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Where HIV and Prison Intersect

Dec. 1 marked the 25th celebration of World AIDS Day, and Feminist Wire contributor Sandy Guillaume says there is still plenty of work to do. Recalling her own experience as a prisoner, she says the treatment of HIV-positive inmates is in desperate need of reform.

The reality, however, is that HIV continues to ravage our communities, our neighborhoods, and our prisons. In the U.S., living with HIV and serving time in prison often proves a death sentence. For some, the routine, substandard treatment of prison inmates is considered acceptable because of a condemnable belief that those who break societal rules deserve limited support and services. But the lack of adequate services is another form of persecution.

As a formerly incarcerated individual, I have been privy to the inner-workings of the correctional health system and have witnessed firsthand how HIV-positive inmates are inadequately treated. HIV-positive inmates routinely function in an atmosphere of fear, violence and demoralization. They tend to be scorned by fellow inmates, institutionally segregated, and provided with a modicum of care. It is no wonder, then, that some inmates would risk their health to avoid disclosure or exposure, to avoid chattel lines mimicking as therapy sessions observed by others, to avoid health assessments conducted under the watch of a correctional officer, and to avoid being denied critical medical treatments because of bureaucratic hold-ups. These conditions exacerbate the effects of HIV and minimize opportunities for effective care and treatment, leaving HIV-positive inmates in the precarious position of deciding whether or not to address their conditions while they are “doing their time.”

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