You can’t tell by looking at someone whether he or she is living with HIV. That is, unless you catch a glimpse of a man who’s living with HIV in the state of Alabama’s prison system.
There are over 200 male prisoners living with HIV in Alabama. The Alabama Department of Corrections requires each of them to wear a white armband at all times, making their health status obvious to other inmates, prison staff, and visitors. The practice is a huge affront to prisoners’ privacy and confidentiality, and it’s one of several forms of discrimination against prisoners living with HIV that we’re fighting to stop in the Henderson v. Thomascase, currently on trial in federal court in Montgomery. As we’ve said before, public health authorities have been explaining since the 1980s that routine physical contact does not transmit HIV.
Louis Henderson, the lead named plaintiff in this case, testified a few days ago about how it makes him feel to be required to wear the white armband:
Just like you put a tag on cattle or something like that. It’s branding me. Everywhere I go, you know, it sticks out. It’s letting people know what I have without me even telling them.
Later, Mr. Henderson gave further testimony about why it upsets him to be constantly, involuntarily identified as HIV-positive:
Well, first of all, it’s my business, you know. And I chose to put it out there when I signed on to … this lawsuit, you know, because … today I am comfortable with who I am and what I’m dealing with. HIV doesn’t define me. It doesn’t define me as a person. But I still should have that right to be able to disclose this to whoever I want …
He went on to explain that the armband policy and its public trumpeting of HIV status have especially harsh effects on those prisoners who have not yet disclosed their HIV diagnoses to their families. Another plaintiff, Jim Douglas, also testified about how frustrating it feels to have to wear the armband all the time, even while he’s sleeping.
Because they are required to always wear them, Mr. Henderson, Mr. Douglas, and fellow plaintiff Jeffery Beyer all wore white armbands while they were on the stand as witnesses in this case. The symbolism was extremely powerful. Although armbands are just one facet of Alabama’s systematic discrimination against prisoners living with HIV, they vividly illustrate how Alabama’s discriminatory practices perpetuate stigma and impose additional punishment on prisoners who happen to have HIV.