Kerry Thomas is serving a 30-year-sentence for allegedly failing to disclose his positive status to a sexual partner, but he hasn’t let his incarceration stop him from becoming one of the most visible anti-criminalization activists.
Thomas sits on the board of the Sero Project, a nonprofit organization fighting for freedom from HIV stigma and injustice, especially criminalization. Sero Project leaders like Sean Strub credit Thomas with helping to bring awareness to HIV criminalization.
Thomas has addressed attendees at the two HIV is Not a Crime conferences (via phone), allowed his image to be used in anti-criminalization campaign posters, served as a source for Turn It Up! Staying Strong Inside (Sero’s resource guide for those incarcerated and living with HIV or hepatitis), and has spoken with the media numerous times.
Sero recruited Thomas in keeping with their mission to give those most impacted by these laws a seat at the table. Thomas experiences the intersections inherent in being an HIV-positive black Muslim man living in a low population/low incidence state — who has been prosecuted, convicted, and now incarcerated.
Thomas is the most recent person sentenced under Idaho’s HIV disclosure laws, but he was also the first. Initially convicted in the late 1980s, Thomas traces his current activism to his lack of it in his 20s.
“I think I should have been more vocal,” he reflects. “I could have done a better job of speaking out for myself in 1988 when I was first diagnosed. At the time I believed that if I kept my head down, don’t make waves, everything would be alright. Then I came face to face with HIV criminalization and my illusion of anonymity was literally stripped away. I was branded a threat to society.”
He was eventually paroled, but that conviction has haunted his life, and impacted his current sentence (the judge gave him the max because of his record).
“I believe I must do something, anything, to prevent this from happening to someone else’s son, father, friend. [So], every morning, around five o’clock, I swing my feet off my bunk, stand up and get moving.”
Sero says Thomas helps keep the group “institutionally grounded in the realities of living with HIV. It is always sobering to hear his voice on the phone or to read his letters or email.”
Thomas says he is honored to be working with “motivated, get-out-of-bed-and-work-hard people.”
At one of his first board meetings, Thomas says, “I realized that everyone on the call was HIV-positive. I actually had to put my phone on mute for a moment to regain my emotional composure.”
Although his initial appeal was recently denied, Thomas remains remarkably positive. He publically shares his appreciation for the Idaho correctional administration — which has allowed him to continue his activism outside, with Sero, and inside the prison, as a peer educator. Along with Black and Pink, a national prison outreach group, and a few other inmates, Thomas is helping develop a “peer advocacy group focusing on resources men can use once we are released from prison. Housing, employment, medical care — encouragement and hope.”
He finds parallels with work he did volunteering at Allies Linked for the Prevention of HIV & AIDS, in Boise.
“Young people would come in seeking answers,” he recalls. “It is similar in this prison community. Medical care is outsourced to a private for-profit company and as a result education and preventative care has taken a back seat. Not to mention the stigma in prison of having conversations regarding sex, STDs, infections from needles. I don’t have all the answers but I’m fortunate to have resources in the community.... And together we’ve been able develop an effective network of resources.”
One of the hardest parts of being incarcerated is how it disrupts relationships with those outside. “How do I keep my family together?” the father and proud grandfather muses. “Man it is hard. Next to impossible. Maintaining family relationships is not an institutional priority. So I am blessed to have people in my life, namely my wife, son, and daughter-in-law, that at times work harder than I do to keep in contact. It is important to me that my family knows I love them, care about them — to know that I hear them, and that I am doing everything I can to get home. ”
Looking into the future, Thomas is adamant, “the senseless singling out and defining people by their HIV staus has to end. And I’m willing to do my part to see that happens.” l