District of Columbia: Amid City Epidemic, Barry Proposes Mandatory HIV Tests for Inmates

The District of Columbia screens all inmates for HIV under a voluntary opt-out program launched in 2006 by the Department of Corrections (DOC). In July, City Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) proposed a bill that would mandate inmate screening as one response to curb the District's high HIV rate.

Three percent of District residents have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and thousands more are infected but have not yet been diagnosed, according to the D.C. Department of Health. Among those recently tested for HIV, one-third are believed to be D.C. inmates.

"Lives are being lost, breadwinners are being lost, family members are being lost," Barry said through a spokesperson. "We need to be doing all that we can in this serious situation."

"If you look at how the epidemic is spreading, there is a high prevalence [of the virus] in the jail population," said Vincent C. Gray, City Council chairperson and a bill co-sponsor. "People are bringing it back to our community, which really is continuing to spread the virus."

The District bill has been stalled in committee since its introduction, and some question the necessity of making the testing program mandatory. Of D.C.'s inmates, 99 percent have opted to take the HIV test since the program's launch, according to DOC.

"Our fear is that if you put in place a mandatory program, you not only have very little to gain but you may actually be undermining a good program that we already have in place," said Walter Smith, executive director of the community organization D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Opponents also include DOC Director Devon Brown and HIV/AIDS Administrator Shannon Hader.