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  • Writer's pictureRahem White

Addressing Racism as a Public Health Threat: Part 4 - Criminalization and Incarceration

As we commemorate HIV Is Not a Crime (HINAC) Awareness Day today, we are reminded of the urgent need to confront the intersecting issues of racism, criminalization, and incarceration within our society. Over the course of this series, we have explored how racism manifests as a public health threat, permeating various aspects of our lives and contributing to stark health disparities among marginalized communities. In this final installment, we turn our focus to the criminalization and incarceration of individuals, particularly within Black communities, and examine how these systemic injustices exacerbate health inequities and perpetuate cycles of oppression. Join us as we delve into the complexities of this issue and explore avenues for transformative change in our pursuit of a more just and equitable society.

At its core, criminalization refers to the designation of specific actions, behaviors, or activities as punishable offenses under the law, leading to penalties such as arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration. Our present-day institutions of law and policing have deep-seated ties to historical racism, including their involvement in the enforcement of the slave trade, the seizure of Indigenous lands, and the violent exploitation of migration. Across the board, engagement with the criminal justice system is linked to exacerbated health consequences. From the moment of arrest through sentencing and beyond, the experience of navigating the criminal justice system can exact a heavy toll on physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Pretrial detention, often characterized by overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, increases the risk of infectious diseases and exacerbates underlying health conditions. Additionally, the stress and trauma of arrest, court appearances, and incarceration can lead to heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The disruption of social support networks, loss of employment, and financial strain associated with legal proceedings further compound these health challenges. Moreover, exposure to violence, both within correctional facilities and in communities heavily policed, can result in physical injuries and long-term psychological harm. Overall, the punitive nature of the criminal legal system not only fails to address underlying health issues but often exacerbates them, perpetuating cycles of poor health outcomes and reinforcing systemic inequities.

When we consider HIV criminalization, we delve into the specific laws and policies that target individuals living with HIV/AIDS, subjecting them to legal penalties for behaviors related to their HIV status. These laws often criminalize actions such as non-disclosure of HIV status, perceived exposure to the virus, or transmission of HIV, regardless of actual transmission risk or intent. HIV criminalization laws disproportionately target individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups, particularly Black Americans, who are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated under these laws. This racial bias reflects broader systemic inequalities, including disparities in access to healthcare, socioeconomic status, and legal representation.

In Arkansas, two HIV-specific laws contribute to the criminalization of people living with HIV. First, the criminal exposure felony statute makes it a felony offense for individuals who are aware of their HIV-positive status to expose another person to HIV through the “parenteral transfer of blood or a blood product” or through “sexual penetration” without first informing the other person of the “presence of HIV.” Similarly, Arkansas legal code also criminalizes the failure of individuals with HIV to disclose their status to healthcare providers before receiving treatment. These laws not only perpetuate stigma and discrimination against individuals living with HIV/AIDS but also deter people from seeking testing, treatment, and support services due to fear of legal repercussions.

As we conclude our exploration of how racism intersects with criminalization and incarceration, it is imperative to recognize the urgent need for reform within our legal and justice systems. As a part of the Arkansas HIV Reform Coalition, Arkansas RAPPS is one of the organizations leading the charge to decriminalize HIV, advocate for policies that prioritize public health and address the root causes of HIV/AIDS disparities within our communities. We invite readers to join us in this important work by joining the mailing list for the coalition and by following Arkansas RAPPS on Facebook to stay tuned for our upcoming video series, where we will delve into the findings from the UCLA Williams Institute's report on HIV Criminalization in Arkansas. Together, we can strive for a more equitable and just future, where all individuals are treated with dignity, respect, and fairness under the law.

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