HIV, Prison and the Justice System: The New Concentration Camps

Actress and model Melyssa Ford will be serving up a four-part series on the state and importance of black sexual health, delving into the topics AIDS/HIV. Be informed, be safe and protect your worth.

Imagine that your every move is being cataloged and investigated, that everyone you interact with is placed under surveillance and that your health care provider releases your confidential records to a committee of people trying to publicly label you a menace, get you off the streets and thrown into the deepest hole they can find? If you have HIV, this committee is the US Criminal Justice System and this is how they are legally allowed to annul your rights.

In the first part of this series, I stressed how important it is to know your status and how you should never compromise yourself or your health, even when it comes to love and relationships. In the first part of this series, I stress how important it is to know your status and how you should never compromise yourself or your health, even when it comes to love and relationships. Trust, after all, can be manipulated. Whether to cover up dirty deeds or otherwise, like in the case of Marvelyn Brown, the wrong choice can come at an extremely high price. For Brown and many others who have been diagnosed with HIV, the price is even higher. In addition to being ostracized from her family, friends and communities that serve as daily reminders of the cross she bares, criminal statutes and laws in the US triple her angst by threatening her right to privacy and potentially her freedom because of her publicly disclosed status.

As much as I consider myself to be an advocate in the fight to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, I sit on the side of the fence of preventing as many people from contracting it through education and persistent campaigning. I have rarely had to address when someone follows my advice--or the advice of federal and state public health officials--gets tested and comes up positive, but I will address that in my final article in this series.

I placed people who are HIV positive in two categories: the public advocates whom I greatly admire such as Maria Davis, Hydiea Broadbent, Marvelyn Brown and, of course, Erving “Magic” Johnson, a personal friend of mine. The other category (and it’s with shame that I admit this) is the one I placed people like Nushawn Williams in, the 19-year-old man convicted in 1997 of knowingly infecting his sexual partners with HIV. Without any research or investigating on my part, I subscribed to the propaganda and the sensational media coverage that paints him as a monster. There was a part of me that believed that there are folks out there, intentionally infecting others through irresponsible sexual behavior; this belief was supported by the statistic that 1 in 5 people don’t know their status because they’ve never been tested, which could lead one to think they don’t want to know it.

After conducting weeks of research, my perspective has been drastically altered. In order to offer a vivid picture as to how perceptions and attitudes have (or have not) changed towards HIV/AIDS since its discovery 30 years ago, I turned to several experts on the subject of public health and safety and legal experts who work directly in the field of HIV Criminalization.

One such expert is Ms. Catherine Hansenns, Executive Director and Founder of The Center for HIV Law and Policy. It was through my conversations with her and the information provided on her website that I began to see the true threat caused by the stigmatization and permeated ignorance of which we treat the subject of HIV.

HIV statutes and prosecutions contradict and, therefore, undermine public health goals by, basically, scaring people into refusal of testing.  On one hand, you have both federal and state public health officials urging the public to get tested and to know their HIV status; on the other hand, there are laws who punish those who have taken the step to get tested and who have been diagnosed as positive. Says Ms. Hansenns

“The government has taken the position through its laws that people with HIV are so dangerous and so toxic that we need to develop special laws in which to punish and control them.”

Arrest records show people criminalized by this process have faced charges ranging from assault and aggravated assault to depraved indifference and a host of fines with lengthy prison sentences. In the case of Nushawn Williams, former mayor Rudy Guiliani pushed to prosecute him for attempted murder (this charge didn’t stand up in court).

According to Ms. Hansenns, once someone is convicted of HIV criminal laws and statutes, you are subject to involuntary commitment past the length of your sentence if you are considered to be a menace and threat to public health. More and more, involuntary civil commitments are being used against people with HIV. In addition to this, registration with the National Sex Offenders Registry database is also a strong likelihood which would lead to future employment, rental and home ownership and privacy issues.
Not only may laws like these discourage people from getting tested, but it may also discourage people, who are positive, from taking part in other kinds of preventive activities. If going to speak to someone at a health clinic and discussing with them your sex life and who you are involved with can trigger a criminal investigation, who in their right mind would welcome that kind of intrusion into their lives willingly?

The 5th amendment of the constitution allows for a person to withhold self-incriminating information; HIV laws are loop-holing around this by using the public health system in order to determine and remove who THEY believe pose a threat to the general public, simply because of a positive HIV status. With this idea in place there may as well be a pre-crime division within the police department, arresting people for their thoughts. In order to opine as to what someone who is HIV positive would do, once they’re aware of their diagnosis, is to ask yourself that question: Would you suddenly make it your full time objective to infect as many people as you could? Studies show that most people with a positive status actually become more conscious of their health.

It would be foolish to think that there aren’t instances where a person knows their status is positive and still acts irresponsibly, having unprotected sex. But when you talk about sex, the concept of legal and consensual sex, excluding sex taken by force, incest and molestation, there are two consenting individuals involved during a the act.

Whether that act is protected through condom use or not, the choice is made by both parties. In order to maintain the quality of life we are all entitled to, a sense of self worth and personal responsibility must exist. YOUR status is YOUR responsibility, so the onus of asking the “unromantic” but necessary questions about a perspective partner’s sexual health history falls on YOU. In 2011, with all of our advancements in medical care, a positive status doesn’t have to mean a death sentence; but in the eyes of the law, it certainly can mean a life sentence.

For more information about b condoms, HIV/AIDS or World AIDS Day, please check out @bcondoms,, or

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