Personal Perspective: Keep It to Yourself
It's tough having HIV in jail. It's not the place you want to be if you're sick. I spent eight months in there and it was really hard.
When I arrived, I met another inmate who told me how to protect myself. She said, "If you're HIV-positive, keep it to yourself." She told me not to tell anyone, not even the doctors. I asked her why and she said, "You'll live longer." That really scared me. Then she said, "You won't be singled out and you'll feel safe eating your food." I think she was telling me her own story. I decided to listen to her.
When I went to see the doctor I found out what she meant. There was a line of inmates waiting outside of the doctor's office, but there was nothing to protect their privacy. No door, nothing! You could hear everything they said. And when someone came out, everybody looked at them and knew their business.
So when the doctor asked me if I was HIV-positive, I said no. And when he asked if I wanted an HIV test I said no again because I didn't want to have to be called back and have everyone hear my business. If you got tested and the test came back positive, they wouldn't even give you counseling to handle the news. One inmate tried to hang herself when she found out she had HIV because she just couldn't take it. I became friends with her and told her I was HIV-positive and that everything was going to be okay. I told her people are living a lot longer than they used to and that she was going to get through it.
I knew people who told the doctors they were HIV-positive as soon as they got there. But a lot of them had to wait weeks or months to get their meds. The doctor would just give them antibiotics until the meds came. And a lot of times it wasn't even the right meds. They would just have to keep waiting and praying they would get the right meds soon. While they were waiting, if they wanted to see the doctor they had to put their name on a list and the list would get posted on the wall so everyone could see. They would put "I.D." next to the names of people with HIV, which stands for "infectious disease." So the whole jail would know you had something.
Sometimes the correctional officers (COs) were the worst. You really didn't want them to find out! Especially if they didn't like you. They would tell everybody about your business and people would treat you differently. jump you. You would have to stay on the other side of the prison to try to stay safe or they would try to beat you. One time, I saw an inmate who was HIV-positive get beat really bad by a CO because she accidentally touched him. He beat her and kicked her in the stomach even after she was on the floor. He kept screaming at her, "Don't ever touch me, you monster!" It was horrible.
That's why I didn't tell any of the doctors I was HIV-positive the eight months I was there. And because I didn't tell them, I didn't get any meds that whole time. It was only when I got really sick that they found out. At first, they thought I had TB and they kept me in a room away from the other inmates until they got back the test results. When I was negative for TB, the doctor asked me point blank, "Are you HIV positive?" And then I said yes. The doctor asked me, "Why didn't you say anything when you got here? Why did you wait so long?" I told him the truth. I was scared of being labeled and I was scared of what could happen to me if I told them. I ended up getting an AIDS diagnosis because I waited so long.
It's tougher being in jail than out on the street. The doctors are so unprofessional. If people start trouble with you, you can't get away. You just have to take it. And the people who are supposed to help you and protect you are the worst. Things really need to change. They need to respect us and take care of us because we're human beings just like everyone else. It shouldn't matter that we're in jail.
This article was provided by ACRIA and GMHC. It is a part of the publication Achieve. Visit ACRIA's website and GMHC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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