancer has spread to Gallardo's liver, lungs and ovaries, and that doctors have diagnosed her as incurable.

Despite the dire diagnosis, the Florida Parole Commission declined Gallardo's request for a conditional medical release in October, said Jane Tillman, a spokeswoman for the parole board.

Tillman said Thursday that the parole board may reconsider Gallardo's request on Jan. 5 if the state's Department of Corrections sends an update on the inmate's medical condition.

But Bussert doesn't think her daughter will be alive then.

Gallardo's cancer has worsened since the October hearing and she was recently diagnosed with an inoperable bowel blockage and can no longer hold down food, her mother said.

Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections, said the agency is drafting an update on Gallardo's medical condition, which she declined to discuss because of state privacy laws.

Rackleff said the medical update could take several days to complete, but that the Busserts would be allowed to visit Gallardo in the prison infirmary in the meantime -- a privilege that Jessica Bussert said had previously been denied the family after visits of 90 minutes on Tuesday and one hour on Wednesday.

``I just want to take her home,'' Bussert said, ``and let her die with her loved ones.''

You can contact your elected officials in Broward County to help. No one should have to die alone.

Until we meet again; here's wishing you health, hope, happiness and just enough.

big bear hug,

Daddy Dab