Michael Van Straaten, a 32-year-old Canadian citizen serving a life sentence for kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon, had a long history of mental and physical problems, including epileptic seizures that would occasionally cause him to lose consciousness and injure himself. He also had HIV and hepatitis C, both from prison tattoo needles prison sources told The Times .
For years he wrote letters to family members and prison rights activists complaining that Corcoran officials ignored his serious medical needs. Often, he wrote, medication to control his seizures and HIV were delayed and sometimes denied.
Prisoner rights and AIDS advocate Judy Greenspan waged a two-year campaign to have Van Straaten and other HIV+ prisoners transferred to the California Medical Facility at Vacaville where HIV+ prisoners would be more likely to receive proper treatment. Van Straaten's parents and friends in Canada wrote numerous letters to California prison officials requesting his transfer to Vacaville or a prison in Canada. The Canadian Embassy offered to act as a conduit.
In early December, 1998, after injuring himself during an epileptic blackout, Van Straaten was placed in ad-seg for "fighting", prison sources told The Times.
"He was left alone in his cell and that's where he was when he found out that he had been denied once again his request for transfer," Greenspan said.
According to prison records obtained by The Times , Van Straaten was taken out of ad-seg and placed in the prison's mental health crisis unit on December 4 because he was a danger to himself. He was then placed in restraints for six hours before calming down, according to prison reports. He denied any suicide fixation and was returned to "the hole" on December 8, 1998.
That night he sat down and wrote a two-page suicide note to his family, apologizing to them for the years of grief he had caused them and saying that his death would help Greenspan expose the cruel indifference shown by Corcoran officials to HIV+ prisoners, according to the official incident report.
Corcoran guard Angela Macias spotted Van Straaten hanging at 3:12 a.m. from a homemade noose, according to the incident report. Instead of sounding her emergency alarm, which would have brought an immediate response from dozens of guards, she radioed her supervisor, Sgt. John Denny.
According to Cal Terhune, state director of corrections, Corcoran graveyard shift guards had an "unwritten rule" prohibiting them from sounding emergency alarms. This unwritten policy was adopted two years earlier after a guard twisted his ankle while responding to such an alarm.
Sgt. Denny arrived a few minutes after Macias radioed him and saw Van Straaten's arms hanging limply and his blue tongue protruding, the incident report states. He notified the medical staff, radioed Lt. L.R. Peterson and waited for the lieutenant to arrive from a distant office.
For about eight minutes, Denny and two other guards watched Van Straaten dangle from the noose. Even as the lieutenant and a medical technician arrived, no one entered the cell to determine his condition.
Instead, one of the senior guards summoned video equipment from another distant office. For another eight minutes, Van Straaten was left dangling as guards calmly reviewed his prison file and began videotaping their preparations to enter the cell. Eighteen minutes had passed since Macias first saw Van Straaten hanging.
"Sgt. Denny entered Cell 46 closely followed by Officers Homerol Garza, Macias and Lt. Peterson," the incident report reads. "Lt. Peterson attempted verbal contact with [the] inmate by shouting out his name, and he did not respond. Sgt. Denny pushed against [the] inmate's left arm and his muscles were without response; however, his skin felt warm to the touch."
The standard procedure during any suicide incident is for a guard to sound an emergency alarm and wait for two backups. Then they are to administer aid as quickly as possible.
"Whether they didn't enter his cell because of fear of AIDS or absolute callous disregard for inmates, it's horrendous either way," said Greenspan, chairwoman of the HIV Committee of California Prison Focus.
"Michael should never have been at Corcoran. His death was an extreme cry for help on behalf of 230 other HIV prisoners who are housed there," said Greenspan.
Van Straaten's mother, Dora, said his death would finally release him from the "hell of Corcoran." "At least he's free from prison now, free from all the things they did to him," she said.
Source: L.A. Times
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