2014: HIV, black men, and the new prison pipeline

–Lisa Fager Bediako and Michael Hinson

Most people know about World AIDS Day but are likely unaware of over twelve annual population-specific HIV/AIDS awareness days including February 7th — National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD).  HIV/AIDS, once considered a “gay white man” disease, is still consistently on the rise in black American communities across the US.  To acknowledge NBHAAD we share a message of inspired advocacy and express growing frustration with the stagnant and sometimes backwards thinking associated with “our” collective response to HIV prevention in black communities. Improvements in HIV treatment over the last 30 years have transformed HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable, chronic condition.

Today’s HIV/AIDS medications together with traditional prevention strategies like proper condom use make transmitting HIV almost impossible.  Yet, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports “of all racial/ethnic groups in the US, blacks have the highest HIV burden and higher proportions of new infections and deaths.”

The HIV disparity among black adds to a crowded field of social and health disparities including a growing incarceration disparity.  According to the NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet; African Americans are incarcerated nearly six times more than whites.  By 2001, 1 in 6 black men had been incarcerated. If this trend continues, one in three black males will be imprisoned during his lifetime. Notably, the CDC also projects nearly one in three Black gay men are HIV-positive. Young black men have the highest rate of HIV infection and even after 30 years this rate continues to increase. Another troubling trend recently appearing in national and local media stories is HIV criminalization. Currently, 33 states and two territories have laws criminalizing HIV and we’ve seen how criminalizing behavior works for us– think drug addiction and sagging pants –NOT.

With states encouraging criminalization, HIV has increasingly become a new prison pipeline for young black males.  Recently the headlines have been plastered with sensationalized stories about a 22-year old college student, a preacher and a policeman, all living with HIV and charged for not disclosing their status to sexual partners.  This carries a felony charge and sex offender status.

In these cases, remember these were all consensual partners who had a choice.  If these consensual partners didn’t know their status but had sex with these same people they would not face charges.

Why hasn’t the burden to protect oneself also been placed on casual and consensual sex partners?  What messages are we sending to people, particularly our young people about personal responsibility? What is the impact on black communities when despite the absence of transmission felony prison time can still result from engaging in casual sex and not sharing ones HIV status?   Taking antiretroviral medication having an undetectable viral load and wearing condoms are not defenses in court.

Young black males seem to be the target of everything that is wrong with America and suffer the worst consequences. Now when help is needed to stop a health epidemic in the black community they are again demonized.  Unfortunately, the demonizing happens both internally and externally, making progress even less likely because sending more black men to prison will not stop HIV.

Furthermore, it won’t absolve public health professionals, community leaders or our criminal justice system of its responsibilities to provide scientifically-proven and culturally-appropriate effective methods to stop the spread of this disease in Black communities. There simply is no shield of justice big enough to do this job.

It is no longer acceptable to sit by and watch our communities implode. It is time for a paradigm shift on how we discuss HIV in black communities and all communities — including personal responsibility, explaining more explicitly how HIV is and is not transmitted . HIV is a preventable disease and no longer a death sentence. This needs to be understood by all.  

On this National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day we call on you — politicians, community leaders, faith leaders, bloggers, pontificators, parents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters to make a year-long commitment to talk about sexual health with our young people.  We cannot afford to wait for others to save us.  We must take matters into our own hands to educate our communities. We must tell our local and federal officials that we will not stand by idly while our children are demonized by stigmatizing laws and HIV prevention funding is disappearing from our communities.

Lisa Fager Bediako is an expert in social marketing and independently consults on public health and civic issues through her Free Mind Communications venture. Since 2002, she has served a broad range of clients including, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Comcast Corporation, American Cancer Society, and Def Jam Records. Ms. Bediako is a member of the Positive Justice Project, a national alliance of people with HIV, public health officials, attorneys, researchers, organizers and others working collaboratively to end HIV criminalization in the US. The Positive Justice Project is staffed by the Center for HIV Law and Policy, which served as legal consultant and contributing author for UNAIDS 2012 international guidance on HIV and the criminal law. Ms. Bediako earned her MBAfrom Johns Hopkins University.

Michael Hinson is the Director of Policy and Programs for the Center for Black Equity in Washington, DC and directs its Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative Project. He is an Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Social and Behavior Sciences, Master of Public Administration Program at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. He is a former Assistant Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia and the Founder and former Executive Director of the COLOURS Organization. He holds a Master of Public Administration from Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the oldest Historically Black College and University in the United States. He recently completed his Doctor of Public Administration Coursework and is currently researching issues related to Comprehensive sex Education, Minority communities and Political Will.

Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative (AAALI), is a $16 million, six-year partnership between CDC and 19 of nation’s leading civil rights and social justice organizations formed to conduct a wide range of communication, mobilization, action and educational activities among communities hardest hit by HIV/AIDS.

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