Amid City Epidemic, Marion Barry Proposal Mandates HIV Tests for Inmates
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Ironzetta Thomas found out she was HIV positive in the last place she could ever imagine -- in jail.
In 2006, huddled into a cell with about 50 other female inmates, Thomas was taken to a private room and given a mouth swab as part of the D.C. jail's voluntary HIV testing program. About 30 minutes later, she got the bad news.
"That was the worst day of my life, because I couldn't even get to a phone to call anybody," said Thomas, 56, who contracted the disease from a former boyfriend.
Thomas's experience is not unusual. The District administers voluntary HIV tests to all inmates upon admission, although they can opt out. But a bill proposed by council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) would change that process by requiring mandatory HIV testing for all D.C. inmates.
Barry's bill mandates collecting blood samples from inmates, including those convicted of a sex crime, upon entrance to a D.C. jail. It also calls for providing counseling services after the test. The bill has been stalled in committee since July, but Barry said it is necessary because of the District's alarming HIV rate.
"Lives are being lost, breadwinners are being lost, family members are being lost," Barry said through a spokesperson. "We need to be doing all that we can in this serious situation."
The District has been on high alert since its HIV/AIDS Administration reported this year that at least 3 percent of D.C. residents, or about 15,000 people, are living with HIV and AIDS, the highest-known rate in the country.
Thousands more don't know they have the virus, according to the agency.
Of those who have recently been tested for HIV, it is believed that nearly a third are inmates at the D.C. jail.
"If you look at how the epidemic is spreading, there is a high prevalence [of the virus] in the jail population," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), one of the bill's co-sponsors. "People are bringing it back to our community, which really is continuing to spread the virus."
Twenty-one states test inmates for HIV when they are admitted to prison, according to the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics. But most states test only with an inmate's consent or upon court order. And some wonder whether the District needs mandatory testing. Since 2006, when the voluntary HIV testing program was launched, 99 percent, or more than 27,000, inmates have opted to take the test, according to the Department of Corrections.
"Our fear is that if you put in place a mandatory program, you not only have very little to gain but you may actually be undermining a good program that we already have in place," said Walter Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a public policy organization that supports HIV testing but opposes the bill. Both D.C. Corrections Director Devon Brown and HIV/AIDS Administration Director Shannon Hader said they oppose mandatory testing.
Social workers say those who refuse to take the test often know they are HIV positive. But those who are willing do so because it is administered as part of a series of other medical tests, they said.
Thomas did not think she had the disease when she agreed to be tested after her arrest on drug charges.
Now, because of complications of the disease, Thomas said she lost some of her eyesight and has gained more than 100 pounds.
Still, she is thankful that she learned her HIV status, and she thinks others would be, too. The most important thing, she said, is to get help.