As of 2004, 1 percent of the inmates in Virginia prisons were known to be HIV positive. That’s around eight times the rate of HIV cases in the total state population according to the most recent reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that’s only the cases we know of. The risky behaviors that landed these folks in prison as well as the illegal tattooing, injection drug use and sexual activity that occur in prison all contribute to the high incidence of HIV in the incarcerated population, and yet, Virginia prisons do not routinely test for HIV either on an inmate’s entry or release. Tests are only provided when known incidents trigger exchange of bodily fluids (such as during an altercation or sexual assault) and when an inmate requests a test. But many don’t request a test, or they do get tested, but then don’t reveal their HIV status to the prisons all because they fear the stigma associated with the disease, says Kathy Baker, executive director of the AIDS/ HIV Services Group (ASG).
Kathy Baker and Bruce Taylor, executive director and testing program director, respectively, of the AIDS/HIV Services Group, want the state to mandate routine HIV testing at correctional facilities to combat the disproportionate spread of the virus among incarcerated persons.
“There should be a state policy that if someone is incarcerated, they should be tested. There is just too much that can happen in correctional situations that can promote the spread of HIV,” says Baker.
The situation is even worse at Virginia’s regional jails, many of which don’t offer testing at all or have to charge a fee for tests, says Baker. ASG worked long and hard, she says, to get into the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail to provide free testing, which it does on site every two weeks.
“We are lucky that we have a jail that works well with us and works well with our HIV-infected people that go in there,” says Bruce Taylor, ASG testing program director. “That’s not the case around the state.”
And the state’s general “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy means many inmates don’t receive the medication and education they need to control the disease and prevent its spread to fellow inmates, prison staff or the community upon their release.
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