Isidro with his mother, Teresa
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 to 1995 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 and 109 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 $52.
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 health - rather, 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 him.
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.
"Mrs. 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 in private.
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 screamed, "Noooooo."
"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 water - and all alone. This pain was nothing like the pain that I experienced during birth. It was ten million times worse and I still feel it today.
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 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.
Updated - 3/1/01
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