A new report by a national advocacy group slams Louisiana jails and prisons for failing to provide inmates with basic HIV services like testing and continuous medical treatment.
The report, released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch, also says parish prisons fail to link HIV-positive prisoners to the proper medical care providers in local communities after they are released from the prison system.
HIV is the virus that can cause AIDS.
Officials with Human Rights Watch, along with state representatives, local advocacy groups and people living with HIV, discussed the report’s findings on the steps of the State Capitol on Tuesday. The news conference was to launch an initiative titled “Paying the Price: Failure to Deliver HIV Services in Louisiana Parish Jails.”
“Louisiana is ‘ground zero’ for two epidemics in the U.S., with the highest rate of new HIV infections and an incarceration rate above the national average,” Megan McLemore, the report’s author and senior health researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a news release. “The lack of treatment affects both people with HIV and the entire community, because whoever goes into jail comes back out.”
The 70-page report asserts that only five of Louisiana’s 104 jails offer HIV testing to every inmate booked into a facility — which is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those five facilities are the New Orleans Parish Prison, Jefferson Parish Prison, East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, West Baton Rouge Parish Jail and the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center.
The nonprofit human rights group also called for criminal justice reforms of Louisiana’s criminal justice system to promote alternatives to incarceration. Doing so would reduce the financial burden local jails now shoulder to provide medical care to prisoners, the report says.
The Human Rights Watch report was released on the Louisiana AIDS Advocacy Network’s Legislative Awareness Day.
State Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith announced plans at the news conference to file two resolutions during the current session asking the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals to take a closer look at HIV treatment and increased testing within the prison system.
“We’re going to do something,” Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said. “It may not be a lot at this time, but everything takes a first step.”
HIV Advocacy groups, like the Sero Project, would also like to see Louisiana lawmakers address the state’s HIV criminalization laws which they say only worsen the problem here.
Under Louisiana laws, a person who fails to notify a sexual partner that he or she has tested positive for HIV is subject to criminal prosecution. Critics say this discourages people from getting tested and treated. Those who test positive for HIV can live with the disease if it is properly managed and treated with appropriate medications.
“Instead of slowing HIV transmission — as originally intended when the laws were passed — it is now clear that HIV criminalization does the reverse, making the epidemic worse, causing more Louisianans to acquire HIV,” Robert Suttle, assistant director of the Sero Project, said at Tuesday’s news conference.
The problem is particularly acute for black residents in Louisiana and elsewhere in the Deep South because a higher percent of the black population is incarcerated and at risk of exposure to HIV, advocates say.
Black residents comprise 70 percent of the newly diagnosed HIV cases and 74 percent of the new AIDS cases in Louisiana, according to a DHH quarterly report.
Asked about the report’s findings, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday he hasn’t looked at the study yet but plans to do so.
“I’m concerned about the access to health care in our jails and our prisons, generally speaking,” Edwards said. “It wouldn’t be any different with respect to HIV.”
The report includes accounts from several former prisoners with HIV that support the group’s contention that HIV treatment in many local prisons is often delayed, interrupted and/or denied altogether.
East Baton Rouge Parish’s jail is highlighted in the report as a facility with officials who said they don’t conduct routine HIV testing because they can’t afford to treat inmates who test positive.
But Chad Guillot, the administrator who oversees medical operations at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, said in an interview that the facility makes every effort it can to provide inmates with appropriate medical care.
“I cannot speak to what other facilities across Louisiana provide as far as testing but EBRP has always provided proper testing of inmates when necessary within all state and local laws,” Guillot said in an emailed response to the report.
In 2014, 1,306 inmates were tested at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison with eight new positive diagnoses of HIV identified, according to the report. In 2015, 1,394 inmates were tested at the prison with four new positives identified, the report says.
The report claims a majority of the East Baton Rouge prison’s already strained budget is allocated toward HIV treatment and care for its inmates.
With more than 50 HIV-positive prisoners on anti-retroviral medications, the reports says East Baton Rouge has spent as much as $138,000 on HIV medication in a single month last year.
Col. Richie Johnson, spokesman for the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, said their facility only tests inmates for HIV when prisoners request it. West Baton Rouge conducted no tests in 2014 and 62 tests in 2015, finding one new positive, the report says.
Amy Barrios, spokeswoman with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, said every inmate booked into the parish jail is given the option for HIV screening.
“They can deny that screening, but at that very moment we offer it to them,” she said.
According to the report, Orleans Parish Prison tested 8,172 inmates for HIV in 2014, resulting in 19 new positives. In 2015, the parish prison tested 9,822 inmates and uncovered 26 new HIV cases, the report says.
Lafayette Parish Correctional Facility runs an HIV testing program supported by parish funds. Every inmate is tested for HIV unless they opt out, the report states.
However, the Human Rights Watch report faults Lafayette’s procedures because testing is done only one day each week and it’s possible for an inmate to enter or leave without ever being tested.
Human Rights Watch culled the data of its report from interviews with more than 100 people, including inmates recently released from parish jails, medical staff at parish jails, HIV service providers, health department officials and local authorities.
Some of those interviewed claim they were locked up for days, weeks, and sometimes months without receiving HIV medication. Marvin Aguillard told Human Rights Watch that he became seriously ill after not receiving HIV medications for 41 days while he was locked up in the Orleans Parish Prison in 2012 .
“You have to really be dying in Orleans Parish before they take you to a hospital,” Aguillard told reporters Tuesday morning.
Barrios responded Tuesday saying it’s “highly unlikely” that occurred but she would need to research the situation further.
The report notes that local prisons are struggling financially to meet the medical needs of prisoners after the state’s recent privatization of LSU charity hospitals which formerly provided subsidized medical services to state and local prisoners.
The report mostly praises the Louisiana Department of Corrections for its handling of HIV/AIDS treatment in its nine facilities across the state, but notes that federally funded care is not available to corrections inmates housed at parish prisons throughout the state.
However, Dr. Raman Singh, medical director of the state Department of Corrections, says in the report that state prisoners with HIV are not housed in parish jails. He said they are quickly transferred to a state facility if they are identified as being HIV-positive.
The report says that one in three people living with HIV in the state don’t get the continuous care they need to stay healthy. Human Rights Watch attributes some of that to prisons not linking recently-released inmates to community services available to them after their release.
National research has shown that patients who adhere to daily medication regimes have lowered the amount of virus in their bodies, which reduces transmission of the virus to others.
“The government is obligated to provide medical care to people living with HIV in parish jails,” McLemore said. “But treatment in the community is a win-win situation for everyone concerned.”
Advocate reporter Elizabeth Crisp contributed to this report. Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.