BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's locally-run jails fail to provide inmates with proper HIV testing and treatment, in a state with some of the highest HIV infection rates in the country, according to a report released Tuesday by the National advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Megan McLemore, author of the 70-page report and senior health researcher with Human Rights Watch, called Louisiana "ground zero" for nationwide HIV and incarceration issues from the steps of the Capitol Tuesday. The report, titled "Paying the Price: Failure to Deliver HIV Services in Louisiana Parish Jails," was released in tandem with the Louisiana AIDS Advocacy Network's Legislative Awareness Day.
Louisiana ranks second only to Washington, D.C., in new HIV infections, but only five of the state's 104 parish jails offer routine testing, McLemore said. Those jails are New Orleans, Jefferson, East Baton Rouge and West Baton Rouge parish prisons and the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center.
More than 1.2 million people are living with HIV nationally, according to the report, and, as of June 2015, there were 20,272 known cases of people living with HIV in Louisiana. Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport comprise 66 percent of the state's HIV infections, McLemore said.
The state also leads the nation in incarceration rates, with Louisiana imprisoning residents at a rate 150 percent higher than the national average, according to the report. Parish jails hold more than 30,000 people daily, and the Louisiana Department of Corrections, as of January 2016, housed 525 prisoners living with HIV, according to the report.
Some of the 27 incarcerated people living with HIV and jailed within the past two years, who were interviewed for the report, said they had gone extended periods of time without receiving HIV medication. Marvin Aguillard, 29, said he did not receive the HIV medication he requested while jailed for more than 40 days in 2012 at Orleans Parish Prison.
"By the time I got my medication, it didn't work," Aguillard said. "What's the point in testing if you are going to wait to provide the treatment?"
The report, which criticizes inmate HIV care on local, state and federal levels, also argues that not only do inmates receive improper HIV services while jailed, but, once released, parish jails also fail to pair them with proper medical providers.
It pointed to systematic pitfalls, including lengthy pre-trial incarcerations, the state's recent privatization of LSU charity hospitals and eligibility confusion for inmates under the federally-funded Ryan White Act programs. In turn, medical services, it said, are "limited, haphazard, and in many cases, non-existent."
Michael A. Ranatza, Louisiana sheriff's association executive director, declined to comment on the claims aside from saying parish jails subscribe to the Basic Jail Guidelines.
Louisiana Department of Corrections prisoners identified to have HIV are moved out of parish jails and into state prisons, said Dr. Raman Singh, the department's medical director. The report found the department does have an HIV testing program and a strong discharge planning program for state inmates. In some cases, HIV positive prisoners are housed in parish jails to participate in certain programs, such as work release, but they receive the proper treatments, Singh said.
He added that "prisons and jails are only microcosms of the populations they serve," and said Louisiana has surpassed other states, like New York, as a battle ground to combat the epidemic.
"This is a golden opportunity to do something for public health," Singh said.
Advocates urged legislators and Gov. John Bel Edwards to take a step toward reform of the state's criminal justice system, including incarceration alternatives. The change, the report suggests, would destigmatize HIV and lessen the financial burden on parish jails. A treatment course can cost an average of more than $50,000 per year, according to the report.
State Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said she intends to introduce two resolutions during the legislature's regular session to look at parish jails, HIV issues and partnerships to better meet the medical needs of inmates.
"There's no money amount you can put on it. People have to have access to care," she said.