In the mid-’90s at Washington State Penitentiary, a corrections officer (CO) and I had been yelling at each other for a while until eventually he ordered me back to my cell. When he called me back out to go see the sergeant, the CO in the security booth at the end of the hall buzzed open the electronic sliding door, then shut it in my face each time I tried to go through. After the third time, I turned to the glass he was sitting behind and spat on it.
The booth was completely sealed—I couldn’t even see him, it’s all one-way glass—but he started yelling about how I’d just tried to give him AIDS. Over the intercom, so everyone across three tiers could hear him.
At the hearing a few days later, I was promptly found guilty, which meant I lost all the good time I’d had on my sentence at that point. I wasn’t sent to the hole, and years later I got the good time back anyway, but what angered me was knowing I only got infracted because they knew I have HIV. The CO knew writing me up for assault would never stick. He also knew my reputation in prison wouldn’t necessarily suffer if my record showed I’d assaulted a cop, but that it’s a different story if it shows you tried to give someone AIDS.
Everyone already knew my HIV status. But aside from the fact that that’s not common in prison, it didn’t mean I wanted that information disclosed on a state document. Over and over again, the right to medical privacy always seemed to vanish when it came to living with HIV.
In late October, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Transgender Law Center and the ACLU of Tennessee filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Tennessee on behalf of four women convicted under its “aggravated prostitution” statute. The lawsuit, OUTMemphis v. Lee, is the first to challenge a state’s HIV criminalization law as a violation of the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Act protects people from discrimination on the basis of their HIV status, and the fact that Tennessee uses HIV status to put people on a lifelong sex offender registry is discrimination to an obscene degree.