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Louisiana Is ‘Ground Zero’ for HIV, Incarceration Crises, Report Says

Kanya D’Almeida

Both of these epidemics disproportionately harm Black people, who account for 70 percent of new HIV infections in Louisiana and 66 percent of the state’s prisoners.

Thousands of prisoners in Louisiana’s county jails are routinely denied access to HIV testing and treatment, with five of the state’s 104 jails offering regular tests to inmates upon entry, according to a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.

The same people who are at the highest risk of HIV—people of color, sex workers, and low-income communities, for instance—face disproportionate incarceration rates in Louisiana, meaning that low-income people of color, and especially Black people, are bearing the lion’s share of the burden of inadequate HIV care in county jails, called “parish” jails in Louisiana.

Louisiana has the nation’s second highest rate of new HIV infections, and the country’s third highest rate of adults and adolescents living with AIDS, according to the report. The state has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, locking up an estimated 847 people per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 478 prisoners per 100,000 people. On any given day, there are roughly 30,000 people in Louisiana’s parish jails, contributing to an incarceration rate that is 150 percent of the national average.

Many of those whose treatment has been interrupted while in jail were arrested for minor, non-violent crimes, per HRW.

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Both of these epidemics disproportionately harm Black people, who account for 70 percent of new HIV infections in Louisiana (compared to 24 percent for white people), and 66 percent of the state’s prisoners—even though Black people account for 32 percent of Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents.

“This is not a coincidence,” Megan McLemore, a senior researcher at HRW and author of the report, told Rewire. “The history of the state of Louisiana has been, to say the least, disturbing in relation to African Americans.”

HRW interviewed more than 100 people for the report, from formerly incarcerated people to medical staff in parish jails to HIV service providers. What they found was a pattern of rights violations, including the failure of most parish jails to comply with recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all inmates be tested for HIV upon entry at a corrections facility.

Jail officials reportedly told HRW that they avoid testing because they can’t afford to treat those who test positive: a course of medication for a single patient can fall in the range of $23,000-$50,000 per year. But the HRW report claims that failing to conduct proper testing, interrupting patients’ treatment plans, and neglecting to provide linkages to treatment centers for people leaving jails could end up costing the state much more in the long run.

Strict adherence to antiretroviral medication regimes has been found to greatly enhance successful management of HIV, the report said, by strengthening a person’s immune system and decreasing the amount of virus in the body, thereby reducing the risk of transmission. By denying inmates access to their medications, Louisiana’s parish jails are contributing to an already grave epidemic: the state is home to more than 20,272 people living with HIV, with half of them diagnosed with AIDS, according to the report.

Jail officials’ behavior heightens the stigma around HIV, advocates said. McLemore told Rewire that Louisiana’s inmate population represents some of the country’s most vulnerable and heavily policed communities.

“These are people who are already stigmatized—add HIV, and the situation becomes almost unbearable. So when jail officials intentionally avoid or neglect testing and treatment, they are not only adding to that stigma, they are actually being discriminatory,” McLemore said, adding that some caseworkers claimed their HIV-positive clients avoided disclosing their status to jail staff because they had no assurance that it would guarantee care.

Darren Stanley, a case manager at the Philadelphia Center in Shreveport, told HRW that half his clients have spent time in jail, and the majority of them are denied their medications on the inside. One of his clients, who spent three weeks in the Caddo Parish Prison in 2013, paid the ultimate price.

“I tried to get in touch with him but he was very sick without his medications,” Stanley told HRW. “He died of AIDS two weeks after he got out.”

A formerly incarcerated woman named Joyce Tosten who spoke to HRW claimed parish jail officers informed her that she would need to have her mother deliver any necessary HIV medications to the jail. But she couldn’t call her mother because she didn’t have phone privileges at the time. Other sources alleged that even when family or friends brought medications to the jail, they were never delivered.

The problem does not stop at incarceration. According to HRW, “release from parish jail is often a haphazard process consisting of whatever is left of their medication package, a list of local HIV clinics, or nothing at all.”

The report includes a series of recommendations such as setting aside adequate funding for HIV testing and care, training jail staff on effective treatment and management options, and strengthening links with local care providers and community-based centers for returning citizens.

Deon Haywood, executive director of Women With A Vision (WWAV), a New Orleans-based grassroots health collective responding to the HIV epidemic in communities of color, told Rewire that HRW’s recommendations were “spot on.”

“They speak to the conditions we have seen in the community for the past 26 years,” she said. “Through my work at WWAV and other New Orleans agencies, I’ve witnessed the failure of incarceration to better the community. We urge Louisiana to invest in education rather than criminalization, and shift the state’s resources and policies towards solutions that address the systematic inequalities that poor communities of color face on a daily basis.”

HRW’s report adds to a list of woes that Louisiana residents confront on a daily basis. The state recently ranked last on a nationwide index measuring social justice issues like poverty and racial disparities.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect Louisiana’s correct incarceration rate.

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