The death of Isidro Aviles
By Mark Harrison, TNC contributing writer
Teresa Aviles may never learn what finally killed her son
while in custody of the Bureau of Prisons. Why was medical treatment
denied for months until her first-born child was unable to walk,
speak or eat? Moreover, as a black man, why was he identified
as 'white' on his death certificate? Was it Isidro's body the
coroner examined or that of another? Teresa was even forbidden
to speak with the Mayo Clinic physician who knew why her son
was dying. Errant laws and rogue conduct resulted in the shameful
conviction, the negligent incarceration and the untimely death
of this mother's son.
Isidro Aviles was
sentenced to 27 years for a crack-cocaine conspiracy on the basis
of $52 and the bargained testimony of a long-time criminal. The
most incriminating evidence in the crack-conspiracy charge was
lacking -- the crack.
The cruel odds of racial prosecution were against Isidro from
the start. Black males are ten times more likely to be arrested
than whites. From 1985 to1995 the incarceration rate of black
men increased ten times over that of white men. Isidro was arrested
in 1990 and Teresa remembers the man who implicated her 26-year-old
son and109 others - including some "kids from the projects"--in
the drug conspiracy. He was a bully who had been in and out of
prison since Teresa was in high school. He lured young people
into selling drugs for him and got rough when they were slow
to pay. When he was arrested about a decade ago, he was given
an 'opportunity' to reduce his sentence by providing the names
of other members of the "conspiracy."
Isidro Aviles was given about 45 minutes to accept the plea bargain
offered -- the time it takes to drive from the US Attorney's
office to the court house in New York. If he pled guilty, then
his mother and sister wouldn't go to jail. That was the deal!
Teresa was told by Isidro's court appointed attorney that the
plea hearing was rescheduled from Monday to Tuesday. But Isidro
told his mother he hadn't heard about the date change when she
visited him in jail. Suspicious, Teresa showed up on Monday as
originally scheduled and somehow wasn't as shocked to see Isidro
and his attorney at the hearing as the attorney was to see Teresa.
She approached Isidro and begged him not to sign the plea agreement.
A FBI agent told her to be seated or she was going to jail, too.
She believed him since her son had been arrested just for having
Isidro had served about eight years in prison when Teresa received
an anonymous call on May 18, 1998 from a woman who said Isidro
was sick and not receiving medical attention at the Low Security
Correctional Institute in White Deer, Pennsylvania. Isidro had
collapsed in the shower - unconscious. Other prisoners cared
for him for ten days before he received any medical attention.
He needed assistance to walk to the restroom and had stopped
eating and speaking. Teresa was advised to confront the "big
shots" about why her son was denied medical care. When she
called the prison, she was told that Isidro was "fine."
"I knew this was a lie because, with 1,400 inmates in the
institution, there was no way for them to know that one man was
'fine' in such a short time." An investigation at the prison
ensued, but not about Isidro's healthrather, about
who was talking to Isidro's mother.
The following day Teresa traveled from her home in New York City
to Pennsylvania to visit Isidro. She was denied a visit after
the long journey and simply told that Isidro was fine and was
being taken to a local hospital for testing.
For six months Teresa had been warning prison officials about
disturbing physical and mental deterioration that she noted in
Isidro in phone conversations, from photographs and prison visits.
He was constantly blinking, and the whites of his eyes were red
with blood vessels. The last Mothers Day card he sent looked
like an elderly person had written it--"kind of shaky looking."
He didn't want to eat because other inmates "did things"
to the food. His skin became pale and ashy and his curly hair
went straight. He began saying things that didn't make sense.
And as Isidro's health continued to decline, prison officials
repeatedly rebuffed Teresa by saying he was fine.
Two days back in New York, Teresa received word from the anonymous
caller. Isidro had been moved from the prison and was finally
in the care of a physician. But where? Numerous calls to the
prison to ascertain the whereabouts and condition of Isidro were
stonewalled. For three weeks she was put on hold for long periods
of time before being disconnected or told no one was available
to speak with her. She wrote letters to prison officials, television
and radio stations, later to BOP Director Katherine Hawk and
then President Clinton. Finally she received a message that Isidro
was in the Federal Medical Center, Minnesota. He was very sick,
but with rest and medication he would be fine. At a time when
Isidro needed his family the most, Teresa wonders why her son
was sent further away, rather than closer, to those who love
When Teresa arrived at the hospital, Isidro was near death and
surrounded by guards. "They acted like he was going to get
up at any moment and bolt from the room," she said. Mayo
Clinic doctors were in attendance, but the guards explicitly
forbade her to speak with them. A prison doctor--who was never
available and wouldn't respond to phone calls--would provide
all the medical details that Teresa would ever need to know about
her son. She followed the guards' orders until the second day
when, in desperation, she questioned the Mayo physician. He held
her hand and spoke words that she'll never forget.
Aviles, your son is dying. He is dying, and the process has already
started."Prison officials had told her that Isidro had AIDS.
She cried, "How can he be dying of AIDS so quickly?"
The Mayo physician was incredulous. "AIDS? What made you
think AIDS?" AIDS was the reason of death confirmed on the
death certificate of the "white male." The guards interrupted
and threatened to remove Teresa from the hospital if she dared
to speak with the physician again. Miles away from home, all
alone, Teresa returned to her hotel room in shock and fell apart
Without eating or sleeping she walked back and forth from the
bedside of Isidro to the hospital chapel to pray. After three
days she decided to return to work in New York and pay for his
burial. "After kissing my son goodbye one last time, I ran
from the room blinded with tears, barely able to breathe."
From New York she called several times a day to check on Isidro
and remembers speaking with "the most mean-spirited people
on the planet." But on July 13, 1998 a prison official called
and gave her new reason for hope. Maybe her many prayers had
been answered. With less than a year to live, Isidro qualified
for the compassionate release program. He was alive and coming
home. Teresa was overjoyed with the thought of caring for her
son before he died. She immediately called members of the family
asking for prayers that Isidro would live long enough to enjoy
his final days with those who love him. Twenty minutes passed
and there was another phone call. She heard from a prison official
what she thought must be part of a cruel joke: "Isidro passed
away this morning." The phone fell from her hands and she
"I promised on the first day he was born that I would always
love him and be there for him. But when he needed me the most,
I was nowhere around. I was miles away as he lay dying, sick,
afraid, unable to speak or to care for himself; no one to sponge
his fevered forehead, unable to ask for a sip of cool waterand
all alone. This pain was nothing like the pain that I experienced
during birth. It was ten million times worse and I still feel
Teresa is there for Isidro still, just as she promised him so
many years ago. And she is there for other sons and mothers and
daughters and fathers whose lives have been shattered by the
drug war. At rallies and vigils she carries a poster that reads,
"This is how my son went to prison, and this is how he came
out." The poster has a photo of Isidro in his casket.
She organized and leads the Annual Isidro Aviles Memorial Chapter
of the November Coalition there are picnics in the summer and
the Children's Christmas Party in December. Teresa corresponds
with several prisoners and helps families with drug war prisoners
with letter writing and phone calls. Teresa is the grandmother
of Isidro's three girls, 15, 11 and 9, who grew up without their
father and have now lost him forever. Isidro Aviles is no longer
with us, but his spirit is kept alive through the work of his
mother in behalf of hundreds of thousands who have fallen victim
to this cruel war against our own people.