Francine Rodriguez reaches for the sky
The women of Bedford Hills
maximum-security prison in New York state get to wear one
article of clothing that is their own. When I meet Francine
Rodriguez, 29, in the office of the prison's ACE (AIDS Counseling
and Education) program, she is wearing a silk shirt with her
state-issued olive-drab pants. A ringlet of her perfectly coiffed
hair falls over her right eye.
It's Mrs. Rodriguez to you. She married the love of her
life -- and codefendant -- Anthony Rodriguez, in 1994, seven years
after testing positive. The pair was charged with assault after
beating a man she says attacked her first. The incident occurred in
the same Brooklyn park where she had first met Anthony three months
before. Home for him is now 45 minutes away, where he's serving a
longer sentence in Otisville. "At least we know where each other
is," she says.
A serodiverse relationship can be tough enough, but imagine when
the walls between you have barbed wire. "We write all the time, and
we get to call each other once every six months," she says, "on our
anniversary in June and for the December holidays." They get 20
minutes on the phone.
She points to two large boxes on the mail cart. "That's pamphlets
and stuff for him," she says. "He's doing AIDS education now, too."
Rodriguez says that Anthony was the first person (not excluding her
family) not to reject her upon finding out she had HIV. But Anthony
just seemed like a special case, the one person who could love her,
virus and all. It was only after she went to prison and joined the
ACE program, that she found others who would not reject her. Then
At first, I was afraid to come to the ACE office," she recalls.
"I was still in denial. But I thought I had every symptom I'd ever
heard of." Rodriguez confided in fellow inmate Kathy Boudin, whose
trailblazing AIDS activism behind the walls had become legendary.
Boudin urged her to get involved in ACE.
You get the sense that when Rodriguez commits to something, she
holds on for dear life. She joined ACE this past February as an HIV
wallflower, silent and shy. But soon she put out feelers and, after
a few months, had launched a prison newsletter on AIDS and women's
health. ACE News is now a sophisticated, sisterly forum for
women behind bars to discuss AIDS treatment, resources and stigma.
Rodriguez's editorials have put her in the limelight: She is often
stopped in the hall for advice or encouragement.
"I also work in the mess hall part-time as an assistant cook,"
she says. Asked if having their dinner made by one of the most out
HIV positive women at Bedford Hills has caused any problems with
inmates, Rodriguez raises her chin and says: "Just once. It was
count time in the mess hall. I was sitting with Karen Ely, whom I
call Mom. This loudmouth across the room points at me and says
something about an 'AIDS-infected bitch.'" That, Rodriguez decided,
would not do.
"I gave my glasses to Mom and said, 'I have to hit this girl.' I
had to. So I marched over there and hit her. Then I said, 'I don't
have AIDS. I have HIV.'" The other inmates, recognizing an underdog,
readily cheered her on; afterward even the guards supported her.
Once Rodriguez came out about her serostatus, getting adequate
antiretroviral treatments wasn't a problem, but the side effects
were. "I was on Viracept for six months," she says. "I was right out
of The Exorcist, a mess. Then I noticed wasting in my legs,
and I was getting the stomach thing, too. I got off it. Now I'm on a
hydroxyurea combination. No side effects."
Like many women in the ACE program, Rodriguez worries about life
after prison. She has found not only a self but a community behind
bars, so she naturally fears the future: "I think about going home,
and it scares me. I'm up for parole in 2000 but it probably won't
happen. Too soon."
One thing she does look forward to on the outside is skydiving.
At night in her cell, she thinks about jumping out of an airplane
and flying. "It's total freedom," she says. "I can't wait."