April 9, 2013
Researchers investigated whether convicted felons who are banned from accessing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and other public food assistance are more likely to participate in behaviors that put them at risk for HIV infection. A law passed in 1966 bans those convicted of drug felonies from such food assistance. The researchers chose people recently released from prison in Texas, California, and Connecticut because these three states interpret the law differently. In Connecticut, persons who comply with their court sentences are eligible for benefits; in California, the ban only applies to individuals who have not completed a drug treatment ban; and Texas has a full ban without exceptions.
Researchers studied 110 people released from prison in these three states and determined whether they had a hard time getting access to food. Results showed that 91 percent of surveyed individuals reported food insecurity and 61 percent did not receive food assistance benefits. Those who got food stamps reported that the benefits were not enough to meet their needs. The 37 percent of participants who reported not eating for at least one full day in the past month were more likely to exchange sex for money and to use heroin, cocaine, or alcohol before sex than those who had at least one meal a day, thus increasing their risk of HIV and other STDs. However, the survey found no link between food insecurity among populations of recently released prisoners as a whole and HIV risk behaviors.
Even in states where persons with former drug convictions are allowed food assistance, food can be hard to come by. Among participants in such states who reported not having eaten for at least one day, only 10 percent said they were enrolled in the food stamp program and receiving enough aid to last a full month. Emily Wang, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Yale University School of Medicine and one of the researchers, stated that more research needs to be done on the subject of food security and people released from prison.
The full report, "A Pilot Study Examining Food Insecurity and HIV Risk Behaviors Among Individuals Recently Released From Prison," was published in the journal AIDS Education and Prevention (2013; 25(2): 112-123).