Facebook Twitter



At 34, Dianna Hernandez is a thin, hollow-eyed blonde whose looks betray her 15 years of drug addiction, her criminal history and life as a Utah State Prison inmate with AIDS.

"There are good days and bad days," she says. "I don't want to take my life. I have too much to live for. But some days I cry and cry and cry."Unless the Board of Pardons grants an early release, Hernandez can look forward to months, perhaps years, in a system grappling with the difficulties of housing and treating prisoners with the deadly affliction.

For Hernandez, who says she is suffering from the weight loss, fatigue, diarrhea and lesions of AIDS-related complex, that's a frightening prospect.

"I can't get the medical department to do anything but listen to my lungs," she said. "The guards won't touch me. Some of the guards are pretty sympathetic, but they wear plastic gloves. It's panic city.

"I understand it's necessary. I'm contagious," said Hernandez, who believes she has less than two years to live. "But it makes me feel real bad."

While prison officials decline to discuss individual cases, they say regardless of the cost, adequate care is given the 11 prisoners, three of them women, with AIDS or infections of HIV, the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Advanced cases are sent to the University of Utah hospital. Four male inmates, all IV drug abusers, have died since 1986.

Indeed, state corrections officials are designing new policies to accompany this year's legislative mandate for HIV testing for Utah's 2,500 inmates.

Hernandez said she has been treated for kidney and lung disorders and uses a rinse for the thrush infection in her mouth. The 5-foot-3, 99-pound woman has cut back to a pack of cigarettes a day.

Weeks of cell changes seem to have ended. She sleeps and bathes in the infirmary these days and joins the rest of the women in common areas and at mealtime.

But that isn't good enough for Hernandez's father and sister, who cannot understand why she was sent to prison in her condition and considering her apparent progress in kicking drugs.

"It's a sad situation," said her father, Shorty Rossborough. "She's been a problem child, let's face it. But for the first time in close to 20 years, I've actually been able to look her in the face and see clear eyes.

"I'm not putting the blame on anybody, or excusing her for what she's done in the past," he said. "But I think she's in the wrong place right now."

Hernandez was committed March 14 after pleading guilty to third-degree theft, a charge that came on the heels of other offenses related to the drug abuse that began with pills at age 15.

Married at 16, she started using heroin after her first daughter was born and was soon divorced. A second marriage produced another daughter. Hernandez said she shook off her heroin addiction in 1979, only to take up cocaine.

She swears she kicked drugs last November, with the help of a counselor and a January marriage to a man also looking to escape the drug world.

"Everything was working out great for me. I was married, I was happy," she said. But somehow she rationalized taking $270 from a burglary she maintains her eldest daughter committed, and she got caught.

Her sister, Kelly Baer, is caring for Hernandez's 8-year-old daughter. Baer recalls the years of addiction and crime and short-lived attempts to kick the habit.

"When she was straight and would do something, she'd put her whole heart into it and do her best," Baer said. "When she's not straight, you don't want nothing to do with her."

She said in the months before she was imprisoned, Hernandez and her husband, Tony, gave the child a good home before Tony was also jailed on a prior drug offense. Hernandez also helped care for her mother, enfeebled by a series of strokes.

"She's been trying real hard to stay off drugs," Baer said. "I'll support her as long as she stays clean. If I could go down there and take her out today, I would. We need her at home."

Danny Quintana, a Salt Lake attorney who handles civil matters for some 700 inmates and has worked with Hernandez, believes the Board of Pardons will order an immediate release after a hearing on June 28.

Board member Victoria Palacios has said that in such cases, the panel must be convinced that an inmate wouldn't go back to the needle or to prostitution.

Hernandez, who attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and Bible study classes, said her prison caseworker, counselor, outside physician and family members have written letters to the board on her behalf.

For Rossborough, the solution is simple.

"I think she ought to be allowed to live out her life with her family," he said. "She's punished enough by having AIDS. That's a death sentence."