The mandatory HIV testing of inmates was the hot topic at the African American Cultural Center’s (Us) forum in Los Angeles on August 22 where HIV/AIDS activists, scholars, and concerned community residents broadened the conversation in the Black community.
The panel discussion was hosted by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor of Africana Studies, California State University, Long Beach and Us chair, and Tony Wafford, Director of Health and Wellness for the National Action Network (NAN), a leading civil rights organization founded by Rev. Al Sharpton.
“At some point you have to be adult enough to have adult conversations and a lot of time what causes problems in terms of leadership is …. it’s tough for leaders to say what they want to say… They are supportive of stopping the pandemic in the Black community, but invariably they will have to eat it all, so they choose not to even get in the fight, and too often in the world of HIV, you’re not free to agree to disagree,” Wafford said.
Wafford said that too often, Black opinion is absent from the conversations around critical issues like HIV that affect Black people. He recalled that when Assemblyman Rod Wright, offered a bill about mandatory testing in prison, he took heat from largely gay White males and organizations, but Blacks never really weighed in and the bill disappeared.
Several years later then-Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally followed suit and he too was attacked and his bill destroyed. Just recently, he added, Assembly Sandre Swanson of Oakland offered a mandatory testing bill and the same thing happened. So Wafford said he decided and has been arguing from that point on, why not mandatory testing?
“I started actually trying to talk to some Black folk to secure and solicit their support and what’s really weird is that they repeated what White, gay men had said…and I thought why would anybody be opposed to this,” he wondered. So he researched.
What he found blew his mind: There are 8.2 million people in America who are either on probation, parole, or have had some brush with law enforcement and the reality of that is anyone who has spent 72 hours in custody is ineligible to donate blood to the Red Cross or any blood donor agency for a minimum of one year.
“Now, the Red Cross is not saying what you did or didn’t do. They’re not into all of that. They’re saying that you’re in an environment so toxic for HIV infection that they’re not dealing with you for a minimum of a year and if you’re a man that has had sex with another man since 1977, you’re ineligible to ever, you can never donate blood,” Wafford said.
He said is alarmed that if the Red Cross has seen this as a health crisis, Blacks have not really spoken up about this aspect of the issue, but the majority of those in prison will return to the Black communities across the nation and the problem is very real.
Wafford acknowledged several reasons that people don’t weigh in. First, they try to avoid the gay issue, especially heterosexual men. They have to talk about substance abuse, mental health, sex, sexual abuse, incarceration, and none of these are pleasant conversations.
Precious Jackson, an HIV/AIDS activist, began using her HIV diagnosis to empower women with awareness and education to understand the risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS and how to take preventive measures.
Dr. Karenga referred to Jackson, who has been living with HIV/AIDS for 11 years, as a living embodiment of the need to deal with the mandatory testing issue.
Jackson said she has been volunteering in the field in 1995 and when asked to speak on the subject, she was humbled and eager because of her own experience. She was infected by her ex-boyfriend, who was incarcerated in Tehachapi, California.
“I thank God that he was led by the spirit to inform me that he had tested positive for HIV and there are a lot of sisters out here who do not get that privilege of being told by their partner that is incarcerated that they tested positive for HIV,” Jackson said.
She feels it is her duty as a woman living or co-existing with the virus to inform women and men about the risks of acquiring the disease. Her work inside the L.A. County Jail system proves that HIV education is needed.
“There are still people walking around in our community that believe the myths from the 80’s … In 2010 we still have people believing this nonsense about how HIV is acquired. One sister told me that when her uncle smokes crack and when he sweats, can she and her kids get HIV from that,” Jackson said. This was after they had just reviewed a slide presentation on HIV and Hepatitis C.
Jackson uses her story to educate women primarily because they become shocked and get a real picture of themselves and the risks they face. Her goal is to help correct misinformation and incorrect thinking. “It’s those people. It’s those prostitutes. It’s those gay people and all that but God had to burst my bubble and let me know you can get it too,” she said.
She urged women to ask questions and find out who they are with, and not be afraid to rock the boat because they have been alone for so long. “We get caught up in living a lie and not want to deal with the truth because that means it will mess up our world. I’m glad we’re having this dialogue because many people will be released because of the overcrowding,” she added.
Dr. Karenga said that what HIV testing means for Black people is saving lives and a beginning to build the kinds of strengths and processes that makes them concerned about what happens not just to gay people but to prisoners also.
However, the discussion around mandatory testing cannot escape the prison subculture of rape and the denial of sexual urges, among other things and it must also include an ethical discussion, ground for the conversation and position, he continued.
“We don’t ask our oppressor what ethics is. We go to our ancient text and we read that one of the first things you’ve got to do when you’re going to solve any problem or resolve any issue is begin with the respect for the human person,” he said.
Dr. Karenga added that the ethical criteria and basis for the testing is that there must be some preconditions, such as counseling, education, a system of care inside and outside, and confidentiality.
Nii-Quarterlai Quartey, Community Engagement Advisor for the Courage Campaign sees mandatory HIV testing of inmates as a justice issue among other things. He feels it is also an opportunity to make the Black community whole again.
“Our future decision makers, organizers, advocates and opinion leaders are depending on us to activate our activism beginning today … Our community has been really suffering a whole lot,” Quartey said. Social justice and just economic issues alone are so pressing that when it comes to HIV/AIDS and other issues, many feel they are fighting the battle with one hand tied behind their backs, he said.
“As we gather here today to talk about HIV/AIDS, we’re really talking about the health and wellness of our community and we really can’t address the symptoms and not the source,” he said.
The panel urged that the next steps after testing positive for HIV is to obtain some level of HIV care immediately. Despite lacking the infrastructure that other communities have, Quartey also urged people to reach out to churches, resource agencies, and to communicate openly about their experience. The best thing is to create a climate for free and open conversations that will help to draw out requests for help, he said.
“We have to create a conversation of care and responsibility in the community that challenges especially our religious and spiritual leaders to take the lead in creating a context of care and responsibility. Then we have to create that context in terms of counselors, educators, social service people … Then we’ve got to also struggle for our rightful share of the resources. That means building a movement that can do that. Without a movement, none of this is possible,” Dr. Karenga said.