Science  /  First Person

I Survived Prison During The AIDS Epidemic. Here’s What It Taught Me About Coronavirus

COVID-19 isn’t an automatic death sentence, but the fear, vilification and isolation are the same.

As a harm reduction technician for an HIV/AIDS organization, I work with a lot of people at risk for COVID-19, including those who are homeless. I’m seeing some of the same magicalized and panicked responses to this virus that I witnessed when I was in prison at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

In the early 1980s, the New York State prison system was overcome by a strange phenomenon. All around me, guys began to experience sudden weight loss, sores in their mouth, a persistent cough, opportunistic diseases and other inexplicable problems. Rumors of “that gay disease” (its official name was “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” or GRID) were popping up on the local and even national news, but no one knew what was going on. It would take years for the medical profession to isolate and properly understand the HIV virus.

As for us, we were just prisoners: suspicious and superstitious. All we knew was that this new thing was a death sentence. During those years, the fear among inmates and staff alike was palpable. We behaved accordingly, by shying away from the problem, vilifying it and discriminating against it, as if any of that could eradicate it.

Coronavirus does not mean death every time, and it is transmitted differently. But the incarcerated people I’m talking to have that same fear that they can’t escape it. Just as they did with HIV, guys are panicking and giving the virus magical qualities like that it can be transmitted over the phone. The prison system too is employing the same tactics: isolate the people with the illness, don’t truly address it.

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, openly gay and transgender inmates were the first to be targeted. They were routinely assaulted by inmates and staff. Anyone with a persistent cough was next—their cells were torched and they were chased out of general population. Those suspected of having “The Monster” were sequestered in the infirmary, in deplorable conditions.

Gone was the unity forged by the Attica riot of the previous decade.

Each guy had a theory, a system, a strategy for combating AIDS. It was a government conspiracy, some said. A mouth full of raw garlic will keep it at bay, claimed others. We must get rid of the infected, most agreed.

One day, I was standing in the yard when a young kid walked up to Jessica, a transgender inmate. He sprayed her with a liquid, lit a match, and threatened to set her on fire if she didn’t “sign in” (which means request to be placed in solitary confinement).

That night, Jessica did indeed sign into protective custody. The kid who chased her out of the population was later diagnosed seropositive himself and committed suicide. The year was 1982.

Rumors about who had the virus only proliferated. When it was reported the disease have originated in Haiti, all Haitian inmates came under suspicion. Many hid their national identity, ashamed of it and afraid of being targeted. Old Man Joe, a Haitian and a fixture in the prison scene, had been ...