(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
The first day of work I texted my program director after I had successfully arrived at my office. She texted back, “Welcome to the infamous Tulane and Broad!” Another time Rishi, who also works at the same nonprofit as I do, told his uber driver to take him to Tulane and Broad. The driver did a double take. Tulane and Broad Street is a notorious intersection: the city’s courthouse and prison sits right at that corner, directly across the street from where we work. The proximity is not a coincidence. I work at the NO/AIDS Taskforce which works to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS.
The United States incarcerates the most people in the world. Louisiana incarcerates the most people of all 50 states in America. And New Orleans incarcerates the most people in all of Louisiana. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is 5 times that of China, and 13 times that of Iran –countries that aren’t exactly known for being bulwarks of human rights and social justice. Following Katrina, the prison systems have increasingly become privatized (shout out to Bobby Jindal), and the for-profit prison industry is now worth up to $180 million dollars a year, or 180 million incentives to keep prisoners flowing into prisons. In addition Louisiana spends the least amount of money per prisoner per day than any other state in the country, with little of the money going towards rehabilitation, education, psychiatry, medical care, or other programs that would help decrease the staggering recidivism rate.
Louisiana also has some of the harshest penalties for crimes. To put their sentences in context, Texas, which has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the country, has a maximum sentence of 1 year for car burglary. In Louisiana, the maximum sentence is 12 years.
It’s not a coincidence that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country and the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection. Prisoners are 5-7x more likely to contract HIV. And once they are released, they risk spreading the infection to the communities that they return to. Which brings me back to Tulane and Broad. The incarceration rate and rate of HIV infection are closely intertwined. Fitting that the prison in the “prison capital of the world” would be right across the street from the oldest HIV/AIDS service organization in the gulf south.
If one were to turn to the government for help in solving the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Louisiana, they would be (shocker!) greatly disappointed. The government helps perpetuate stigma instead of reducing it. HIV criminalization laws still exist—it is illegal for a HIV positive individual to spit at someone else, even though HIV absolutely cannot be transmitted through saliva. In 2013, an HIV positive woman was arrested for scratching her boyfriend in self-defense. The case became not about the domestic abuse she suffered, but instead about how she was trying to infect her boyfriend and the responding police officers, subsequently criminalizing her for being HIV positive.
Carrying condoms is considered grounds for suspicion of being an illegal sex worker in New Orleans, making it that much harder for high-risk individuals to protect themselves from infection. Possession of a needle or syringe for a non-medical purpose is illegal, and the individual will be charged with possession regardless of whether they have drugs on their body. This increases the rate of sharing needles. While both the CDC and WHO recommend syringe exchange programs so people can obtain needles, the entire city of New Orleans only has one such program (run by NO/AIDS yay). It’s only open 2 hours a week and despite having a special relationship with New Orleans Police, due to drug paraphernalia laws it still runs (to quote my boss) “borderline illegally.”
I could go on. I haven’t even talked about the lack of sexual health education in schools, institutionalized racism that’s reflected in the race disparity among those infected with HIV, or the way in which Hurricane Katrina (or as my boss calls it “that bitch Katrina”) disrupted care for so many people. Not to mention the way that poverty amplifies and is conducive to the spread of HIV/AIDS in the way that it disrupts access to healthcare—if you’re worried about where you’re going to sleep, if you’re going to eat, if you’re going to get shot, getting tested or making a doctor’s appointment is the furthest thing on your mind. Oh yeah, Louisiana is the second most impoverished state in the country.
I came in very aware that I wasn’t going to be able to make a difference. My privilege, my background, the shortness of my stay made it almost certain that I was not going to change anything. And I was okay with that because I felt that even if I helped somebody in the organization a tiny bit, I was contributing to the mission of the nonprofit. And I was confident that NO/AIDS was working to change things. But this organization has existed for over 30 years. Louisiana still has the highest rate of infection. Baton Rouge and New Orleans still rank in the top 5 most infected cities, as they have for years. The new governor who was elected after Bobby Jindal left to pursue a (tbh god-awful and disastrous) presidential run chose to expand Medicaid in January. But progress is slow or seems nonexistent. I don’t want to belittle the efforts of NO/AIDS at all because I have been truly inspired by their work and those who passionately carry it out. But the staggering weight of all the systemic factors that go into the prevalence of this disease still exist. And it made me realize that sometimes change is too lofty of a goal. Instead all you can do is try to mitigate the disaster and the consequences. And I’m still trying to figure out how.
On a lighter note some ~random~ things:
– Mojo Coffee House has the most BOMB lemonade. They squeeze it fresh and serve it in giant mason jars which made the hidden basic girl in me very happy
– We went to a jazz club and saw Charmaine Neville perform. AND THEN SHE INVITED US TO HER HOUSE FOR DINNER. It was amazing. (If you google her you will come across news coverage of her absolutely insane Katrina experience) Check out her page: http://www.charmainenevilleband.com/index.html
– The dorm we live in also has Yale and Columbia students living there. All of us watched the NBA finals together, and I think they were very taken aback/scared(??) of how intensely we got into basketball
– Me and Liz have been alienated by the rest of our DukeEngage group because they don’t understand what a great song All in My Head (Flex) by Fifth Harmony is (OK it’s kind of trash but so catchy)
– My shoe fell apart when I was walking in downtown New Orleans, and I had to walk 5 blocks barefoot and now I feel like I need a tetanus shot or something
– If you want to learn more about some of the things I discussed in my blog post here are two really great articles: