'I wished the ground would swallow me up': being gay and HIV+ in prison

by Pank Sethi | Blogger
Friday, 22 February 2019 11:28 GMT

Razor wire is seen on the walls as Prison officers protest over violence and safety concerns outside Leicester Prison, Britain September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Staples

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Britain's prisons are failing their gay inmates by allowing homophobic bullying

Pank Sethi is a photographer. He was jailed for three and a half years for being concerned in the supply of drugs in 2017

“I refuse to leave here anything less than I was when I came in” was the very first statement I made and my response to an officer stating, “Don’t worry…you all break in the end.”

This became my daily mantra.

Although I never hid my sexuality, my HIV status was another matter. It is the most personal thing that I can tell anyone about myself, so when an officer asked loudly enough for everyone to hear “how long have you been HIV+?” I wished the ground would swallow me up.

Everything changed; prisoners kept their distance; there were whispers and snide comments.

It was times like these that made being in prison tough and lonely.

It was made lonelier every time I had a visit from family. To see my mother and father look terrified each time made me realise what I had subjected them to through my own irresponsible actions was something I would always be ashamed of. When they walked away, my heart broke. Outwardly I never gave reason to suspect I was anything other than OK, but the truth was I wanted to scream after them not to leave me behind.

I was only at HMP Thameside for two months before being transferred to HMP Isis. Here I came in to my own. I taught English and Maths GCSE, was a reading mentor and an induction mentor. I was respected by inmates, officers and governors for my politeness, fairness, nurturing and supportive outlook; and time flew by.

Then I was informed that there had been talk on other wings and threats of violence towards me because I was HIV+ and working in the kitchens at the weekend handling food.

The only person that knew this was a Samaritans listener – an individual whose entire role is based on confidentiality.

Asked whether I wanted to be transferred to another prison, I refused point blank. No one would intimidate me, nor would I be scared by the threat of violence. No one would make me leave being anything less than I was when I came in.

Instead, I talked to them, educated them and as a result, gained their respect and support.

I left HMP Isis with a sense of achievement but with a sense that homophobia and bigotry towards those with HIV was clearly a cause for major concern within the prison system.

So, when at HMP Springhill my HIV status became public knowledge within three days of arriving, I was devastated. It didn't matter that I was good at my job, or that I was helpful in so many ways to many inmates, I was the guy who was asked in the dining hall in front of peers and officers, “Do you have AIDS?”

And who as a result sat alone at lunch or dinner

Yet, there was never any support from the prison or its staff when approached and told that I was being bullied. There was no memo stating that homophobia would not be tolerated. I felt very much alone, and I missed my best friend Tony who could make me feel better with a hilarious comment.

So, I stood up. I was no longer prepared to allow the prison service to ignore those that identified as gay simply because there weren't enough of them to be a threat if they stood up.

When asked to talk to a prisoner because the prison wasn't doing enough to support him. I took offence. Their attitude seemed to be “leave the gay problems to the gays”.

Duty of care exists for each prisoner, so why when it came to those who identified as gay was this ignored repeatedly?

It needs to change, so in the seven months since I was released, I have conducted workshops in prisons where I have educated inmates regarding homophobia and the stigma that is still attached to HIV and about testing for blood borne viruses.

The statistics speak for themselves. An increase in the number of prisoners voluntarily submitting to testing, the support for telling my own story, the change in attitude towards gay prisoners have shown this can be achieved when the prison service takes LGBT+ issues seriously rather than ignoring them.

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