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AIDS Victims Turn to Religion

March 22, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ It took a double whammy for Pedro Pena to find God: He was charged with murder, and he developed full-blown AIDS.

``But now I’m happy, I feel free,″ says the 28-year-old Dominican immigrant, sitting on his bed under a barred prison window and fingering a Bible.

``I know they can put me in jail forever, but they can’t take away my glory, which comes from God.″

On this raw winter day, the window frames a sliver of gray sky. Rain is pouring on Rikers Island. Here, about 18,000 people ringed by the East River and barbed wire await trial for crimes committed in New York City.

At the North Infirmary Command, which houses the men’s AIDS ward, Pena and a handful of others feel another presence: God.

Each Saturday morning, Donald Williams from the Times Square Church _ which ministers to thousands each Sunday in a theater on Broadway _ comes to teach them the Scriptures.

``I was an alcoholic, but the church helped me,″ Williams says. ``And now, it makes me feel good to help other people.″

To reach them, Williams must walk through a series of sliding iron gates that lock behind him, past metal detectors and sign-ins, before getting his final security pass. At the end of a long corridor that reeks of disinfectant, Pena and others with AIDS are eating lunch at plastic-toptables.

Pushing a last forkful of food into his mouth, Howard Grimsley stands up, an intravenous line attached to his neck. He’s ready for an AIDS-related treatment.

``I can identify with this church. Just its name tells me everything _ about how rough Times Square can be,″ says the skinny 44-year-old. ``They’re real.″

Once a straight-A student in a family of nine children on Staten Island, Grimsley ran away from home after run-ins with drugs and alcohol. In 1973 came the first arrest, followed by decades of drug and robbery charges.

Jailed now for a parole violation, he considers it ``a blessing I ended up here, because I got more involved with religion.″

Pena agrees: ``You cannot compare my life today to my life before. Before, I was healthy, now I have the virus. But I didn’t have Jesus in my heart then. I was always worried.″

Pena was arrested in 1993 in Boston. Two men had been shot in Brooklyn, and one survived to name him as the killer. The survivor was a former Dominican police officer responsible for Pena’s arrest in a string of robberies and stabbings in the Dominican Republic, which Pena left in 1992.

At Rikers, the tall, dark-haired Pena sleeps side by side with other sick men, separated only by 4-foot-high partitions. Time passes slowly. Some men pace; others chat or rest.

``I’m not afraid to be in jail forever, I just don’t want to lie,″ says Pena, who was newly baptized last year and fears going to trial because ``you lie. And I don’t want to lie. I want to tell the truth so I can go to heaven.″

But there’s a dilemma: ``If you tell the truth, they give you the maximum.″

As it is, he may be a dead man walking. ``Mr. Pena was supposed to die 18 months ago,″ Brooklyn prosecutor Kyle Reeves said in a telephone interview, citing a doctor’s prognosis.

Pena is undergoing court-ordered tests to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial. He has been at Rikers since 1994, except for several months when he was hospitalized for AIDS-related pneumonia and tuberculosis. His 1995 trial date was canceled because he was ill.

Now, sitting on a cheap blue blanket on his mattress, he writes letters to old friends from his Dominican village. ``I tell them, `Take my example, I was a violent person. You see the consequences.‴

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