Hazardous to your Health

Mark Olmsted
4 min readAug 12, 2021
From “Ink from the Pen: A Prison Memoir”

I was personally exposed in a harrowing way to medical paranoia and conspiracy theories around HIV in 2004, during my 9-month stint in prison. Among white inmates, the dominant fear was getting AIDS; among black inmates, there was a general confidence that it was a gay disease, and therefore exclusive to white people. (Most were unconvinced there were any gay black men — and certainly not in prison.) At the same time, almost to a man, these same inmates believed the original intention in the creation of AIDS was to kill black people. The cognitive dissonance was blaring, but it was useless to even try to correct these fact-free beliefs, black or white.

The internet was seriously taking off when I was in prison, and since then things have gotten worse as the web has gotten more gargantuan. In my opinion, the epidemic of irrationality reflects an increasingly intense need to assert control in a world that seems to be spinning faster and faster. The future has arrived with a vengeance before our brains could possibly evolve to think at a level necessary to fend off profound disorientation.

This turn toward tribalism reflects a need to break down the mountain of digital stimulus that overwhelms practically everyone. The most overwhelmed — the monolingual, untraveled, and undereducated — double down on simple narratives they can digest, mostly reformulated regurgitations of what they’ve always believed. They can’t understand how an RNA-based vaccine works, so they just refuse to trust it. (Better than feeling stupid because you can’t grasp the science.)

As if they need to understand the science. All they need to understand is the math.

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Hazardous to Your Health

Spanky, the white shotcaller here, called a meeting of the Woods in the day room. Once we crowded in, he proceeded to read from a newspaper article which he claimed had appeared in a recent issue of the L.A. Times. It concerned a recent study attesting to the presence of antibodies to HIV in saliva. I’m pretty certain that the topic of the article was not HIV transmissibility, but rather how oral HIV tests work. Far be it for me, however, to get in the path of an ignorance train barreling full speed down the tracks.

Mark Olmsted

Author, "Ink from the Pen: A Prison Memoir" about my time behind bars. See GQ dot com “Curious Cons of the Man Who Wouldn’t Die” for story of how I got there.