“People speak sometimes about the ‘bestial’ cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to beasts. No animal could ever be so cruel as a man—so artfully, so artistically cruel.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
There are few people in this world who know the pain of being ostracized from the ostracized. It’s that special kind of hurt that lets a person know that they’re not even welcome in the company of outcasts and burnouts. These lonely few are reminded with numbing consistency that they are not welcome—that they are tainted. Currently, there are 2.4 million men and women languishing in America’s vast network of prisons and jails, while 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV. Both of these populations are beholden to the debilitating prejudices that accompany their situations, but there is an especially unfortunate group of 18,000 who find themselves in the undesirable overlap between these two segments of society. Even in a day and age when HIV has progressed from an incurable disease to a chronic medical condition, the stigma and guilt often associated with being positive is a tremendous burden to bear. Add to that a lengthy prison sentence coupled with all of the societal roadblocks that come with it and it’s a miracle that any of these men and women can successfully rejoin the community upon their release.
Enter the state of Alabama. Within its borders lies a muggy haze cast off from the inequities of its bigoted past. The only times you’ll see of the Heart of Dixie in American history textbooks is in reference to events many Alabamans would rather not remember. From Jim Crow and the Tuskegee Experiments to George Wallace and the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, the history of Alabama is a seemingly never-ending document of man’s capacity to hate. As a state, they have gone kicking and screaming into modernity and this reticence to slough off the prejudices of the past has not been lost with The Montgomery Bus Boycotts and Brown vs The Board of Education.
Now, Alabama is embroiled in a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union over the treatment of the 250 HIV positive men and women currently residing in the state’s prisons. In the spirit of their inglorious past, Alabama has taken liberally from centuries of racist, bigoted and discriminatory policy in their treatment of HIV positive prisoners. When HIV first broke out in the 1980s, prevailing wisdom had it that people who contracted the disease should be quarantined for the safety of the rest of the population. After all, in the first few years, we really knew next to nothing about the disease or how it was transmitted. As a result, in 1985, 46 out of 51 federal or state prison systems had policies in place to keep the HIV+ prisoners segregated from the rest of the population. However, as time passed and we began to understand the disease, public health officials realized that segregating HIV+ individuals was not an effective way of preventing transmission and that it caused far more harm than good. As a result, by 1994, only 6 of the 51 federal and state prison systems had policies that enforced segregation of HIV+ prisoners. Today, only 2 segregationist states remain: one of them is South Carolina and the other is Alabama.
Of the 29 prisons in the Alabama Department of Corrections, only 2 of them are allowed to take in HIV positive prisoners. The positive men go to one prison and the positive women go to another, where they are placed in isolation from the rest of the prisoners behind a chain link fence. In their own mini-prison, the HIV+ inmates are essentially left to rot. The majority of the educational and psychiatric services made available to their peers are not provided for them. They get no work-release eligibility nor can they join a variety of self-help groups in the prison. They just sit there and, for good measure, they do so while wearing a white armband to signify to everyone in the prison that they are living with HIV.
The first image that popped into my head when I read about the armbands was that of a German or Polish Jew, walking through the ghettos of 1930s Europe with a Star of David affixed to his bicep to alert everyone they passed of their semitic heritage. But, I don’t think that’s quite right. Anti-semitism is based on an issue of genetics and of blood as well as religion. Jews are Jews because it is what they were born as, same as any other ethnic group. People living with HIV, for the most part, were not born with the virus. They contracted it. And it is through this contraction that the stigma originates. If HIV were contracted primarily through the ingestion of tainted food or some other benign mode of transmission, there would be no stigma associated with HIV. Lymphoma and Sickle-Cell Anemia are both conditions that cause immunodeficiency and there isn’t prejudice against suffers of either of those diseases. HIV is transmitted through sex. It is transmitted through vaginal sex and anal sex and oral sex. It is transmitted through intravenous drug use. HIV spreads through activities that are already considered immoral or off-limits to a large percentage of the country.
What the state of Alabama is doing is playing off of the Puritan tradition that has been a blight upon our nation since we landed at Plymouth Rock. They are branding these HIV+ men and women with the scarlet letter brought to prominence by John Winthrop, popularized by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and invoked by every zealous prick to cast judgement down on others in the name of “morality” and Christ. Alabama’s policies towards HIV+ prisoners have jack all to do with public health and everything to do with chastising and shaming. This is a purposeful proliferation of misinformation and fear by a state government who thrives on the potential ignorance of its constituents. In defending their policies, the Alabama Department of Corrections actually had the myopic nerve to claim that their treatment of HIV positive inmates was, “separate but equal.”
If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about this, I don’t know what will.
Thanks to James Ridgeway and Mother Jones for background info used in this article: