The White Gaze is Killing Us: Mass Incarceration & HIV/AIDS

Mass Incarceration Fueling the HIV/AIDS Pandemic

Subsequently, the heavy criminalization of drug use through mandatory minimum sentences and other legislation also fueled the HIV/AIDS pandemic, with the most vulnerable groups being hit hardest. During the height of the War on Drugs, Congress enacted the Public Health & Welfare Act, which effectively banned all federal funding to syringe exchange programs in the United States. (Fisher 4)

By doing so, drug users in need could no longer rely on government assistance to accesses clean, sterile needles. Instead, they had to rely on AIDS activist, usually from non-profit organizations such as ACT UP, to illegally provide underground needle-exchange programs. (McManus 1)

ACT UP protesters at City Hall in New York in 1992. (Eric Westervelt)

The groups who relied on this assistance most were also the ones who were, and remain to be, incarcerated at higher rates for non-violent drug offences than any other group in America.

One must then ask, how does the mass incarceration of individuals who are already at a high risk for HIV/AIDS transmission effect the spread of HIV/AIDS? The United Nations answers this clearly in its 2012 Global Commission on Drug Policy Report 

“Research conducted in the United States, where ethnic minorities are many times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses, has found that disproportionate incarceration rates are one of the key reasons for the markedly elevated rates of HIV infection among African Americans. This is an urgent public health concern, as African Americans represent just 12 percent of the US population but, in recent years, have accounted for more than 50 percent of the nation’s new HIV infections.”  (6)

Considering US prisons lack needle-exchange programs, access to condoms, and access to antiretroviral HIV treatment and prevention, it is not hard to believe that the prevalence of HIV/AIDS cases among the prison population is much higher rate than that of the general public.

In 1999, the state and federal prison population with confirmed AIDS (0.58%) was nearly 5 times more than the US general population (0.12%). (Marushak and Beavers 3 In regards to inmates serving sentences for nonviolent drug offences, African-Americans make up 39% and Latinxs make up 37%.  (Criminal Justice Policy Foundation 2) 

This, coupled with statistics provided previously, would imply that African-Americans and Latinx individuals are at a higher risk for contracting HIV/AIDS when incarcerated than others.

Next: The Whitewashing of the Opioid Crisis