World AIDS Day Could Mean More Than Telling Prisoners to Get an HIV Test

Tim Hinkhouse
Tim Hinkhouse
Selfie by Tim Hinkhouse

As many of you have read before, this is my 27th year living with HIV, and there are no signs of me slowing down soon. Here at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution (TRCI), the medical department has HIV testing. When I was at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), working for the HIV/AIDS Awareness Program (HAAP) years ago, there were educational classes, an HIV support group, and a World AIDS Day celebration. People from the outside would come in and speak to the inmate population in attendance. We had full-time inmate staff that took care of in-house business: newsletters, office duties, research, and phone calls to the outside. This used to be a really important part of getting HIV education to the general prison population.

In September 2003, in the activities section of the prison where I worked, a man involved in drugs and gangs was killed. I can't remember how long it took the State Police to clear the area before we could go back up there again, but it was weeks. Lots of areas became off limits due to "security concerns." A limit was placed on the number of inmates allowed there at any time. This slowed down all the clubs, interfering with functions that had been previously carried out for the population.

When we were allowed into our offices to start our clubs back up, security staff put so many limitations and restrictions on us that we could maybe do a third of what we did before. My position was reduced to just a clerk who did the bare minimum to keep HAAP open and get a paycheck each month.

I was the backbone of an HIV education-based program that had no support from the administration, medical department, or even my own staff advisor. Talk about taking the wind out of my sails! I was so frustrated. I was very vocal about that, and I left the program.

Years later, I ended up here at TRCI. At some point, a HAAP program came here, and I wanted to get involved in some capacity. A woman whom I've known for years was a volunteer for HAAP at OSP and had gotten her doctorate and eventually a job working for the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC). I'll call her "Dr. S." Her intent was always to get a job in the ODOC so she could get through the barriers put on the program from the inside. I was happy to see her again. She did great work with the program at OSP, and I imagined great things here.

Back in 2010 when I was an infirmary orderly, I saw Dr. S., and she told me that she was going to hook me up with study materials on the latest HIV information so I could catch up. The materials never came, but I was still hopeful that Dr. S would come through. I was so excited at the thought that HAAP was coming here and I would be in on the ground floor to get it going.

My cellie at the time was someone I talked with about this, and I told him about the things HAAP did at OSP and how happy I was to see the good doctor after all these years. He was happy for me. In our cells, there happens to be a two-way speaker connected to the officer's station. When staff are bored, they listen to cell conversations hoping to get useful info to bust someone. A former staff member didn't like me because of my HIV and my actions that led me to prison. She would listen to me talking with my cellie, twist my words, and mess with me. She made an allegation about my words about Dr. S and reported that I was being inappropriate. When this got back to Dr. S, I was immediately reprimanded and blocked from working with other HIV-positive people through HAAP. So much for any expectations of privacy in prison.

The HAAP program still does absolutely nothing for veteran HIV-positive inmates, including providing any support for us. I did see a mention in the last prison newsletter that World AIDS Day is coming Dec. 1, and people can get an HIV test. That's it? My thought is that HIV/AIDS isn't that important to the Oregon prison system anymore -- thanks to science ensuring that it is no longer an automatic death sentence. At least Dec. 1 could mean something more than telling prisoners to get an HIV test. The acknowledgement was something.

Take a minute to remember those living with HIV and those we lost before the medicines prolonged our lives. I won't forget my brothers and sisters who are living with HIV and the ones I've lost. Your lives have meant something to me, and I carry you in my heart. Thank you for listening to me.

Stay healthy and stay safe.

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Read Tim's blog, HIV on the Inside.