I was diagnosed with HIV in 1992, just after I’d turned 18. I’d been having unprotected sex, and sharing needles because I had no way to get my own. A couple of years earlier, the first legal syringe service program in the country had opened in Tacoma, Washington, in response to the HIV epidemic. It was about 30 miles from me, but no one told me.
Learning my status filled me with a hopelessness I had not known before. I thought I was going to die. I tried to find help, but I had nothing and no one. For a little while a local AIDS task force gave me a place to stay and what passed as counseling, always from some patronizing jerk who seemed to have their life together. I self-medicated my fear with methamphetamine, which I’d been using for about five years. Within a few months, I found myself in a Washington county jail.
I requested medical services, and received one trip to a hospital where I was told I was not eligible for any medications. A therapist I’d been seeing before I was arrested visited twice and brought me books, but they stopped letting her in.
I was considered a public health hazard. Jail authorities worried I’d get into a fight and transmit the virus to others, and so it was decided that I should be placed in segregation. A nice, clean word.
The world became eight feet by 10 feet. There were two bunks and a desk bolted to the cinderblock walls and a stool bolted to the floor. The toilet was directly opposite the door, which had a narrow window so the guards could look in. The other three cells in the segregation pod were empty. I had one hour each day to shower and use the phone. I took long showers; there was no one to call.
Decades later, the same “poisoned-body myth” would be turned toward people who use fentanyl—that it’s dangerous to touch them or breathe the same air, even if they need help.
The guards who brought my meals would make me move to the back of the cell, turn around and kneel down by the toilet with my hands behind my head. I’d hear the door open and my tray slide across the cell, its contents sloshing onto the floor, and the door slam shut. When finished I’d put the tray and utensils by the door, and they’d be retrieved through the same process they’d been delivered.
At some point, the guards started dressing in plastic face shields, paper gowns and thick rubber gloves. Decades later, the same “poisoned-body myth” applied to people with HIV would be turned toward people who use fentanyl—that it’s dangerous to touch them or even breathe the same air, and so they should be kept at a distance, even if they need help. Though 30 years have passed since my time in that jail, the sight of guards wearing COVID PPE still brings me back to those days.
As isolation and withdrawal stretched on, reality came in and out of focus. The guards in their medical spacesuits, their faces distorted behind the plastic shields, made me more and more paranoid until one day I kept my utensils. To resist, to retain some form of dignity, to control some part of my life myself.
My possession of plastic utensils past mealtime was an unacceptable security threat. When guards ordered me to the back of the cell, I refused. Eventually they opened the door and entered.
They broke no bones, but I was bruised from head to toe. I was taken to an emergency clinic where I received stitches on my head, and, to my surprise, some advocacy against the way I’d been treated. I was then charged with three felony counts of custodial assault, and boarded to a state prison.
This time I never came out of the cell, not even to shower.
I believe this was done in anticipation of a guilty finding, but the excuse I heard from the officials who transported me was the jail was not equipped to handle me. At the new prison, I was immediately placed into the Intensive Management Unit. Another euphemism.
The IMU cell was two feet longer than the last one, and the guards could still see the toilet from the door but only if they leaned in close to look. The door was electronic, operated from an external booth. The bed was a cement slab with no mattress. There was a window, but it had been painted over white on the outside. Weak sunlight filtered in.
This time I never came out of the cell, not even to shower. I would hear other prisoners screaming, door slamming constantly. I was seen by a doctor who said my heart rate was far too high, likely due to my drug use. He prescribed Klonopin. No one else came to see me after that.
It was Christmastime. Some guards tossed a candy bar and a small bag of cookies into my cell. I later learned that this is a holiday custom in some prisons, but at the time I thought it was a trick. I didn’t touch it.
I wrote a letter to my mother telling her how sorry I was. That it was not her fault I’d been such a screwup, that I should have listened to her. I took a month’s supply of Klonopin and closed my eyes.
It was fortunate that I did not understand how the IMU operated. I hadn’t known that counts were conducted at specific times, and that I’d taken the pills shortly before one of them. I was taken to triage and had my stomach pumped. I do not consider this a success on the Department of Corrections’ part, just an incidental feature of the IMU that happened to save my life.
At the height of the epidemic, 46 of the country’s 51 prison systems had HIV segregation policies.
Eventually, I went to court where the custodial assault charges were dismissed. I didn’t feel like I was receiving good news. What had been done to me was already done. I was released with no referrals to services of any kind, as if my attempt at suicide had never happened, as if they weren’t aware of my HIV status or substance use or any other reason I might require treatment or care. Once I could no longer be punished for assaulting a guard, they had no interest in me.
This, to me, was the point. Had they given me any referrals, they would have in some way had to acknowledge that I was leaving their custody in gravely worse shape than I’d entered it.
The county jail never tested me for HIV. The guards learned my status because other people detained there knew and had told them, but it was also never something I hid. HIV terrified me, but it didn’t offend me. What offended me was their decision to isolate me, to humiliate me, to be so uncomfortable with the idea of me that it wasn’t safe to go anywhere near me, unless I was being beaten. I couldn’t articulate that back then.
At the height of the HIV epidemic, 46 of the country’s 51 prison systems had categorical HIV segregation policies. This figure does not include jails and prisons like the ones in this story, which needed no official policies to carry out similar practices. Though HIV segregation was in decline by the mid-1990s, it remained sanctioned until 2013, when South Carolina became the final state to abolish it.
In the early ’90s, solitary confinement in the United States was being rapidly transformed from a less common practice into what an estimated 50,000 people are subjected to today. It is a barbaric practice motivated by retaliation and fear, not a sense of public safety. It has always been wielded with prejudice. As long as it exists, it always will be.
Photograph via Nevada Department of Corrections