STD disclosure bill for inmates aims to help communities hit hardest by illnesses

It’s been almost a year since the Illinois Department of Corrections changed its policy on HIV testing, deciding to automatically test all incoming inmates unless they specifically refused.

In other states, this so-called opt-out policy has helped identify infected inmates who otherwise might not know they were HIV positive. With more infomation, the goal is to help health care workers limit the spread of the disease.

Now supporters of a new bill in Springfield hope to get permission from prisoners to use that information, and other health records, to safeguard a wider population in communities with a large proportion of returning prisoners.

HB4453, passed by both houses of the legislature in May, would task the Illinois corrections department and the Department of Public Health with developing a plan to allow a prisoner diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease to give IDOC the authority to inform their sexual partners that they should get tested.

Eighty-five percent of people released from prison each year return to the Chicago area, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Meanwhile, prisoners in Illinois have an HIV infection rate 15 times that of the general population.

The figures among the African American population nationally are equally startling–the mortaltiy rates for black people infected with HIV is ten times higher than for whites, according to a recently released Frontline analysis.

Their infection rates are also disproportionately high—half of the 1 million people with HIV are African-American, even though they only make up 13 percent of the population.

BenYeHudah Whitfield, a former prisoner who was incarcerated for 16 years in Illinois, said “common sense would dictate that this is a good deal.” Whitfield is now an outreach worker for the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated.

Whitfield, who was admitted before HIV testing was automatic, said he chose not to have his status tested because “I just don’t trust IDOC.” He said that he got tested shortly after he was released in August 2011.

The AIDS Foundation of Chicago, which supported the bill on its journey through the legislature, said HB4453 “will enable people, both incarcerated individuals and communties, to have access to vital information,” said Ramon Gardenhire, the AFC’s director of government relations.

Once given the go-ahead, the agencies would let the infected prisoner’s partners know about treatment and testing options, with one important caveat–they will not be allowed to disclose the inmate’s identity.

“Even though these people are in prison, they still have the right to privacy,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, told The Chicago Citizen. “Having an STD is a very private thing that many people find embarrassing. However, when STDs go untreated, they can have serious consequences. We need to make sure we don’t put personal privacy ahead of public safety.”

This could present a challenge for the departments tasked with coming up with the plan, but Gardenhire hopes legislation already in place will help safeguard these rights.

The Illinois AIDS Confidentiality Act, a statute passed in 1987, governs the release of information about HIV, one of the more sensitive STDs. The law says that “no person to whom the results of a [HIV] test have been disclosed may disclose the test results to another person.”

HB4453 is currently waiting a signature from Gov. Quinn.

Meanwhile, Gardenhire said the AIDS Foundation of Chicago would continue to support harm-reduction legislation.

“We have been aggresively supportive of legislation allowing inmates to have access to condoms,” said Gardenhire, “but we have not been able to get it passed.”

© Community Renewal Society 2012

Photo credit: Adams999

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