The Dallas Examiner
When many people discuss HIV, most do not consider possible factors that can lead to imprisonment. With Dallas having the highest rate of HIV infections in the state among 18- to 35-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is important for people to be educated about prevention and treatment, as well as aware of HIV criminalization.
HIV criminalization relates to “policies allowing the prosecution of people with HIV for not disclosing their HIV status, exposing others to HIV and/or the transmission of HIV,” according to Arneta Rogers, manager of the Positive Women’s Network.
She recently discussed the growing problem during a webinar presented by the Black AIDS Institute, stating that 32 states and two U.S. territories – excluding Dallas – currently have HIV-specific laws that provide criminal penalties for viral exposure through sex, needle sharing and/or bodily fluids if reckless intent can be proven.
Although the city does not have a HIV-specific law, people who expose others to the virus without disclosure can still be affected by enhanced penalties through general criminal law such as aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, terroristic threats, reckless endangerment and attempted murder within a three-year statute of limitations.
The viral laws may present itself as a benefit, but it always can create negative outcomes such as violence, loss of privacy, custody challenges and many others for those affected by HIV, as stated by Rogers.
“It forces efforts of treating HIV as a responsibility and increases stigma and marginalization,” she said.
Rogers disclosed that people of color, homeless people, low-income citizens, sex workers and trans and non-conforming individuals are the most impacted by these laws. These policies make these groups more vulnerable to certain dangers and create barriers for effective health treatments.
“Even having these laws can prevent victims of sexual assault from reporting their own assault because they feel they might be criminalized under HIV criminalization statutes,” she explained.
African Americans are greatly impacted by these laws, disproportionately leading to mass incarceration and increased HIV rates, Rogers said. In a recent CDC study, Black men are five times more likely that White men and Black women more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with HIV than White women in a jail population.
In prison, there is a lack of resources, testing and treatment in these facilities. Treatment isn’t made aware to inmates until after release, leading to further spreading of the disease.
Also, criminalization is sometimes wrongfully determined, whether it was done sexually or through spitting, biting or scratching, none of which are ways of contracting HIV. For example, in 2008, an African American HIV-positive male, Willie Campbell, was convicted for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 35 years in prison for spitting at a police officer in Dallas.
To counter these disparities, Rogers and other advocacy group are promoting a reproductive justice framework to the public to help influence policy change that will allow for people with HIV to have autonomy and self-determination over their bodies and their lives.
The PWN manager suggests that local residents find out what advocacy groups are in their communities and help with peer mentorship and legislative reform. She also advised that local policymakers better assess the obstacles faced by people with HIV to create fair laws that persecute a certain group of people.
“There are social determinants of health that create barriers for people achieving [viral suppression], so if we’re working on criminalization, we also need to be working on fixing that root cause of why people are not able to achieve viral suppression if they want to be,” she said.